Several high-profile lawsuits have sparked a growing reluctance among art scholars to speak publicly about the authenticity of artwork. Such opinions can no doubt make or destroy a fortune. As these potential fortunes rise, so does the risk incurred by experts in providing such opinions. For many experts, this risk has now tipped the scale in favor of silence.
Authenticity opinions have always come with at least a modicum of risk. In the 1920s, art dealer Joseph Duveen landed in court after declaring a supposed Leonardo painting to be a fake. More recently, authors of the catalogue raisonné have faced lawsuits, bribes, and even death threats for their opinions. While only a handful of plaintiffs actually win these lawsuits, the time and expense involved is enough to persuade many experts to keep quiet.
One expert no longer willing to accept this risk is Jack Cowart, executive director of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation. Although he feels that it is the board’s responsibility to protect Lichtenstein’s legacy, Cowart explains that the board is no longer willing to accept the risk of a high-dollar lawsuit. “Why should we go stand in front of a speeding car?” said Cowart.
Other experts will continue to provide opinions, and some may even come out ahead. In 2007, art expert Steve Seltzer was the target of litigation concerning is expert opinion of the authorship of a supposed Charles M. Russell watercolor. The judge threw out the lawsuit and awarded Seltzer $11 million in damages. In his opinion, the judge condemned the practice of coercing expert opinions with lawsuits as “legal thuggary.” Thuggery or not, many experts are now thinking twice before exercising their freedom of expression where the authenticity of artwork is concerned.