Authenticity of Provenance in the Context of Fine Art Paintings

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This news story reports that Edvard Munch's iconic painting, "The Scream”, will be displayed at at the Museum of Modern Art in New York from Oct. 24, 2012 to April 29, 2013. “This painting is one of the four versions of the composition created by Munch between 1893 and 1910, and the only one in private hands. The others are in Norwegian museums." One might recall the notorious story about the brazen theft in broad daylight, of one of the painted versions of the Scream from the Munch Museum in Oslo, Norway in 2004, that figured in Time Magazine’s list of the top 25 crimes of the century. The painting was recovered two years later, mostly undamaged. 

Only two other art heists appeared on Time’s list, one of which was the epic theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre in 1911 (in which Guillaume Apollinaire and Pablo Picasso were intially implicated.) Since her creation by the Leonardo Da Vinci in Florence, Italy in 1504, Mona Lisa had traveled from Italy to King François I’s Palace of Fontainebleau, to Louis XIV’s Palace of Versailles, to Napoleon’s Tuileries Palace, and then had finally settled at the Louvre until the theft. The painting was later recovered from Italy where it had been transported by a man named Vincenzo Perugia with the goal of restoring it to its home country. It has since adorned the walls of the Louvre for the most part, except during the World War II, when it was briefly removed for reasons of safety. 

These stories remind us of our class discussions and readings about the concepts of authenticity and provenance of a resource and how they evolve over its lifecycle. (also discussed in sections 3.5.3 and 3.5.4 of The Discipline of Organizing, 2012). “Provenance is metadata that establishes the chain-of-custody information for an artifact (various people, institutions, or systems that have owned and/ or handled the artifact) that enables one to make trust decisions about the authenticity of the artifact.” Paintings such as the Scream and the Mona Lisa are carefully preserved over centuries with the help of cleaning, conservation, and restoration treatments and by maintaining them under strict environmental controls. In most cases, information about their provenance is extensively researched and documented. 

As long as the painting has been within a known and trusted, unbroken chain-of-custody, its authenticity at a given point in that timeframe may be established relatively easily. However, when the chain-of-custody is broken, such as in case of theft or loss, how is the authenticity of the painting verified upon its recovery? 

Art experts and evaluators use a combination of forensic techniques such as stylistic evaluations of brush strokes, examination of craquelure (cracking patterns in the paint surface), age determination of materials by evaluating their physical properties such as desiccation and elasticity, scientific instrumental methods and microscopic analyses that detect anomalies and anachronisms, and more recently digital statistical analyses of brushstrokes. In case of this Renoir discovered in a West Virginia flea market, the original gallery name and catalogue number on the back of the painting, and the brush-strokes were verified to establish its authenticity.

However, when the physical painting is digitized, such as in case of the Google Art Project, its physical attributes such as the texture of brushstrokes, and the age of materials are lost in translation. The only attributes of the digitized painting that might then be used for authenticity verification are its visual properties such as size and style of the brushstrokes and patterns of craquelure that might be stylistically evaluated and statistically analyzed to verify whether the digital version is a reproduction of an authentic physical original. 

But this raises the fundamental question of what constitutes authenticity of a digital reproduction in the context of fine art paintings. In case of a physical painting, the unique combination of its attributes such as style, and material age and craquelure, establish its authenticity. However, multiple, identical, un-edited digital replicas of a painting possess the same combination of non-unique attributes. Once the original painting is lost, and all that remain are its digital reproductions stored for posterity, what would measure their authenticity and therefore, their intrinsic value? 

To attempt to answer this question, it would help to revisit the concept of authenticity and ask why it is important in the context of fine art. How and why it matters to various stakeholders- appreciators/ enthusiasts, curators, and collectors. Whether principles relating to authenticity and provenance from new media disciplines such as film and photography, where reproductions are ubiquitous with no one version being "authentic", may be applied to digital reproductions of fine art. And finally, as the notable art critic, Aline B. Saarinen, has wondered, "If a fake is so that even after the most thorough and trustworthy examination its authenticity is still open to doubt, is it or is it not as satisfactory a work of art as if it were unequivocally genuine?"