We’re late to covering this New York Times summary of what is now known about the Hals painting now seen as a forgery. The Times has done a good job of assembling a narrative that gives us a better sense of what transpired, including the crucial fact that Giuliano Ruffini maintains he never made statements or gave warranties about the painting’s authorship.
The key to the story may lie in the way that the Louvre first discovered the work, through an application for an export license:
Christie’s applied for a license to export the painting to its London headquarters for further examination. Such licenses must be sanctioned by the Louvre and the French ministry of culture, and so the work was shared with curators at the Paris museum. Rather than allow the painting to be shipped out of France, the French state declared it a national treasure in 2008 and put a temporary export restriction on it. That same month, the Louvre decided to try to acquire it. A contract from October 2008, sent by Mr. Scarzella to The New York Times, clearly states the intended sale to the Louvre of “Portrait of a Man” by Frans Hals for 5 million euros and designates Christie’s as Mr. Ruffini’s representative.
We saw recently how the French government responded when members of the Rothschild family tried to sell a pair of Rembrandt portraits last year. And we know from the details of the Knoedler case that confidence in a work’s authenticity can build from a diffused enthusiasm where no single authenticator is required to take responsibility for the work’s authorship.
With the Hals, Sotheby’s did just that. Or, we should say, the opposite of that. It took responsibility for determining that the work is a forgery. (This being the rare case where one can prove a negative.)
Once that was done, a cascade of finger pointing has commenced. You can see in the Times’s story Ruffini and Christie’s battling it out. Ruffini gave the Times the 2008 contract with Christie’s clearly playing a part. Christie’s now says it raised a flag on the Hals sale:
After the sales contract was drawn up, however, Christie’s began to have “doubts on provenance and attribution,” according to Belinda Bowring, a spokeswoman. She declined to discuss the specific concerns and who raised them. The auction house asked Mr. Ruffini to guarantee the attribution. In response, he sent a letter noting that he was “in no way” responsible “for the attribution and authenticity of the work,” which he said were in the hands of the experts. “He didn’t want to guarantee anything,” Mr. Scarzella said. “It’s not his job, you know.”
That last comment is a good point. And it raises a central question in the whole issue of authentication. The auction houses provide a de facto service to the broader art market by virtue of their warranty. Many buyers will cite an auction house sale—no matter how long out of date in terms of the warranty—to bolster a work’s provenance.
Here Christie’s is suggesting that it did not want to take on the responsibility. The Times couldn’t determine whether the lack of warranty from Ruffini, something few good lawyers would allow a client to provide, caused the deal to fall through. But the article suggests, when cites Old Master dealer Bob Haboldt, that it was the price that scuttled the deal, rather than Christie’s concerns.
A Dubious Old Master Unnerves the Art World (The New York Times)