By Helen A. Harrison
When you visit the new Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, where selections from the permanent collection are (finally!) on display, you can be sure that the paintings signed “Wm. M. Chase” really are by William Merritt Chase. They were checked six ways from Sunday by Ronald G. Pisano, the museum’s former director and Chase curator. Until his untimely death in 2000, Ron studied Chase for nearly 30 years. He was both a connoisseur with an eye for quality and a scholar whose meticulous research is apparent in his posthumously published Chase catalogue raisonné, which records all the artist’s known works.
Ron’s task of separating the bona fide from the bogus was made harder by the fact that some contenders were painted by Chase’s students, who were trying to imitate him and often succeeded. And he had hundreds of students. At some point down the road, an unscrupulous owner or dealer would occasionally remove a student’s signature and replace it with Chase’s, or add his name to an unsigned painting. So the style would be right, the age of the canvas and paints correct, but the master himself never touched the picture.
Authentication issues have been much in the news lately, making us more aware than ever that as market values rise, so does the number of fakes. The problem is complicated when, as with Chase, a popular artist is widely copied during his or her lifetime. It became such a problem for Thomas Moran, whose Yellowstone paintings were much in demand, that late in life he took to adding a thumbprint to his signature. (Guild Hall owns a fine 1917 example.) Many artists keep inventories, but they may be incomplete or ambiguous, and dealers’ records can be frustratingly vague as well. It sometimes takes years of painstaking sleuthing to come up with authoritative documentation of an artist’s complete output, and there are always a few things that get missed. Fakers just love to fill in those gaps.
Sometimes it’s true that the owners simply aren’t aware of what they have or how valuable it is. Take the case of the Wisconsin couple who thought their van Gogh flower painting was a reproduction, but it turned out to be an original. Or the guy on a recent episode of Antiques Road Show who learned that a painting he’d bought for $2.50 at a farm auction is worth upwards of $75,000. It’s still possible to score big at a yard sale or flea market, and lost works do occasionally emerge from the shadows.
The widely publicized case of Knoedler Gallery’s cache of discredited paintings by some of the biggest names in 20th century American art—including Pollock, Motherwell, de Kooning and Rothko—illustrates how previously unrecorded works can acquire an elaborate explanation of why they were missing for so long. The story went that a collector had bought them from a gallery employee behind the dealer’s back, and they were squirreled away until his heirs discovered them after his death. Suspended disbelief and wishful thinking, coupled with the blinding prospect of lots of cash, resulted in sales that were disputed when the paintings’ authenticity was questioned. The venerable Knoedler & Co., in business since 1852, was crushed under the weight of lawsuits and settlements, compounded by devastating press.
One reason the whole sorry business got as far as it did was the reluctance of experts to authenticate discoveries and to speak out about questionable works of art. Threatened with legal action if the owners don’t like their opinions, many of them just keep quiet. So it’s hard to get a credible judgment about a probable piece, much less a clear dismissal of a fake, even one that’s obvious to an expert. Nowadays it’s often left to scientific analysis to prove that the canvas is wrong, the paint is too new, and other so-called objective tests. Ironically, a recognized authority like Ron Pisano can spend a lifetime developing expertise that may land him in court when he uses it. Like the genuine paintings that can’t be acknowledged for fear of reprisal, connoisseurship like Ron’s is becoming a lost art.