This painting signed, John Singer Sargent in the lower right (which you can't see here) was recently offered for sale at EBay. Accompanying the photos (and there were others) was documentation of a scientific test which dated the painting before Sargent's death.
Q. What an interesting mystery, would you please comment on this painting.
When I first saw this image it was February 14th 2001 (if I remember correctly) I was just about ready to leave home and was scanning down through EBay. I promptly copied the image and bookmarked the source to read later. The next day when I got back to ebay and read the page more carefully, I just about had a heart attack. Could this really be a John Singer Sargent painting? Could it really be for sale on ebay?
My palms got cold and sweaty. I could actually feel my heart pounding in my chest. Never having bought anything from ebay before I began to search out the process I needed to go through.
For those of you that have been following my website and the additions more recently will understand why I was getting so worked up. You see, if this painting really is a John Singer Sargent of what clearly appears to be a mosaic floor, and if it really is a "Venetian Interior" as the tag indicates -- a John Singer Sargent Venetian Interior, the value of this painting is clearly in the six figures -- Easily Six Figures!
Oh my God! And the seller only has a reserve of a thousand dollars?!!!!!!
I pulled out my credit cards, quickly considered my options for raising additional capital -- then went back and re-read the instructions for bidding.
So am I the proud owner of this beautiful Sargent painting?
The question of authentication opens up a whole can of worms on what the heck is going on in the art market. I'm not an insider by any means, and I come at this with healthy dose of naiveté.
We have all watched the Antiques Road Show at one time or another (well, some of us have anyway) and although the values they give are probably inflated for viewer appeal and effect (giving the most optimistic appraisal) the values for any unattributed American, late nineteenth century scene painting -- of high skill -- good quality -- well preserved -- is somewhere between $2,000 and $10,000. There are probably enough of these sales to legitimately justify saying that the REAL intrinsic value of a late nineteenth century American scene painting is somewhere in this ball park. What then do we make of these prices of over a hundred thousand dollars and even prices into the millions? Why are they worth so much?
It's really not that hard of a question, is it? They're worth so much because they're a Winslow Homer, or a Marry Cassatt, or a John Singer Sargent, or a . . . whomever.
It's not really the painting. It doesn't matter what it looks like or how it was painted or "significant," or any other qualitative measure you might want to place on it. Not when you see such disparities in values above the "base value" of an unattributed painting of comparable skill and quality.
If it's a "real _____" (insert name) people will pay -- and pay dearly. They want to possess it. Display it to others as their property. They want to own a piece of history and will pay exorbitant amounts of money for John F. Kennedy's golf clubs or rocking chair (for example) that they could have probably gotten at any decent thrift store for the cash in their pocket.
It is mind-boggling how absurd it is."
(Lloyd Goldenberg of Trans-Art International, an art title protection company in Washington)
The motivation from all sides to continually inflate the oeuvre of well known artists must be tremendous. The only thing to balance the scale of this absurdity is the altruistic search for the truth . . .
And what the heck is THAT?
Try balancing THAT against the huge pile of money virtually everyone is poised to make if the painting is declared genuine.
In 1927, Charteris' list of known oil paintings totaled 509. By 1955, Charles Merrill Mount's list of known oils had grown to 948. Today it is well over that number and growing still -- how much, I'm not sure. Sargent didn't keep a ledger of his work -- most artists don't. Neither one of these men had claimed to have compiled exhaustive lists. The work they did do was Herculean -- to be sure. There are all kinds of legitimate reasons why paintings were missed by the previous lists and why here-to-now unknown works are only recently coming to light. Paintings are being found all the time such as the new Pailleron, study. It's as if Sargent is sending us paintings from the grave. The point I'm trying to make is the complexity of the problem by the "keepers of the faith."
Just how prolific WAS Sargent? and when will we know we have them all?
Will we ever?
Let's take a look at a couple of Sargent oils:
So if the painting in question is really a Sargent, what is it worth? $150,000?
And if it's a forgery what would you say -- $500 to $2,500?
In either case the painting itself hasn't changed, just the perception of its attribution and authenticity. If the value of an unattributed high quality 19th century American art is say $5,000 (for the sake of argument) then the extrinsic value -- that value we place on a painting for just the nebulous name of "John Singer Sargent" (in this case) is $145,000.
($150,000 - $5,000 = $145,000)
That's 29 times more than its "real intrinsic worth." And Sargent is generally considered at the lower end of the group of the most valuable American painters as a whole.
It's the next day at Ebay -- Check your bid.
