The Age of Authenticity: a Legacy of Vetting at TEFAF
Learn more about TEFAF’s rigorous vetting process, ensuring every work on display at the fair is of the highest quality
- By Michael Diaz-Griffith
- Meet the Experts
In the history of the art market, events could be said to fall on either side of a great watershed: Before Vetting and After Vetting. Before vetting, collectors bought at their own risk, sometimes with a degree of uncertainty that is unfathomable today. After vetting, if they frequent venues such as TEFAF fairs, collectors can gain assurance that works of art are in fact what they are purported to be. TEFAF plays a leading role in this with an unparalleled system of inspection and assessment that guarantees the quality, authenticity, date, and condition—or in short, the excellence and transparency—of every work on offer at its fairs. From its inaugural edition in 1988, TEFAF has instituted and rigorously upheld some of the world’s strictest vetting standards, distinguishing itself as an influential arbiter of quality and probity in the art trade. These standards are stringent but never static, evolving as they do alongside society, technology, and scholarship.
Says Joanna Whalley, a longtime jewelry vetter and former senior metals conservator and gemologist at the Victoria & Albert Museum: “It just so follows that the more we learn about objects, the original makers’ techniques, and the composition of the materials involved, and the more that this information is published, the more sophisticated the copies that follow.” By necessity, vetting practices must keep apace. In a different vein, increased awareness of looted and stolen art has caused provenance (or ownership history) to join quality, authenticity, date, and condition as a primary concern for vetters. Other changes in the field abound, from revised attributions to new methods of authentication. While perspectives shift and practices are mutable, however, the principles of vetting are unwavering.
As Wim Pijbes, director of the Droom en Daad Foundation and TEFAF’s Global Chairman of Vetting, says, “Vetting is a pillar of this institution. It is fundamental to everything we do. Each year, our goal is to create an atmosphere of complete trust, transparency, and truth for buyers and therefore the fair as a whole.” He adds, “If you are visiting a TEFAF fair and see a painting by Rembrandt, you can trust that it was painted by Rembrandt. The provenance will check out, and if a passage has been painted in, you will know it. The documentation will say so. Simply put: What you see is what you get.”
Such an elegant outcome could only be achieved through complex means, and indeed, vetting is an arduous (if invisible-to-the-public) undertaking, requiring the expertise of over 200 specialists from around the globe. So, what are the keys to mounting the world’s most scrupulous examination of art and objects?
Throughout TEFAF’s 30 vetting committees, as many vetters as possible are drawn from the ranks of academics, scholars, and conservators working outside the trade. As far as possible, the system is devised to ameliorate self-interest and business conflicts. After setting up their stands, exhibitors clear the floor while hundreds of experts from museums and academia swarm the fair, examining every object on display. Vetters comb through every object, considering the nuances of quality, attribution, and provenance; assessing an object’s state of preservation; and examining the nature and extent of any restorations. “It starts with great dealers, proceeds with great pieces, and ends with vetting,” says Pijbes. “At this point in our history, the vetting system and dealers’ admirable self-regulation have set the bar so high that our vetters are often taken up with the finer points of connoisseurship. There is a saying in Dutch: ‘Two see more than one.’ By adding experts from so many institutions to the mix, all with different backgrounds, you get a more complete picture.”
For many vetters, this vast annual exercise in connoisseurship is a highlight of the year—an opportunity to see more material, and have more discussions about it, than in any setting. Some of the work is straightforward, if not undramatic. “If exhibiting a picture is not in the best interest of the fair,” says Edgar Peters Bowron, chairman of the French, Italian, Spanish, and English Old Master paintings vetting committee, “we remove it.” More often, says the former curator of European art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, works are relabeled to reflect the consensus of the committee. Perhaps a date or attribution is adjusted, or a note about condition is appended to an object’s file.
In the process of determining whether a work was produced in the 18th versus the 17th century, or by the studio rather than the hand of an artist, for example, vetters will interrogate the work itself, the exhibitor’s supporting materials, and each other’s knowledge—both within their committees and across disciplines, if needed. Says Bowron, “I find it enormously heartening every year to return to this wonderful place where everybody wants to share what they know and debate, yes, but also to reason and learn together. Many of us feel that connoisseurship is dying out in the world, so when a new vetter appears on the scene, you think, ‘Okay, the knowledge I love will survive in this culture of expertise we’re contributing to.’"
