No strings attached

Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn has encouraged a plethora of pastiches that establish him as one of the most imitated painters in history. Early patron Constantijn Huygens once advised Rembrandt and his contemporary Jan Lievens to draw up an inventory of their paintings ‘by what plan and what judgement they constructed, ordered and worked out each item’[1]. He suggested that such a modest record would demonstrate, for the wonder and edification of all ages, the reasoning and judgment behind the planning, composition and execution of each artist’s collection. Had Rembrandt taken Haygens advice and kept a register of his works perhaps the later “Rembrandt paradigm” may never have taken place. As Crenshaw notes ‘had such a record been kept it would have rendered the present inquiry [concerning art fraud] redundant’. So, what can we glean from this rather insightful consideration?

Check your records and make sure they’re detailed, accurate and up-to-date!

The material descriptors for collections, sales and art historical catalogues acknowledge two criteria by which provenance is developed within the limits of ekphrasis and language: objective description and subjective judgement[2]. These points seek to address the issues of commercial outcome, documenting history and emulation. Every formulaic detail is saturated in significance, revealing the marks, codes and records that set the reception and meaning of a work of art. Such means of substantiation leaves the object’s itinerary and record of provenance a cachet for commodification and proof of authorship. In Marc Masurovsky’s class on ‘Provenance Research, Theory and Practice’, which specialised in Nazi looted art and artefacts, provenance became the “be all and end all” of a work’s proof of title.

Nowadays complete ignorance is non-existent; if you don’t do your homework on the object you’re about to purchase for your public/private collection then on your own head be it! When protocols are accurately followed then logging in an object’s details at every step of its journey – from point of extraction to current placement – should be common practice. Interestingly though, it seems looted art follows a different and less transparent criteria for acquisition.

Provenance isn’t state regulated. It’s up to the individual or institution to keep a work’s history up to date. But what is the procedure with objects that are connected with the Second Wold War? ‘Europe was’, as Masurovsky pictured plainly ‘a massive crime scene’[3]. The works of art “collected” during the Nazi regime passed like wildfire from the ERR- Task force Rosenberg to the Jeu de Paume, through Herrenchiemsee and other depots including the Fuhrerbau in Munich where works were slated for Hitler’s collection at the future Linz museum. So what has become the imperative for institutions and their dealings with these recycled heirlooms? And how can transactions made under duress, coercion and undue influence sway a case of restitution?

Figure 1: General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander, accompanied by Gen. Omar N. Bradley, and Lt. Gen. George S. Patton, Jr., inspect art treasures stolen by Germans and hidden in salt mine in Germany.

Here we draw upon the trump card of due diligence. Due diligence is the process of gathering/disclosing relevant and reliable information about a prospective sale, purchase, contract, etc. But what does due diligence have to with buying and trading works? According to Marinello and Hasler[4] ‘The answer falls somewhere between maintaining the markets integrity and mitigating risk within it’. Yet how does integrity and mitigating risk fit with Christie’s choice to overlook glaringly invalid paperwork attached to an Egyptian relic that sold for £4mil at auction on the 4th of July 2019?[5] The provenance information in this case should have been corroborated with further research and fact checking.

This research can take you to established archives, filing systems, libraries, catalogues, indexes, and representative inventories – anything that informs a work’s genesis and history. But how reliable are provenance claims? Authentic works held within private collections often have no documentation to support claims of authenticity. In contrast, other collectors hold significant provenance trails with no further research being conducted to explicate the accompanying names, dates and places – such was the case with A Nude by Moise Kisling[6]. And then we have supposedly “authentic” works amongst great wads of bogus provenance documentation – fake on fake! A recent example of serial provenance and art fraud in the United Kingdom, concerning Myatt (the artist) and Drewe (the dealer), best highlights the magnitude of influence that fake documentation has on the art market.