One article pegged the art market at something like over a 30 million dollar a year business. It's crammed full of these huge disparities between any "real base value" and these stratospheric prices. It's not the artists that are getting this money (oh, some are, I suppose) but in most cases the artists have been dead or sold ownership long ago.
This reality of a market gone insane has even the most honest people clamoring through their parent's attic and in thrift stores for what some have called the Antique-Road-Showing of the art world. We're all going to get rich quick if we can just turn grandma's lamp into a priceless heirloom. The people show up on television and hand over the lamp (as if it were some lottery ticket) and stand there in front of the camera (looking kind of silly) listening while an appraiser goes through their smoke-and-mirrors before they tell us if they have the winning combination. The people gasp audibly and grow pale at the realization of the appraisal. You would have thought the appraiser had just handed them a big fat check, or that they had just seen Santa Claus. If it didn't turn out, they groan under their breath in the face of failure and mild embarrassment.
It's entertaining! I admit it. I love watching.
But that's small potatoes compared to what's going on in the high end art dealers, or on the floor of Sotheby's, or in the empty corridors, after hours of our museums -- were works from serious institutions are sometimes deaccessioned, sold, pushed around like monopoly pieces on the big game board of the art market -- like they've done at my own beloved museum.
I have received a number of letters from people hoping that they have found a John Singer Sargent painting. I don't blame them. Some are pretty incredible -- like the person that found a painting in the bedding of a chair. I am completely convinced that these are honest people (fans of Sargent) hoping they found a work by him and I believe their story. Maybe they have found a Sargent. Certainly it's a painting and probably an old one, but is it valuable? Someone, someplace is always wining the 80 million dollar jackpot -- but what are the odds? If people are so crazy to pay so much for a nebulous value in a name -- why not cash in? It's human nature to want it to be a genuine -- even if you don't care about about the money but only want to own it (as was probably the case of the person that wrote me).
I'll tell you one harm in all of this. Although some people are getting rich, very rich, we all are getting incrementally poorer. Robert Hughes called it the woesome cultural equivalent of strip-mining. In the wake of this gold rush, our cultural heritage is being chewed up, deluded, and spit out into a wasteland of mush. Some art historians estimate as many as 50 of the 820 paintings attributed to van Gogh which are hanging in places like the national museums in Denmark and Austria are fakes. 
Thomas Hoving, the director of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1967 to 1977, claims that 40% of the works on the art market are either 'half-forgeries' -- meaning genuinely old works that have been altered to fit a more valuable style or artist -- or just out and out fakes. (Adeline Koh, The Rebirth of Impression) In his book "False Impressions :The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes" he says: "the art world we are living in today is a new, highly active, unprincipled one of art fakery," that comes from, he says "raw commercialism" and the "get-rich quick attitude of the times."
It's rampant through everything. Doris Bry, a longtime assistant and agent to Georgia O'Keeffe was quoted in an article as saying: "One of the sad things in O'Keeffe history is that people see O'Keeffe and they see dollar bills. They don't see works of art." 
Another day at Ebay -- Check the bids
In the case of this painting at Ebay, it does appear to be backed by some pretty strong scientific support for authentication. It must be real, right?
In a recent series of stunning articles by the Kansas City Star (which should garner a Pulitzer prize in my opinion) shows the question isn't that simple. The digest of the series revealed this:
In 1994, a wealthy banker, philanthropist and art collector bought 28 long-hidden Georgia O'Keeffe watercolors known as the Canyon Suite for $5 million dollars to show in his new art museum which bares his name. They had been authenticated, verbally, by someone at the Georgia O'Keeffe Foundation and had reportedly been passed by everyone in the O'Keeffe world. Everyone reportedly checked off on them. Scientific tests were made and given the green light. The paintings were even kept for two years at the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC where no less than six curators had expressed their "interest" over the new found paintings for study and possible acquisition. An appraiser, basing his decision upon the understanding of the authentication, valued the 28 watercolors between $175,000 and $400,000 each -- or a total of $7.6 million for the full Canyon Suite. The $5 million paid by the collector / philanthropist considered it a bargain and they were hung in his new museum for five years -- the pride and joy of his collection.
In late 1999 (nearly a full five years later) these new discovered O'Keeffe paintings were left out of the O'Keeffe catalogue project and by default declared forgeries. Everyone in the O'Keeffe world jumped for cover like rats off a sinking ship. In the light of journalistic scrutiny they all denied having any connection whatsoever to the paintings in question. Others insisted they saw problems with the paintings and had expressed them privately. The dealer is the only one who claims all had given him the green light. No one left a paper trail for fear of liability.