Over the course of 36 hours each year a kind of community forms. Says Whalley, “There is a terrific sharing of information during the vetting process. There really isn’t much free time because of the sheer numbers of objects involved, but the late evenings and lunches are brilliantly organized by the team at TEFAF so that we get to meet like-minded professionals and get up to speed with each other’s work."
It is consequential, too, both for the buying public and for the disciplines represented by the legion of vetters. “There are always happy surprises such as new works by famous artists, masterworks by previously unknown artists, and new juxtapositions to compare,” says Pijbes, and these surprises follow vetters home, into new research, and back to the fair in subsequent years, in a virtuous cycle of connoisseurship without end.
“It starts with great dealers, proceeds with great pieces, and ends with vetting.” — Wim Pijbes, Global Chairman of Vetting
While the vetting process begins with connoisseurship, increasingly it ends with scientific analysis. The eye has limits that UV and infrared reflectography, 3D microscopy, direct digital radiography (DDR), and X-ray fluorescence (XRF) do not. Robert van Langh, head of conservation and restoration at the Rijksmuseum and chair of NICAS and part of the Scientific Research and Support Team during TEFAF’s vetting process, says, “We use these technologies to see whether, for example, a supposedly historic alloy of bronze is actually contemporary.” He adds, “Connoisseurship may be sufficient to establish authenticity in a majority of cases, but in cases where it is not, or more information is needed, we can now establish answers in a matter of minutes."
Technology cannot replace traditional methods of interpretation or meaning-making, but it can tell you whether a piece of silver is old or new, or if a piece of Roman glass has been restored in a way the naked eye cannot detect. In one instance, Van Langh’s team discovered that white paint purportedly dating to the 17th century contained zinc rather than the lead that was commonly used at the time. The exhibitor thanked them; they did not wish to sell a picture under false pretenses. Says Whalley, “As a vetter, the opportunity to access experienced scientists with the technology that can prove or disprove a theory on authenticity in minutes is exciting. Scientific analysis never fails to surprise and also reassure.” Far from competing with connoisseurship, technology complements it.
Scientific examination does not only answer questions; it raises them. “Once we’ve established the data,” says Van Langh, “curators and dealers can go on to ask questions about pentimenti, an artist’s choice of materials, the conditions objects were kept in, and a million other things” that hard data cannot illuminate on its own. Answers to the questions raised by science may be found in history, literature, and other humanistic disciplines, and research opportunities for historians, connoisseurs, and the curious should be expected to proliferate as the field of materials chemistry advances. Adds Van Langh, “When we are not providing answers, we can ask these compelling questions, but when testing an object at the fair, we really focus on the reality of whether it is correct or not. This is something everybody agrees on: It must be correct to remain there.” He pauses. “If it is there, it is good."
Of the art and science of vetting, says Pijbes, “We know more today than we knew ten years ago, but in ten years we will know much more. Indeed, we will know more in two.” Today, he is especially concerned with issues of restitution and repatriation. Every work brought to TEFAF’s fairs is cross-referenced in the Art Loss Register, the world’s largest database of stolen and missing art, and the vetting committee aims to adhere to UNESCO guidelines always. Still, says Pijbes, “Provenance is a moving target.” New details surface all of the time about Nazi-looted art, antiquities looted from Iraq and Syria in recent years, and material less recently looted from lands that have suffered colonial rule.
“It is critical that we remain open to all of the new information available to us. Once again, it comes back to trust, transparency, and truth. Of course, we love art, but only after the fundamentals are established can we sit back and ponder the really big question: ‘What is your opinion on a work of art, and how does it relate to you as a person?’”
In the period after vetting, collectors are free to focus on these big questions, although they cannot be blamed for an interest in the particularities of vetting itself. As Bowron says, referencing the whirl of vetting day: “When you think about it, the whole process is beautiful. And then—aren’t we lucky? Then there’s the art.”
And then the exhibitors return, the public rushes in, and the buying begins.