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In defence of the catalogue raisonné

5 August 2019

Modigliani’s Nu couché (Reclining Nude) broke records at Sotheby’s New York last year when it sold for $157.2m, a figure short of the artist’s own record of $170.4m; yet much of his oeuvre lies under a cloud of uncertainty. A 1972 catalogue by critic Ambrogio Ceroni exists, and major auction houses have been reluctant to sell works that aren’t listed therein, even though Ceroni’s survey is known to be incomplete. There is much at stake for questionable attributions, and the challenges of compiling a comprehensive record of Modigliani’s work have been keenly felt by Marc Restellini, an art historian who has worked on a catalogue raisonné on-and-off for the past two decades.

He has been vocal in the press about receiving death threats for refusing to authenticate works, and says that ‘the biggest challenge for the author of a catalogue raisonné is to remain independent of the art market’. He concedes, however, that while dealers put pressure on a process that cannot be rushed – and have even started privately sponsoring projects – ‘lifelong experience working directly with artworks makes dealers, in some cases, legitimate authors of a catalogue raisonné’. The question of who has authority and how it can be protected is pressing.

The nonprofit, membership-based International Catalogue Raisonné Association (ICRA) launched in London in July. Inspired by the Catalogue Raisonné Scholars Association (CRSA), which was founded in New York in 1993, the association has been established in support of scholars and foundations working on catalogues raisonnés and will provide networking events, an online forum, an annual conference and discounted legal advice in seven regions.

ICRA founder and chair Pierre Valentin, who practises art and cultural property law, says that catalogues raisonnés are invaluable to the art market. ‘If an auction house were accused of selling a forgery and they can show that the artwork is in the recognised catalogue raisonné, it would be a difficult task for the claimant to succeed. The catalogue raisonné protects the auction house and the dealer.’ To what extent a scholar risks being sued for not including a particular work in a catalogue varies greatly between countries. UK common law considers authentication decisions to be opinions, so it is difficult to successfully file a claim against the expert making them.

In the US, however, some committees have ceased authenticating works for fear of legal action, including those overseeing the estates of Basquiat, Warhol and Calder. David Anfam, a member of ICRA’s board who published his Rothko catalogue raisonné in 1998, remembers when dubious works might have been included with the qualification that further study was needed. He worries that refusing to comment on these works leaves them in limbo, or ‘a vacuum which can be flooded with all sorts of ideas and paranoia that are not necessarily well-grounded’. Instead ‘there have to be structures providing indemnity for genuine scholars.’

A community of scholars could provide support and transparency, but it is difficult to define a universal best practice for catalogues raisonnés when each project reflects a unique body of work. Katy Rogers, president of CRSA, is currently working on a catalogue raisonné of Robert Motherwell drawings. ‘Some artists leave incredible records, others work with one gallery whose records all burned down,’ she says. When it comes to authentication, ‘It’s very important to take your particular artist’s circumstances into account, see the work in person and develop an understanding.’ Restellini places considerable emphasis on scientific analysis when identifying Modiglianis, but agrees that ‘the “eye” of the expert plays a major role’.

Artifex Press specialises in digital catalogues raisonnés, which allows it to be flexible to different artist’s needs. Its president, David Grosz, explains that as artists turn to less traditional mediums, ‘the whole idea of cataloguing is a little more challenging’. Artifex launched the Sol LeWitt Wall Drawings catalogue raisonné last year, and uses a digital format to record the artist’s conceptual ‘set of instructions’ for a wall drawing alongside archival photographs and images of subsequent certified installations. It will be updated as information arises, and the use of tags and hyperlinks allow works to be connected in new ways.

Rogers is optimistic about digital catalogues raisonnés, but cautious that as a non-static medium they must be safely backed up. ‘We aren’t looking at the same resource at the same time the way you are with a print publication.’ Clarity and consistency are crucial because, beneath a degree of creative licence, catalogues raisonnés are chiefly factual documents. They have a reputation for being dry, but Anfam likens them to a ‘detailed, scaled map’, the axes of which help historians and dealers contextualise works. ‘To see a list of everything that an artist created tells you a great deal about how their work evolved,’ says Grosz.

Completing catalogues raisonnés is slow, isolating work and it is unusual for the same scholar to work on more than one in their lifetime. Valentin hopes that a new international community will allow scholars to interact as colleagues so that they might ‘learn from others, rather than reinvent the wheel’.

From the July/August 2019 issue of Apollo. Preview and subscribe here

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