The newspaper's investigation found out that the Watercolors, 29 in number (not 28) had been stuck in the corner of a garage of an art teacher who had taught with O'Keeffe -- the paintings only recently had been discovered. The art dealer paid a million dollars ($35,000 for each painting) to relatives of the teacher, based in part, on a verbal authentication from one of the O'Keeffe authorities who thought they were probably O'Keeffe but refused to put his findings on paper. Even so, the O'Keeffe authority was given $10,000, by the dealer in the form of a Native American pot for his trouble in looking at them. He accepted -- even though he (the expert) had some "questions" about the paintings in his own mind which he never expressed. The dealer who had bought the paintings had the works scientifically tested. All but one had passed the test. The one that failed was thrown out by the dealer because a watermark found on the paper couldn't have existed at the time of O'Keeffe. So the 28 (not 29) of the watercolors were sold for about $178,500 each ($5 million) to the philanthropist/collector. Today, all the paintings are considered fake. Since the scandal, the dealer has reluctantly refunded the money. 
Richard Raymond-Alasko, who has appraised a half-dozen van Goghs in the past decade said "It's a Catch-22. . . The discipline of authenticating is so nebulous that I'm very suspicious of anyone who claims the absolute ability to authenticate. ... Nonetheless, you have to have authentication from a (small) body of key people who create the value." 
Create the value?
Certainly the authentication process can't create value. Buyers and sellers set the market, not authenticators. Isn't that how markets work?
Sorry, this is "never-never land" remember?
The paintings as O'Keeffes are worth $5 to $7 million dollars. As unattributed works in the theme of O'Keeffe are worth . . . what? A few hundred dollars max?
In the case of the Venetian Interior Pavement (the painting above) I've already speculated that the REAL value of an unattributed late nineteenth century American scene painting is something like $5,000+-, so what we're talking about is $145,000 of pure blue sky called "Sargent" -- that's if the painting is genuine.
Call it "brand value" if you want, for you business people; but even if you are selling sugar water (Coke vs an off brand) the name Coke doesn't realize 29 times over the price of a no-name soft drink. Who is willing to pay $21.75 for a can of Coke?
($0.75 x 29 = $21.75)
In the art world apparently a lot of people are willing to pay that. If that isn't strange enough, a buyer doesn't even have the certainly of knowing that what they just paid for is, in fact, a Coke. It's all subjective and clubbish according to Richard Raymond-Alasko "It comes down to who [in the small group of experts] believes [it's authentic] and who doesn't."
Maybe so, but people aren't really buying and selling cokes, now are they? One friend told me that if you could show him the can of Pepsi Michael Jackson held in the commercial, he'd pay $21.75. People want Sargent's art and are willing to pay for it. No others will replace it. In art, there are no off-brand soft drinks on the radar screen. Oh, they exist -- but they don't show up on screen. People just have to have that name, and there are only a finite number of them. It's the name. It's always been the name.
Richard Raymond-Alasko only got it half right. Authenticators don't create value, but they ARE the gate keepers; and with "brand value" being 29 times higher than their real intrinsic worth, and with it being so nebulous -- that's scary -- for both them and us.
The "small group of experts" are not the bad-guys in this soap opera of free-for-all money grab. If anything, it's these people that are trying desperately to shed a flicker of reason into the world of insanity and guard our cultural heritage. These keepers of the faith are the ones trying to stand on the other side of the scale in the search for the truth which hovers off in some mist of uncertainty against everyone's innate compulsion of greed and desire (supply and demand) -- that drumbeat chant that pounds out for more! Give us more! Feed the machine!
Taylor a few years ago learned that a Mary Cassatt painting he bought from a Paris dealer more than 20 years before would be left out of the new catalogue currently being compiled. Taylor got no explanation why a painting that was deemed a Cassatt in Adelyn Breeskin's original catalogue, published in 1970, is a Cassatt no longer.
His Paris dealer gave Taylor back what he paid for the painting -- even this long after the sale. But, Taylor noted, the omission probably cost him dearly, perhaps $750,000 or more if he had been able to sell the painting as a Cassatt in today's market. 
Next Day -- Check Ebay
The truth is, I don't know if Venetian Interior Pavement is a real Sargent painting or not; and I'm not being coy. There is all kinds of circumstantial evidence (besides the signature and scientific dating) that could lend itself towards the conclusion of it being authentic (what might they be).
The seller at Ebay has traded a lot with favorable ratings -- this wasn't a one-time thing for him -- and he's traded since. I've looked. When I read the ad and documentation at Ebay, I was convinced that if what I was reading is true, then it must be genuine. The seller must be a completely uninformed. But how could he be so uninformed if he knows it's "high end art"?
