For Danielle Rahm, director of New York Fine Art Appraisers, establishing authenticity is a key part of her work – and one that can often throw up some unpleasant surprises.
“We’ve had many incidences of clients who have had a painting on their wall for 30, 40 years and have believed it to be by a particular artist – it may even be in the catalogue raisonné – but it turns out not to be authentic,” she says. “It can be a shock for the client, and delivering that news is not a fun conversation to have.”
As appraisers, Rahm and her colleagues do not carry out the authentication themselves, but work with established, definitive experts to get their verdict on the authenticity of the work.
It’s a step some clients are reluctant to take, but having an appraiser to act as the middle man can ease a process that can be overwhelming when undertaken alone. From carrying out research to establish who the relevant expert is, to dealing with practicalities such as shipping the item so that it can be examined by the relevant committee, it throws up a lot of challenges.
“It can be quite an involved process so we guide them through that,” says Rahm. “We advise all of our clients to deal with the issue of authentication. Many are hesitant because it is a lengthy process and it can be expensive depending on who the definitive expert is, but work by almost any major artist of any significant value needs to be authenticated.”
The process of authentication has become harder since several artists’ estates and foundations ceased to authenticate works due to fear of litigation from dissatisfied clients.
These days, some experts get around the problem by being careful with their wording: rather than saying a piece is not authentic, they will say that it will not be included in their forthcoming raisonné.
Others insist on carrying out authentications anonymously, choosing to work with appraisers such as Rahm rather than with clients directly.
But in the case of some artists, there is currently nobody qualified and willing to authenticate their work.
If you are unlucky enough to own a piece by such an artist, Rahm recommends biding your time and holding onto the work until a suitable authenticator becomes available.
“Things change so quickly and if you’re pretty sure it is authentic there is no reason to let go of it for a fraction of what the true value is,” she says.
Often clients only think about seeking an appraisal of their collection when undertaking specific activities such as arranging insurance, going through a divorce or thinking about selling. However, Rahm believes it is always important to have a clear idea of what your collection is worth.
“Knowledge is power,” she says. “If you don’t know what you have, then you are putting yourself at risk: the work might not be insured correctly , or it might not be properly protected. From an estate planning point of view it is important to understand what it is that’s in your home.”
She adds that you cannot make an intelligent decision about properly caring for those pieces unless you have an idea of their worth – for instance, putting a work on paper in the wrong frame can significantly damage the value of the piece.
When it comes to acquiring new works, Rahm recommends protecting yourself by ensuring the issue of authentication has already been addressed by the seller.
“I advise due diligence and caution when going into any transaction, even if it’s a very well-known gallery or dealer – in which case, they should have no problem providing you with documentation that you need.”
She advises extra caution when purchasing works online.
“You have to make sure you ask about condition, so always ask for a condition report. If they don’t know the condition, the seller should hire a conservator to take a look at the piece and provide you with the full disclosure of condition. Provenance, any exhibition history, publications – they are all critical.
“Also make sure you understand what medium it is in. Information on the medium is something that can be worded to a point where a new collector won’t fully understand what it is they’re buying. We’ve had a lot of clients make purchases at certain commercialised galleries, hotels and shopping malls on vacation, who may believe a ‘hand touched giclée’ is a unique work of art, when that is not really the case.
“You need to know what questions to ask: is it an edition, what’s the size of the edition, were there other editions – these are critical questions that many emerging collectors don’t know to ask.”