Over several years art dealer John Drewe ingratiated himself with major institutions such as the Tate, Victoria and Albert Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Art. He infiltrated their official records to include both digital and hardcopy provenance documentation, proving to prospective buyers that Myatt’s fraudulent Giacometti’s, Braque’s and Klee’s etc. were ‘genuine’[7]. Drewe’s thorough understanding of the art market informed his exploitation of the system, the result being ‘unlimited access’ to the very archives where the official records of European commercial galleries are stored; a “secure” home for countless works’ proof of derivation, yet all it took was ‘the skill of a painter, the hubris of a con man and the organised, planned co-operation of a team of lesser accomplices’ to successfully gain the trust of several prestigious galleries[8].

The case of Myatt and Drewe highlights the overwhelming power that provenance documentation bestows: evidence of ownership is a smokescreen discouraging responsible research and fact checking, instilling in the art market a false sense of hope and complete disregard for due diligence. In Australia, both James[9] and Polk[10] determine that trends in art crime and criminal justice regard the fraud and forgery of documentation as ‘more serious…than theft for dealers and individual artists’. For a work to enter the art market at its maximum value it is expected that secure documentation accompany it, and in most cases this does happen! But please always be careful and vigilant, and double-check the information provided – there are plenty of people out there who will use your trust in the system to their advantage.


[1] Crenshaw P 2013, ‘The Catalysis for Rembrandt’s Satire on Art Criticism’ in Journal of Historians of Netherlandish Art, Vol. 5, Iss. 2, p. 5

[2] Raux S 2012, ‘From Mariette to Joullain: provenance and value in Eighteenth-Century French Auction Catalogues’ in Feigenbaum G, Reist I (ed.), Provenance: An Alternate History of Art, Getty Research Institute, California, p. 88

[3] Masurovsky M 2019, ‘Provenance Research, Theory and Practice’ in The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, lecture, Amelia, 01 July 2019.

[4] Marinello C A, Hasler J 2016, ‘What is Due Diligence? Making the Case for a More Responsible Art Market’ in Charney N (ed.) Art Crime: Terrorists, Tomb Raiders, Forgers and Thieves, Palgrave Macmillan, Macmillan Publishers Limited, Hampshire, England.

[5] Albertson L 2019, ‘Questions for Christie’s with Regards to its Upcoming Sale of the Quartzite Head of the Young Pharaoh Portrayed as the Ancient God Amun’ in ARCA blog, 3 July 2019, viewed 20 July 2019 <http://art-crime.blogspot.com/2019/07/questions-for-christies-with-regards-to.html&gt;

[6] Masurovsky M 2019, ‘A Nude by Moise Kisling’ in Plundered Art, 3 April 2019, viewed 20 July 2019 <https://plundered-art.blogspot.com/&gt;

[7] Chappell D, Polk K (unknown) ‘Fakers and Forgers, Deception and Dishonesty: An Exploration of the Murky World of Art Fraud’ in Current Issues in Criminal Justice, Vol. 10, No. 2, p. 400

[8] Nall S 2014, ‘An Australian Art Dealer’s Perspective on Art Crime’ in Chappell D, Hufnagel S (ed.) Contemporary Perspectives on the Detection, Investigation and Prosecution of Art Crime, Ashgate Publishing Company, Surrey, England, p. 102

[9] James M 2000, ‘Art Crime’ in Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra, Ausrtalia

[10] Polk K, Aarons L, Alder C, Chappell D 2000, An Exploration of the Illegal Art Market o Australia, Criminology Research Council, Department of Criminology, University of Melbourne, p. i

Fingers: limp and sticky

In 212BC the Roman Republic sacked Syracuse. They plundered the city and returned to the capitol with a great big stash of Hellenistic art. According to Plutarch the reason why proconsul Marcellus brought these Greek statues and paintings back to Rome in the first place was to make ‘a visual impression of his triumph and also be an ornament for the city’ (Marcellus 21.1). Yet the sack of Syracuse did more than promote warfare and prettify Rome; it launched the Western world’s craze for collecting.