If it's real then someone would be getting the buy of the century!
What would you have done?
Bidding is closed at Ebay -- Would you have gotten it?
For me, I didn't bid on the painting because it didn't pass the smell test. I sure wanted to. God knows I wanted to! Visions of finding a way to finance this whole silly endeavor were dancing in front of me like a carrot. Or just having a genuine Sargent painting hanging in my modest abode -- can you imagine? I have tried to recreate the tension of the moment here but it's just not possible. I was like a filly waiting for the start of a race, bucking against the starting gate, nostrils flaring, twitching, chomping at the bit, eyes wide and ready, inching to just bust out and bid. Each night I went to bed restless, dreaming, worrying, hoping, unsure, undecided. I tossed and turned. Each day I checked the bids yet again, astonished; but it seemed too good to be true. In life, for me, things that appear that way generally ARE too good to be true. But, admittedly, I'm not a gambler.
Seven days to sell a Sargent painting on Ebay with a $1,000 reserve? . . .
"You can always find a
said Don Knaub, "so you hold onto it till you find the next
1) Deb Kollars and Steve Wiegand "Efforts to Authenticate Painting Brushed Off by Museum;" Chapter 7 in "The van Gogh Mystery;" 1996; The Sacramento Bee
2) Steve Paul and Mike McGraw; "Selling of the Canyon Suite;" Part of the "Art of the Deal" Series; 2001, The Kansas City Star
3) Steve Paul and Mike McGraw; "KC Scandal Shows Hard Truths about Art World;" Part of the "Art of the Deal" Series; 2001, The Kansas City Star
4)The word "Pavement" was added to the title of the painting by me, to lesson confusion with other paintings.
From: Richard Gorman
Loved your piece on "the painting". I laughed at your physical reaction to seeing the listing on Ebay as I pretty much went through the same symptoms and eventually (after calming down) came to the same conclusion. However, what could be more irresistible than finding a treasure in the midst of the normal Ebay (or garage, or attic, etc) clutter. Yup, too good to be true......but then.... just imagine if....
I'd like to think this
be solved one day; perhaps the purchaser will weigh in when they
have reached their own conclusion.
Long time since I've checked in on your site, but I thought I would respond to your comments about the ebay picture. You obviously reacted to being put into the expert category. You may be an admirer without considering yourself to be a connoisseur. And I appreciate your reluctance to get in the pricing game. Nevertheless, you might be interested in commenting on this or that feature that your instincts tell you are authentic or not. That's your choice. But your opinions as an aficionado are as valid as anyone's as long as your reactions are honest. If you have no strong feelings one way or the other, you might best not express them.
I guess what I'm thinking is that the people who love art should take as much a part in evaluation as the technicians. So your opinions have value. I think you are right in avoiding the marketplace. But you have put yourself in a special position and in the long run you may be as expert as anyone.
When I went to the
Sargent show at
the Met, I stood beside a man for a couple of minutes entranced by a
watercolor by the master and I turned to him and said, "Is that
beautiful, or what?" and he looked at me in that trance one has in the
presence of a masterpiece and looked at me, smiled, and nodded. It's a
special feeling we have and sometimes share
My dear Rans4d:
Thank you so kindly for your letter, your encouragement and your comments. To be fair, Richard Gorman didn't really put me on the spot. Yes he's the one that asked, and yeah he was asking for my expertise, I guess. But in this case, my feelings were very strong, though my opinions were the only thing cloudy. What I wrote was as much about my own inner conflict made public. I wanted people to be put on guard that things can be tricky. You see, I really wanted to buy this painting (at least for a day or two) and seeing here the progression of the bids per day reenacted, I hope, is as interesting as it was when I was watching it "real time" -- a real nail biter.
Though I agree with you in principle, I think you give me more credit than I deserve. And since I wrote this piece, I have continued to ponder this question of how I should handle these things (not so much the request of an answer but these "new undiscovered" paintings). What you haven't seen are a number of other inquiries that I haven't made public. To be honest, It takes a lot of time to post these things and my energy and creativity might be better put in other avenues. Still, I haven't settled on anything and I want people who have Sargent's work to write me.
I try to answer everything. It's been ten long days since your letter (and please forgive me) but I've let your comments simmer on the back burner of my consciousness for all of those ten days. Sometimes my simple brain needs that much time to cook it. I think your council is wise and sort of reinforces what I felt (I appreciate that) and will continue to comment when and where I feel I have a strong opinion.
What you don't know (because I've taken so much time) is that I haven't let this particular painting go. I just had to get to the bottom of this question -- at least to my satisfaction.
