GUEST ARTICLE: Private Funding For Technical Art Research: Combining Wealth Giving And Art - Part 1

Randall Willette Jilleen Nadolny and Nicholas Eastaugh 10 November 2015

GUEST ARTICLE: Private Funding For Technical Art Research: Combining Wealth Giving And Art - Part 1

This is the first half of a two-part feature examining how art collectors can blend their passion for the subject with the desire to give to philanthropic causes.

This is the first half of a two-part feature looking at some of the more technical issues arising from collecting and making bequests of art for philanthropic purposes. The article’s authors are Randall Willette, founder and managing director of Fine Art Wealth Management and a regular guest expert for this publication, Jilleen Nadolny, principal research associate at Art Analysis & Research, and Nicholas Eastaugh, director of research at Art Analysis & Research. The editors of this publication are delighted to share these expert insights with readers and, as ever, readers are most welcome to respond with their comments and views. The views of guest contributions are not necessarily fully shared by this publication. 

Part two will be issued in due course.

Art has played an important part throughout history in the wealth of ultra-high net worth families.  Although the Renaissance is widely regarded as the golden age of patronage, we are seeing a rise in art philanthropy among a new generation of wealth many of whom are also sophisticated collectors.  

To service this community, today’s global art community has evolved into a complex and intricate web of art experts driven by the expansion and professionalisation of the international art market. Importantly fakes and forgeries abound, with significant implications for authentication practices.  Establishing that an object is authentic is a key factor in determining its value and successfully managing a private collection requires a consistent and dedicated approach. With the art market becoming ever less predictable, even the most experienced collectors can benefit from new developments in art technology science in today’s fast-paced and complex global art market.  

At the same time, given the significant amount of wealth held in the form of art, there is a great potential for private collectors to achieve their philanthropic goals by helping to fund art research.  For philanthropic individuals wishing to create more impact with their financial resources, they should consider donating to important art historical research projects which also embrace scientific examination.  

Obtaining recognition as an art expert generally requires intense study, whether theoretical, academic or practical. Information relating to origin, often from historical documents, does not always prove as reliable as one would wish: since the artist who created the work of art is often not available for consultation, the expert must make an assessment as to the extent to which he believes the piece of work can be attributed to one or other artist on the basis of years of study and experience.  

Into this mix of expertise has stepped a new breed of specialist, concerned with the material structure of art and what it can tell us. Coming from a range of disciplines including (but by no means confined to) forms of art history, conservation and the hard sciences, these ‘technical art historians’ and ‘art scientists’ have been making progressive inroads into both how we understand art and use these insights for purposes such as authenticity and attribution.

It is perhaps not surprising that this new generation of technical experts also have a different perspective than their predecessors on some issues.  Attributions of works to certain artists can and do change, and art historical research that encompasses scientific examination represents the highest level of authentication studies being undertaken today. 
Although funding for such studies has historically been provided largely by academic grants, internal museum projects and a limited number of foundations and research institutes, the surge globally in the number of wealthy collectors has been accompanied by a sharp increase in art philanthropy.  

Implications of sound authentication practices on art finance and investment

By definition, financialisation is a term used to describe an economic process that attempts to reduce all value that is exchanged (whether tangible or intangible) into a financial instrument.  Globalisation and structural inefficiencies in the art market are driving demand for financial innovation around art assets by sophisticated collectors and investors. 

In recent years we have witnessed the emergence of art investment funds, direct investment in art by family offices, the creation of art exchanges, and a rise in art financing aimed at unlocking the equity in private art collections.  

While the primary value in individual works of art reside in the response that it evokes in those who experience it – which is emotional, personal, and impossible to quantify – it is also true that art can be valued in explicit financial terms each time the ownership of a particular work changes.  These values, taken in the aggregate, comprise a market that can be assessed, understood and managed for the benefit of those whose interests are partially or wholly financial.  Equally important, the ability to forecast the future value of individual art works and to recognise and capture unique opportunities in the marketplace, can be translated into highly attractive investment returns when superior authentication expertise is employed and investment in art as a physical object is cared for and managed in the proper manner. 