Proactive Romans gradually realised that they no longer needed to accumulate functional art in order to show off their wealth and erudition. What better way to boast about your sticky-fingered stake on art history than to lead your friends through a room bursting with the spoils of war? Marcus Agrippa even instigated what some would call a “promo museum” at the front of his house, inviting members of the elite to view his impressive Hellenistic horde[1]. As the rich collection of Greek masterpieces morphed into the urban scene of Rome so too developed a desire for a certain “cognitive” awareness in art analysis.

Therefore what happened at Syracuse in 212BC drove pleasure in conspicuous consumption to the fore, instigating the psychological impudence that has continued through to today. A “specialised” competent training, which has become fundamental to the attitude of connoisseurship, blossomed here. As Pollitt surmises in his research on the impact of Greek art on Rome: there is probably no aspect in this period that has a more modern ring, ‘All the familiar features of today’s market were there: passionate collectors, dealers (some unscrupulous, some reliable), smugglers, forgers, restorers, appraisers, fads and fashions, and inflated prices. All this emanated from the fact that upper class Romans who had once been free to seize Greek art were now content to buy it in order to adorn their townhouses and villas.’[2]

The level of proficiency required of an expert, whereby cognitive ability gives way to natural and automatic reflexes, takes several years of competent training[3]. Intuition is, as Ginzburg and Davin attest, ‘the elastic rigour…of the conjectural paradigm… It’s a matter of kinds of knowledge which tend to be unspoken, whose rules, as we have said, do not easily lend themselves to being formally articulated or even spoken aloud’[4]. Yet connoisseurship can also be seen to conserve the providence of the trained imagination and/or memory to better explain the means employed in a work of art. Art crime is scattered with stories of experts who “got it wrong’, and not just wrong, but terribly wrong’ but common law recognizes the need for experts to make judgment calls on matters of dispute – so where can we find a happy median? [5]

An interesting argument developed from this point in class a couple of weeks ago. By employing the criminologist’s “eye” to understand a crime scene we scoured the compositions of three works by Caravaggio. I’ll briefly describe our process, using the most ambiguous example to point out the flaws in art historical analysis.

Caravaggio’s Calling of St. Matthew depicts Chapter 9, Verse 9, in the Gospel of Matthew: ‘Jesus saw a man named Matthew at his seat in the custom house, and said to him ‘Follow me’, and Matthew rose and followed Him.’ Several art historians have further construed that the bearded man, third from the left, is Matthew – his limp finger pointed gently towards his chest, startled face illuminated by the radiant light pouring in from the right. This popular interpretation has been accepted, published and repeated time and time again but, as our lecturer Dr. Noah Charney purposed with raised brow, art historians often fall for Caravaggio’s so-called “red herrings”. By putting on our criminological specs and viewing the work with a critical eye our class arrived at an entirely different conclusion. I’ll talk you through it.

Figure 1: Caravaggio, 1599-1600, The Calling of St. Matthew

Take a look at the painting pictured above and visualise the dark interior of its surrounding context, the Contarelli Chapel. Imagine viewing the work from below, the nearest point of the work being the bottom left corner. This angle was specifically chosen to enhance the real and painted light that would amalgamate quite harmoniously, owing to the window’s architectural location within the Chapel (beyond the painting to the top right). Following the orthogonal line from a two-dimensional and three-dimensional plane the beam should direct you to the figure furthest from Christ: a hunched adolescent completely immersed in the glittering silver coins in front of him. Aha! Could it be…?

