Thomas Hoving begins his shibboleth-shattering book, False Impressions, with a quote by the Roman poet Horace: “He who knows a thousand works of art, knows a thousand frauds.”
The net cast by Hoving, former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, is not so wide as Horace’s, but he does estimate as many as forty percent of the fifty-thousand works of art he examined in his professional career were either outright fakes or of questionable origin.
With such a wholesale indictment of the international art market and indeed the history of art collecting, how does the honorable curator, much less the truth-seeking connoisseur, find his or her way through the quagmire to find what is true and authentic in the world of art?
One way to solve the problem – somewhat more inscrutably Zen-like than simply following one’s gut instincts – is described by Malcolm Gladwell in his recent book entitled, Blink. It seems Gladwell would have us trust the first several seconds of the well-seasoned expert’s most educated glance.
The problem with Gladwell’s advice is that experts are often wrong, boards of authentication sometimes miss the mark, and foundations can be motivated by agendas other than the pursuit of truth. Art history is replete with many examples of such shenanigans.
Ultimately, there is nothing better than the test of time to separate the wheat of what is real from the chaff of what is not. Given sufficient time and collective wisdom, authentic art rings true and fakes are revealed for what they are.
History urges us to cultivate patience, live with uncertainty for some time, and appreciate artifacts while their true natures are in gradual process of revelation.
Given the existential inexactitude of curatorial realities and the difficulty of certain knowledge, it is not surprising the Reading Public Museum is no stranger to controversies of authenticity. For example, for decades, the museum presented its large Cotopaxi painting as having been created by the hand of the great nineteenth-century American landscape painter Fredric Edwin Church.
However, soon after the arrival of Ron Roth, the museum’s current Director and CEO, the authenticity of the painting was seriously questioned. Roth quickly made it his priority to research the history of the work. Over the years, this study has included an independent appraisal by Christie’s auction house and research by art historian Gerald L. Carr.
The painting is currently on view in the show, Old Works in a New Light: Favorites from the Permanent Collection, at the Reading Public Museum through June 21. Its label now states the work is a commissioned copy of Church’s painting, executed by De Witt Clinton Boutelle, and reworked by Church himself. There is an entire wall dedicated to information on the work’s provenance. And on Friday, May 29 at 6:00 p.m. in the museum, Mr. Roth will present the most up-to-date information relating to this historically significant work of art.
The vicissitudes of the reputation of just this one painting make it clear that in matters of truth – especially aesthetic truth – keeping an open mind is an operational necessity.
Image: Cotopaxi, Ecuador, De Witt Clinton Boutelle, (with repainting by Fredric Edwin Church), 1862, oil on canvas, Reading Public Museum