Art: A Rationalist’s Take?

Hello LWers,

I am in my 20s, and I like to col­lect art.

Ad­mit­tedly, I am a lurker on the LW fo­rums and can proudly say I have been for a very long time now. I’ve re­frained from com­ment­ing sim­ply be­cause I have not felt that I have all that much to con­tribute, but rather, find that I have much to learn still.

In my time lurk­ing, I have come across so many spec­tac­u­lar posts, which in turn, have ex­panded my way of in­ter­pret­ing real-world sce­nar­ios. Real­is­ing there ex­ists a gen­eral pro­clivity for thought­ful dis­cus­sion in this lesser known cor­ner of the in­ter­net, I’ve only re­mained hes­is­tant to post this be­cause of the po­ten­tial to dampen things around here with dis­cus­sions about per­sonal mat­ters.

It is my in­ten­tion to take ad­van­tage of the many bright minds at­tracted to this fo­rum that do ac­tu­ally take an in­ter­est in fine art, then per­haps, bet­ter un­der­stand how a team of ra­tio­nal­ists would see through my goals and ex­e­cute a plan of ac­tion, if in my shoes, ea­ger to suc­ceed.

To be hon­est, I don’t ex­actly know what brought about my pas­sion for col­lect­ing art. Grow­ing up I was always in­ter­ested in col­lect­ing things like coins, rocks, nega­tives, etc. I always dreamt of hav­ing a col­lec­tion of some­thing for oth­ers to ap­pre­ci­ate and learn more about.

To­day, I find this am­bi­tion takes the form of a bias more than I’d like for it to; this is due to my in­volve­ment in art-cen­tric pro­jects that would stand to benefit me. A COI is what I see it all as.

The con­cept of ar­bi­trage in the art world is noth­ing new. How­ever, the idea that we can use mod­ern tech­nolo­gies and main­stream plat­forms to find, in­ter­pret, at­tribute, even in­vest in art is life-chang­ing. The pos­si­bil­ity for us to be our own ad­vi­sors, and for sci­en­tists to step-in where spe­cial­ists and con­nos­seiurs were once highly-val­ued makes the ‘art spe­cial­ist/​com­mit­tee’ less use­ful in the field of art au­then­ti­ca­tion.

It was rarely [if ever] the likely case that you could pur­chase a paint­ing by Monet, Cézanne, or Delacroix for 11,000,000th of it’s value 150 years ago. The ac­tual value of their work then in com­par­i­son to their value to­day was much differ­ent of course.

150 years later how­ever, and one can ar­gue such a pos­si­bil­ity (un­der the un­like­liest of cir­cum­stances) is quite pos­si­ble. But, how does one find these rare op­por­tu­ni­ties? Even more cru­cial to un­der­stand, can this be done with some con­sis­tency? If so, is it less rare and might such meth­ods add cred­i­bil­ity to some­thing pre­vi­ously un­known or re­define the ap­proach taken in art au­then­ti­ca­tion/​val­u­a­tion?

The point here is, prove­nance, once lost, is hard to re-as­sem­ble. 150 years is a long time to prove the work you bought at a tiny frac­tion of its real-value is au­then­tic. In this timeline, it’s cer­tainly long enough to ac­cept that the state of doc­u­men­ta­tion for a blue chip work of art is go­ing to have some blindspots if it’s con­sid­ered sale­able.

We find this is es­pe­cially the case with works that were looted dur­ing WWI and WWII. Shame­lessly, auc­tion houses and mus­esums fight tooth and nail to en­sure that they are not in the end li­able for fa­cil­i­tat­ing the trans­act­ing of pilfered art.

Auc­tion houses pro­ceed with sales even when the prove­nance of a work is murky for many rea­sons like: $, £, €, ¥, duh. It’s also likely that this oc­curs be­cause auc­tion houses do not want to pass up on their op­por­tu­nity to work with an es­tab­lished col­lec­tor. Ba­si­cally, FOMO dic­tates a lot of the risks that these auc­tion houses take.

A re­cent ex­am­ple of this, con­sider the work Sal­va­tore Mundi at­tributed to Leonardo da Vinci. The paint­ing was ac­quired for less than $10K in New Or­leans in 2005, then sold for $450.3MM in 2017...all this de­spite the unar­guable lack of cer­tainty as well as the ex­treme differ­ences in opinion by Leonardo ex­perts whom were con­sulted on the mat­ter. Surely this is not the fu­ture of art au­then­ti­ca­tion?

Let me be clear, you won’t find me in the crowd of blue bloods at the next auc­tion sale. At cur­rent, I am fur­ther from the ti­tle of es­tab­lished col­lec­tor than I’d like to be. Though, to be fair, I am also far less de­mand­ing in my ex­pec­ta­tions. I only seek truth (as given) or le­gi­t­i­mate proof to in­di­cate oth­er­wise.

Per­haps the Rus­sian Oli­garch that owned the paint­ing by Leonardo had some fa­vors he was able to call in to the Na­tional Gallery, which in turn, led to the pos­si­bil­ity of a sale. I, on the other hand, have no fa­vors I can call in. Yet still, much like the Rus­sian Oli­garch once was, I’m stuck wait­ing on the ex­perts to give my find­ings cred­i­bil­ity. How­ever, I, un­like the Rus­sian, am not will­ing to pay an arm and a leg for it.

The paint­ings I’m im­plic­itly refer­ring to, for the pur­pose of this post, are paint­ings in my col­lec­tion which are at­tributable to Cézanne, Monet, Lautrec, and Chas­sériau.