The next question we asked ourselves is: if Caravaggio’s language is visual, what elements align to symbolically identify this individual as the St. Matthew? Before his appointment into the apostolic club Matthew was a tax collector working in Capernaum. His sin, therefore, was greed. In fact all the apostles had sinful backgrounds prior to meeting the Son of God. Caravaggio would represent them with varying physiological differences before and after becoming the 12 Disciples – the most common attribute being the growth of a beard to indicate seasoned virtue. To summarise: limp fingers + orthogonal line + sun beams + hairless chin + obsession with money = are we looking at Mr. St. Matthew? If you need more proof then please take a good long look at our culprit’s hands: one appears to be sneaking a coin up his sleeve, whilst the other slips a coin into his vest pocket. Are you convinced? I’m sure equally conceivable arguments exist for the other bearded/non-bearded chaps, but I suppose that’s the point: it’s all up to interpretation.

In art crime the argument over what the connoisseur sees and how they make an attribution is also followed up with how they know they’re right. Quality and qualities lie at the core of subjective response – indeed, connoisseurship is a form of etiology: ‘the inference of an artefact’s spatial and temporal point of origin on the basis of morphological (“stylistic”) criteria’[6]. A recent debate between two prestigious representatives at Museum Boijmans van Beuningen presents this point perfectly. Ernst van de Wetering of the Rembrandt Research Project and Museum curator Jeroen Giltaij expressed contradictory opinions when asked whether or not the painting Tobit and Anna should be attributed to artist Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn. Two short films verging on the comical capture the debate. The clips titled ‘Rembrandt? No, I don’t recognise him!’[7] and ‘Rembrandt? Yes, it has to be him!’[8], are accessible on Youtube.

Figure 4: Rembrandt, 1659, Tobit and Anna

Giltaij’s proclamation that Anna’s spinning wheel is ‘nothing more than a flat pancake’ contrasts Wetering’s report, which has him revering the wheel as ‘one big, beautiful, nicely painted blur’. Speaking on behalf of the Rembrandt Research Project he claims that this indication of movement typifies Rembrandt’s obsession with light and form within a space. ‘Forget the apparent crudeness of execution…the underlying vision of Rembrandt manipulating light and shade and form will always shine through if we are perceptive enough to recognise it’. So, who’s right? Both experts deploy their arguments in ways that can be seen to establish the very essence of what makes connoisseurship controversial: they are only looking for information that will positively feed a hypothesis. In this vein incorrect over-valuations of works occur because, hey, lots of people will benefit at the reach of a conclusion – just look at Salvator Mundi…is it a Da Vinci or isn’t it?

Therefore, what is the standard by which connoisseurship can overturn doubt and uncertainty in place of verifiable fact? This very question has been on the tips of tongues since the Romans pilfered Syracuse – but are we any closer to answering it?


[1] Charney N 2019, ‘Provenance Trap: Understanding the Modus Operandi of Art Forgers’ in The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, lecture, Amelia, 25 June 2019.

[2] Pollitt J J 1978, ‘The Impact of Greek Art on Rome’ in Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-2014), Vol. 108, The Johns Hopkins University Press, p. 162

[3] Ashley-Smith J 2016, ‘Losing the Edge: the Risk of a Decline in Practical Conservation Skills’ in Journal of the Institute of Conservation, Vol. 39, No. 2, p. 121.

[4] Ginzburg C, Davin A 1980, ‘Freud and Sherlock Holmes: Clues and Scientific Method’ in History Workshop, Oxford University Press, No. 9, p. 28.

[5] Nall S 2014, ‘An Australian Art Dealer’s Perspective on Art Crime’ in (Eds.) Chappell D, Hufnagel S, Contemporary Perspectives on the Detection, Investigation and Prosecution of Art Crime, Ashgate Publishing Company, Surrey, England, p. 107.

[6] Neer R 2005, ‘Connoisseurship and the Stakes of Style’ in Critical Inquiry, Vol. 32, No. 1, Autumn 2005, p. 3.

[7] Museum Boijmans van Beuningen 2012, Rembrandt? No, I don’t recognise him! 20 March 2012, viewed 25 June 2019 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dfE73puKbSU&gt;

[8] Museum Boijmans van Beuningen 2012, Rembrandt? Yes, it has to be him! 27 March 2012, viewed 25 June 2019 <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CJ6oX8XWDPk&gt;