A Fake Modigliani at the de Young?

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Spoiler alert: the moral of this story = COGNITIVE BIAS!

I am always, always down for a little art gossip. So when I heard a whisper on the wind that the authenticity of the Modigliani portrait on display at the de Young in San Francisco had been questioned, I got really curious to know more. And man oh man, was there more.

Is it real or fake?

Here’s the scoop from a New York Times article entitled “Turmoil at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco:

“More recently someone sent anonymously to reporters and lawyers internal documents suggesting that the museum, over the objections of some staff members, had changed the appraised value of a painting by Modigliani from $500,000 to $15,000 to avoid what it believed to be hefty customs fees. Richard Benefield, the deputy director of the museums, said an internal review had concluded that “all parties acted with integrity.”

That’s right!

It turns out that the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (which is the fancy name for the shared collection of the de Young and the Legion of Honor) had had this Modigliani in its roster since the early 1980s. Then, it was officially entered as an official Modigliani: A portrait of Pierre-Edouard Baranowski painted in 1918, and so FAMSF duly bought a ton of insurance, as you do, and priced the value of this painting at $500,000 as you would if it was the real thing. But then it drops the valuation to $15,000 in 2013 AND TELLS US NOTHING MORE. And, as you know, I want to know more.

So, for more, we’ll need to turn to Elise Effmann Clifford, Head of the Paintings Conservation team at FAMSF, for the official story “regarding a demotion in attribution” of the portrai, aka maybe it’s not the real thing!

“The first of these investigations began soon after the painting entered the FAMSF collection in the early 1980s, when scholars and dealers first raised doubts over the authenticity of the work. This was made official after the painting was taken to England to compare to the ex-Sainsbury painting in 1994.”

This is how you have to do it when you’re dealing with a Modigliani, because the historic record of his work is shoddy at best.

Regarding the challenges of Modigliani Authentication:

“Three daunting facts confront anyone interested in buying one of Amedeo Modigliani’s distinctive elongated portraits. They tend to have multimillion price tags; they are a favorite of forgers; and despite an abundance of experts, no inventory of his works is considered both trustworthy and complete. Christian Parisot, for instance, the author of one catalog and the president of the Modigliani Institute in Rome, is due in court this week in Rome on charges that he knowingly authenticated fake works. Marc Restellini, a French scholar compiling another survey of Modigliani’s work, jettisoned part of his project years ago after receiving death threats. And even those who swear by a listing of 337 works created by the appraiser and critic Ambrogio Ceroni acknowledge it has significant gaps. The effort to establish an authoritative record of Modigliani’s work “resembles nothing so much as a soap opera,” Peter Kraus, an antiquarian book dealer, wrote in an essay published a decade ago. “

So that’s the state of affairs with Modigliani scholarship. But a few years later, prompted by questions raised by the family of the donor, the museum decided to look again, and began a technical investigation of the painting in 2011. That means they took it back into their fancy lab, using all of their fancy equipment, to look for any clue in the world to help them either confirm the rumors or put them to rest.

Our friend Elise Effmann was the on the task, and she was thorough in her work. In her examination and research on Modigliani, she focused on the unusual underlying painting that is present in this portrait. If this were a movie, this is where our exciting spy music would fade in. Elise was on the hunt for clues.

  • She sought out other, similar compositions by the artist which were also on hardboard.
  • She tracked down other examples of similar paint application.
  • She had discussions with conservators and scholars elsewhere who revealed that the artist showed a great deal of variety in his technique.
  • Most importantly, she discovered that there were several *fingerprints* found in the paint, ignored in the earlier investigation.

That’s right. No one had, in the history of this controversy, turned the painting over and looked underneath to CSI that sh*t. But Modigliani’s own fingerprints were there to confirm that this really was his painting.

But our hero Effmann didn’t stop there. She also traced the provenance back almost to the artist himself. With this solid gold evidence in hand, Effmann turned to the academics. In her rather polite and formal words:

“Current experts were consulted in light of the new information, and the attribution to Modigliani was reinstated.”

That’s me, Casey, dressed up as the painting in question for Halloween!

Effmann (if you’ll allow me to mix metaphors) scored an art conservation touchdown, and didn’t even dance in the end zone. Instead, she publicly admitted that in hindsight, the authenticity of the painting seemed obvious.

She found herself reflecting on all of that redundant research, when there were fingerprints there the whole time that would negate the necessity to do any of it. In particular, she kept thinking about the reason that led the museum to decide that the painting was a poor-quality copy in the first place. She couldn’t escape the idea that bias may have played a significant part in this story.

This idea of cognitive bias getting in the way of sincere and considered art judgment had never been considered in the context of art conservation before, so Effmann had to turn to psychology, where the topic has a long history. I’ll give you the highlights.

The proper term for the phenomenon that caused all this trouble is heuristics, or cognitive shortcuts.

These are the mental shortcuts that we make constantly in order to quickly and efficiently process the vast amount of information that we encounter on a daily basis. This kind of behavior is usually essential; it allows us to behave like normal human beings in this busy, busy world. But cognitive psychologists have noted numerous ways in which they can lead to trouble as well.

In Elise Effmann’s experience, she noticed that several biases were involved in causing a whole bunch of smart people to conclude the wrong thing:

  • Attribute Substitution = when a difficult question is unconsciously replaced by a simpler one. (According to Elise, “the question of ‘is this painting genuine?’ was replaced with ‘does this painting look like the other painting?’”)
  • Confirmation Bias = the tendency to favor information that agrees with a preconceived hypothesis
  • Overconfidence Bias = overestimating the accuracy of your conclusion
  • Hindsight Bias = feeling as though one ‘knew it all along’

Here’s our author’s wise and meaningful conclusion:

“When we sit down at our microscopes, don our UV goggles, take endless notes, measurements, and photographs for documentation, it is easy to think we are looking at these artworks objectively. But the reality is: we’re not. Whether we’re embarking on a large-scale research project, or writing a condition report, we are drawing on previous experience and opinion which is necessary to guide us and make sense of the world around us efficiently, but can also lead us astray.”

And here’s mine:

Art experts are human. All experts are human.

Our tendency towards mental shortcuts or our ability to overthink mysteries that could be very easily solved should not, in any way, keep us from continuing to strive for truth. And that’s what makes Elise Effmann such a wonderful example for all of us.

Not only was she willing to tackle a problem that no one else had been able to solve, she also had the creativity to approach it from a number of different angles. While she out-examined and out-researched all of her predecessors (and really knocked it out of the park, if you’ll forgive another sports metaphor in this art story), she was thoughtful enough to acknowledge that she had also been willing to believe the false story for quite some time. And so she applied her gold medal (last one, I promise) researching skills to figuring out why that was, and then shared her conclusions with the rest of us. Furthermore, she allowed me to get to the bottom of this intriguing art gossip, and for that, I will be eternally grateful.

In case you’re hungry for more, here’s  another amusing story of a real Modigliani forgery scandal.

BY: CASEY SELDEN, SAN FRANCISCO TOUR GUIDE

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