Deciding whether an object is authentic is one of the most important factors in establishing its value.  Yet, determining the authenticity of a piece may also be the most difficult of all functions to perform.  The concept of authenticity embraces two essential considerations: what is meant by “authentic” and who is the correct person to judge whether a piece is authentic or not.  Standards of authenticity vary greatly from field to field. Authenticity is a concept which changes constantly, both from the point of view of how one defines what an authentic piece is and from the viewpoint of who is best qualified to determine whether a piece is authentic or not.  Ultimately it is the art market which determines who to believe in deciding whether a work is authentic.  However, unlike financial investments, to date the art market has lacked professional regulation and internationally accepted standards of best practice. 

Equally, understanding the material nature of a piece is essential for managing art assets. A heavily restored object will be worth less than one in pristine condition and while some objects are robust others should not travel. Anticipating the lifecycle of an artwork is therefore another key evaluation. Determining the material authenticity as well as the physical condition of an object with confidence is critical when dealing with high value objects. However, dealing professionally with art will always requires extensive experience and intense study, whether theoretical, academic, or scientific, to determine its value.  As such, a sound authenticity process will play an increasingly important role in the financialisation of the art market while also minimising the significant risks inherent in art transactions.  

While in other areas of commerce, such as when buying a building or an automobile, physical checks as to condition and quality are required by law, or at least part of standard due diligence practice, the art market has long been free of any such regulation. While not required, the discerning collector can demand that both the condition and the authenticity of their purchases are examined, thus, safeguarding their investment. Until very recently authentication has largely been seen as the domain of art historians, who have undertaken both provenance research and stylistic analysis, while conservators have traditionally provided condition reports as needed. 

These types of research themselves are not standardised, and can be done to varying levels. That is, where due diligence is conducted, lack of standards of practice can mean that the value of the process is undermined through the market not being able to easily differentiate between weak and robust analyses.

Apart from obtaining a secure attribution and being properly informed of condition, there is also the specific issue of forgery. In the twenty first century forgeries are becoming increasingly sophisticated while the supply of quality art works on the open market becomes somewhat reduced with corresponding increases in value, a situation that has made the production of fakes a potentially lucrative market. Serious collectors seeking to acquire new works must take into account the importance of both traditional aspects such as quality and rarity, and of the new options that material studies can offer as forms of protection. 

There is no doubt that an integrated approach to art research incorporating materials studies with the more traditional forms of study now represents the manner in which to assemble the most useful and comprehensive understanding of a work of art. Yet use of this ‘best practice’ approach is still very limited. Several factors perhaps go to explain why this type of study is not already routine practice. First and foremost, access to thorough, well executed material analysis has not been widely available. Up until quite recently, integrated studies of works of art that combined technical imaging (for example, X-ray and Infrared imaging of paintings), interpretation, materials analysis and technical art historical context have been provided almost solely as a side-line by major institutions. Traditionally, only in institutions has the necessary expertise, investment in equipment and interest in developing this line of inquiry been available. Moreover, there are no recognised standards for offering art technology studies, no professional organisations. Establishing, financing and operating private laboratories of such scope has to date been largely beyond the means of individuals. Lack of training for professionals in this industry has further ensured that technical research has remained, until recently, an unusual or an academic pursuit. 

In addition, as academic and institutional interests are typically not aligned with those of the art market, a situation has arisen in which the scholarship available is of a narrowly specific nature, frequently constructed around the concerns of institutional collections. Growth and acquisition of knowledge has therefore been sporadic and disconnected and neither has it responded to market need. Equally, for the increasing number of scholars working in the private sector there is a shortfall of funding from traditional bodies still focussed on institutional rather than autonomous research, meaning that important research relevant to the needs of the wider art market is not getting done for lack of funding.

In summary, a major shortfall in key funding for these specific types of projects is thus both a current reality and a serious impediment to further growth in the field. Moreover, in the absence of a fully developed field, there are few significant drivers capable of improving this state of affairs anytime soon. Consequently, a revisionist approach is now needed. 

An integrated approach to art research

Every collector knows that the concept of authenticity is a key factor in establishing value. As a society we attach great value to artistic achievement and works of art act as tangible physical monuments to the genius of their creators. Thus, authenticity and, as physical objects, material condition, are highly important to consider in any study intended to support knowledgeable collecting and value assessment. However, who is to determine authenticity? 

This process can often be mysterious and unpredictable, even to the insider, as recent tendencies worldwide towards more litigation has brought about an unfortunate situation where experts frequently feel unable to comment, others will only issue decisions lacking in any firm justification or reasoned argument, and in other cases, the consensus of a number of experts on a particular artist may be needed in order to attain recognition of authenticity of a work of art on a wider sphere. To complicate matters yet further, in some cases, technical issues are integrated as a required part of the process, while in others, the art historical experts involved are lacking in basic knowledge of technical matters, or worse, openly hostile towards such approaches. “Science” is an unknown feature for many art experts, and thus, subject to suspicion and prejudice. This should not be the case. 