Since writing this piece, I showed the article to a number of friends for their thoughts. One artist friend added that when you are looking to buy "high end art," one of the key factors to consider in a painting's authentication is its' provenance. The painting at Ebay clearly didn't have one, or at least it wasn't divulged. (What is a Provenance). If a painting doesn't have a good provenance, it doesn't mean it's not genuine. There are always exceptions to the rule, but without it, red flags and warning bells aught to be going off in your head. Still, provenances in of themselves are not the end all and be all of authentication, he said. "All kinds of potential hocus pocus could be going on. Provenances are sometimes easier to forge than the work."
I also talked with a designated art appraiser and she told me that Provenance can be critically important in the valuation process, let alone in the authentication process. In some cases, she said, the value of a piece of art is in the provenance alone. I asked how this could be, and she said, the Kennedy auction was prime example. Most of the things sold were relatively insignificant. Most of its worth was in the fact that it was owned by JFK and Jackie. She said you always have to look at Provenance.
On March 23rd I wrote to
Oustinoff of the Sargent Catalogue Raisonne project. I asked her if the
painting had been submitted. Since I'm sure you would be interested I'm
posting her response in full.
The Sargent Catalogue Raisonne Committee does not comment on work that has been submitted (or not submitted). Our ability to maintain and grow an archive is in large part based on keeping all work and the owners of these works confidential. If a work has been submitted to the formal committee process, we write a letter to the owner stating that it will or will not be included in the catalogue raisonne. With regard to "Venetian Interior", Ebay should be able to contact the owner for an answer to your question.
Please note, a Sargent signature, no matter how genuine it appears, is not in itself a deciding factor, nor is "scientific" dating of work. There have been dozens if not hundreds of paintings that were executed in Sargent's lifetime that caught his signature - not always in an attempt to deceive.
I would suggest to your readers that buying any work of art by a well-known artist over the internet is a 'buyer beware' exercise. One should always check with people who have a real knowledge of the artist's body of work.
Elizabeth could not have said it better. I can honestly respect the Catalogue Raisonne Committee's policy of no comment. Although the Committee's hands might be tied (though be it voluntarily) my hands are not. I think there is a great deal of benefit in making public the body of Sargent's work for the owners of his paintings and to the general public. Certainly steps need to be made for privacy when appropriate.
For me, the question has been answered in my own mind. For those that want to know, I pretty much have concluded that "Venetian Interior Pavement" is probably not a Sargent painting. At least it probably wasn't in the eyes of the Catalogue Raisonne Committee. If the seller had a letter from them, he would have disclosed it. But maybe they're wrong. Maybe all this cathartic purging through searching for an answer is part of my own way of convincing myself that I did the right thing? I'm at peace with my decision -- I really am, but I'm not going to neatly answer the question for you. Maybe self delusion is the only way I can live with myself.
Think about it. I did, after all, let it go.
When I first got into this it never really occurred to me to ask the question. I was so naive. Don't we just know Sargent's oeuvre?
It's not that easy. In fact, from my self-righteous perch on the outside, It's hard not to become cynical and disgusted. There are some people out there with hidden agendas. All you have to do, ninety percent of the time, is follow the money to find it. There are piles of it everywhere (so you don't have to follow very far) with honest people salivating at both ends -- just like I did. But most are genuine art lovers and dealers trying to do the right thing, unsure of what they really have and searching: do I own a Sargent, or don't I? Where do I go? What do I do?
The Sargent Catalogue Raisonne Committee does not have an easy row to hoe. I'm sympathetic. It's rather thankless actually . . . but you know, maybe that's how it should be. Maybe it has to be totally thankless with no agendas anywhere (hidden or otherwise) if we are ever to really find the truth. They must know people will look for agendas. The more I get into this the harder I see us reaching that truth. They carry a huge weight of responsibility. I'm sure they know it, but I'm not here to thank them -- I'm here to remind them of it again. That's the only gratitude they're going to get -- that's the only gratitude that means anything.
In any event, I peeked beyond the looking glass and I took you with me. I do find good people (most people actually) trying to navigate this never-never land of rabbits holding tea parties. But it's not a pretty sight, is it?
So: Caveat Emptor! (let the buyer beware!).
Do you remember this sentence in a letter from Elizabeth Oustinoff on March 26, 2001? I've found in the memoirs of an old Roman antiquarian, a nice little story referring - I believe- to the early beginnings of the 20th Century. It would be interesting to learn what painting (a Venetian Channel) and which wealthy American women are dealt with.
Sorry, the tale is
in Italian !
(Go to article)