“The Curious Case of the Contested Basquiats”

For the Atlantic, Bianca Bosker writes about a trove of paintings supposedly by Jean-Michel Basquiat that were discovered in a storage locker, ended up in a museum, and then seized by the FBI as fakes. As the owner of a pretty-convincing-but-probably-fake Basquiat purchased at a Mexico City flea market (that is also painted on cardboard), I read this story with great interest.

Science promises to be a neutral and exacting judge, though in reality forensics aren’t always much help either. Technical analysis can rule out an artwork — pieces from the trove of purported Pollocks with which Mangan was involved were exposed as forgeries after researchers found pigments that postdated the artist’s life — but it can’t rule it in as definitively by the artist in question. Some forgers will submit their handiwork for forensic testing so they can see what flags their pieces as counterfeit, then adjust their methods accordingly. Scientific techniques are also far less useful for contemporary artists like Basquiat, who relied on materials that are still available and for which the margin of error on many tests is wide. When the collector in Norway sent a painting he’d purchased from Barzman to be carbon-dated, the test revealed that the cardboard could be from either the 1950s or the 1990s.

What does it matter if art is authentic?

Our obsession with artworks’ authenticity can in part be traced back to what’s known as the “law of contagion”: Pieces are thought to acquire a special essence when touched by the artist’s hand. Yet the intense distaste for forgeries reveals a dirty secret about our relationship with art, which is that we tend to fixate on genius and authorship more than the aesthetic qualities of the work we claim to value so highly. The writer Arthur Koestler, in an essay on snobbery, goes so far as to argue that when judging a work, who made it should be considered “entirely extraneous to the issue.” What matters more, he argues, is what meets the eye.

When I see art in person or visit historic places, I often think to myself that I am standing where the artist or famous personage once stood — and it makes me feel something. I’m not sure if it has anything to do with magic though.

Discussion  3 comments

Mils Yobtaf

To me the magic of art is the act of bringing a visual idea into the material world, and it would take a pretty high dollar forgery to bring that same level of materiality to my living room.

I first saw a Rothko my freshman year of college when my dorm was conveniently located right next door to the Rothko Chapel in Houston. The sheer scale of the works inside the chapel gave me a new understanding of the word awe. The visual aspect of a Rothko tends to be underwhelming, but seeing the scale at which he worked will always inspire me.

Seeing Starry Night up close it's not the stars in the sky, but the whorls of the paintbrush that created them that I found myself drawn to. Pollack's work is chaotic beauty, but it's the profile of the canvas, with likely pounds of paint layering on top of layers that strikes me.

Colter Mccorkindale

It reminds me of the importance of story: a Zippo lighter is just an object, but a Zippo lighter that survives a WWII plane crash has a story, and the story is what gives the thing its value. But stories only exist in our minds; there is nothing material about them. Even scarcity is an imaginary construct - a rare object is still just an object.

Colter Mccorkindale

Related: in "Planes, Trains & Automobiles," John Candy's character Del sells shower curtain rings by making up stories about them. People often love stories more than they love things.

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