Science and technology are tools, and as tools, they must be wielded in a skilled and knowledgeable manner by experts schooled in the context of art technology in order to allow the results to be use appropriate and best suited for integrated studies. This discipline is now a recognised specialty, known as “technical art history”. Technical art historians use a multifaceted approach, combining the contextual information that can be obtained from the study of textual sources, from study of the objects themselves, and, by applying analytical and imaging techniques to the study of the objects to learn more about their materiality. 

One of the best-known successes of the integrated approach to authentication of recent years has been the work of the Rembrandt Research Project, an initiative funded by generous donations from the Dutch government.  This model exemplifies what may be accomplished when authentication becomes a process undertaken by a cooperative group of experts, who collect data meticulously and consistently over a long period of time, to the end goal of learning as much as possible about the character of a specific artist’s work. Such studies require the full understanding not only of the work of the artist singled out as the designated “genius”, but also of his contemporaries. 

To “know” the work of an artist, one must know not only what characterises their work from a stylistic and material viewpoint, but also, in what ways their work conforms to contemporary practice. To provide an example, it is good to know that Velazquez sometimes wiped his brush in the upper right corner of canvases he was working on, in order to clean them, and often painted these traces over as he completed the work (these marks may be seen when his paintings are imaged with X-rays). However, we must also have a reasonable certainty that none of his contemporaries did the same, if we are to assign significance to the traces of a mundane habit as a characteristic mark of the master’s hand. Given the wide and multidisciplinary studies needed to asses authenticity, to the question of who is best equipped to assign authenticity we must answer groups of experts, each bringing their particular knowledge to bear on the problem. We must equally stress that no one person is normally able to make a fully considered judgement alone, so that an art historian offering their expertise without recourse to technical studies will be limited in their ability to provide the most in-depth answer possible, just as a technical examination can provide no certainty without the knowledge of an expert art historian to provide it with a sound context in the working life of the artist in question.

Having established what an ideal situation for scholarship can provide, we must confront the problems facing the larger field. These are many and varied in nature. From the basic lack of integration of technical studies into art historical training, insufficient support and recognition for the training of art historians adept in expressing opinions of stylistic connoisseurship on a considered and articulated level compatible with such technical studies, to the fact that there is no coherent training pattern available for professionals in the field of technical studies. Many of these problems will require impetus from the outside to cause a shift in the priority of training programs to make them responsive to the demands of the larger field. 

Thus, a plausible broader strategy is to support the larger field by encouraging research into basic areas in need of attention, thereby creating a market awareness for solidly researched authenticity studies. Sophisticated collectors must demand such research, subject their collections to analysis by high quality technical services and thereby raise awareness and promoting growth from within the sector. When purchasing works of art, buyers can ask for imaging of art works, for proof of material authenticity, as part of the dossier presented in support of the value of the object to be purchased. Such activity will benefit the engaged collector/investor by providing a more secure and stable basis on which to collect and study works of art, allowing authenticity to be established with greater certainty and thus reinforcing the scholarship around important investments, and consequently, the value of such investments. 

Used wisely, materials-focussed studies can also provide a much deeper and more nuanced basis on which to evaluate potential purchases and make sounder decisions through increased transparency, thereby also reducing risk. Routine forms of technical examination, such as ultra-high resolution ‘gigapixel’ imaging, also provide secondary benefits such as secure positive identification in case of ownership determinations and loans (high resolution images of surfaces of paintings, for example, may serve as identifying fingerprints), proof of condition and material soundness in case of disputes regarding shipping, storage and display, as well as providing fodder for scholarly study of style and technique.

About the authors:

Randall Willette is the founder and Managing Director of Fine Art Wealth Management, a professional membership-based advisory platform that provides independent consulting to wealth managers and their private clients on wealth structuring for art assets.

Dr. Nicholas Eastaugh is Founder and Director of Art Analysis & Research Ltd specialised in technical investigations of paintings applying both technical art history and science-based analytical approaches with offices located in in London and New York.

Dr. Jilleen Nadolny is Principal Research Associated at Art Analysis & Research Ltd and has published widely in the fields of technical art history and is currently researching the material history of art forgery and authentication studies.

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