I chose these four paint­ings at the out­set mostly be­cause they were rep­re­sen­ta­tive of style, be­cause they were in­deed painted by well-known French artists, and fi­nally, be­cause I thought they would gar­ner the most en­thu­si­asm from an in­ter­ested base in the near-term. They would, af­ter all, be con­sid­ered blue chip works by any auc­tion house if sale­able.

To say the least, this was fool­ish rea­son­ing, but let’s avoid delv­ing into that now (how­ever, you should feel free to com­ment on my idiocy be­low, if you so please).

Okay, for now, let’s as­sume you’re liv­ing in my al­ter­nate world and that in this re­al­ity you are given these paint­ings by the four artists listed above. Of course, you have no way of read­ily prov­ing they are au­then­tic in this world ei­ther (w/​o sci­en­tific ev­i­dence), but you can still be­lieve that there is enough cred­i­bil­ity at face to as­sume they are au­then­ti­ca­ble. Why, if you are given no firm proof in this world I’ve put you in ei­ther?

  • One paint­ing is said to have a sec­ond, known paint­ing by that same artist beneath

  • Two of the paint­ings are signed by the artists in ques­tion (though sig­na­tures faded)

  • One paint­ing has suffi­cient [faded] writ­ing on verso of can­vas to match artist in ques­tion

Thus, your next step is to de­vise a solu­tion by which you can re­move the crit­i­cal art spe­cial­ist (hah) and their opinion from the equa­tion, all the while suc­cess­fully be­ing able to au­then­ti­cate, so oth­ers can also rea­son from that least sub­jec­tive proof you com­pile.

The catch is that in this world so long as you do not dis­close the source from which you ac­quired your paint­ings, they re­main real, though un­likely to be au­then­ti­cated. How­ever, if you were to di­vulge to any third party the de­tails sur­round­ing your ac­qui­si­tion, your paint­ings would im­me­di­ately lose sig­nifi­cant cred­i­bil­ity and au­then­ti­cat­ing would be un­likely, though they would still re­main real.

You also are aware that in this al­ter­nate re­al­ity this rule is only rele­vant be­cause there is no prove­nance to be found for these paint­ings. Fur­ther­more, it is un­likely there will be any­thing deemed sub­stan­tive (such as prove­nance) in your life­time aside from the proof that can be ac­cu­mu­lated through re­search (does not have to be your own re­search; re­search can be out­sourced to other par­ties).

Of course, most as­sume the sce­nario above to be im­pos­si­ble rather than the norm, much in the same way one as­sumes it to be im­pos­si­ble in the world we in­habit for a paint­ing to be and also not be by an artist it is at­tributed to (when, in­deed, painted by the artist). Un­for­tu­nately, this hap­pens more of­ten than recog­nised.

The re­al­ity in which we live is one wherein a paint­ing can be au­then­tic all the while be­ing deemed noth­ing more than a “clumsy pas­tiche”, or worse yet, one where that “clumsy pas­tiche” can be deemed inau­then­tic on faulty logic or as a re­sult of ul­te­rior mo­tives. This is some­thing I’ve not gripped en­tirely but rather am still work­ing on grasp­ing bet­ter.

In an effort to merge re­al­ities, we find our­selves in this pre­sent day sce­nario where a paint­ing is real but all the while our re­al­ity and truth ac­cord­ing to those art ex­perts sug­gests that these paint­ings are not real. A place where at­tributed art­works are not always au­then­ti­cated, and au­then­ti­cated art­works are con­sid­ered re­li­able so long as the spe­cial­ists stand be­hind their opinions.

More­over, ig­nor­ing ob­vi­ous cases where tragic out­comes such as these have proven detri­men­tal to those chron­i­cling the his­tory of art “as is”...I be­lieve, fore­most, this is an is­sue re­lat­ing to neg­li­gence on be­half of the ‘art ex­pert’. There­fore, I’m left to won­der...how does one con­front such a mind­bog­gling is­sue? Is there in ex­is­tance a prac­ti­cal solu­tion to ad­dress this that I’ve not thought of, or even, over­looked at this junc­ture? How does a ra­tio­nal­ist re­spond to some­thing so cir­cum­stan­tial?

Con­tin­u­ing with my train of thought, I also ask LWers the fol­low­ing...

Is there a method which is not ex­haus­tive be­yond rea­son, and that does not re­quire rub­bing elbows with the art no­bles (read:defec­tors) to prove the origi­nal claims as they must play out above?

Hav­ing given this a lot of thought, I am of the opinion that my is­sues from a broader van­tage point re­sem­ble those is­sues that will prove cen­tral to bit­coins suc­cess or its failure:

  • (Lack of) tech­nolog­i­cal adoption

  • (Im­me­di­ate) bar­ri­ers to entry

  • (Ex­pected) utility

In earnest, the art world is filled with ex­am­ples of paint­ings origi­nally at­tributed to mas­ters but some time af­ter found to be fake/​wrongly at­tributed, and con­versely of “un­known” works that sit-and-col­lect dust, be­fore find­ing their way into the right cat­a­logue raisonné.

I find my­self con­vinced that it takes, stroke-for-stroke, much more for a paint­ing to be au­then­ti­cated than for it to just be a gen­uine work by the artist’s hand. Out of cu­ri­os­ity, what are AI re­searchers do­ing in the art world (if any­thing at all) to make progress on this is­sue? Is this all just a lost cause for the time be­ing?

For now, the fre­quency at which mis­at­tri­bu­tion oc­curs is any­ones guess. Hon­estly, it would be bet­ter al­to­gether to de­ter­mine whether one can quan­tify the dam­age done from ac­tions/​judg­ments that re­sult in the loss of a real art­work. How­ever, that mess of thoughts is best saved for a differ­ent post.

Thanks for read­ing this.