JMW Turner the source expert opinion, appraisal / appraiser and authentication; consultant for Joseph Mallord William Turner paintings - who and why? catalogue Yale Yale Center for British Art, Clore Tate Gallery, National Gallery London, The Getty Museum, IFAR, McCrone, Courtauld Institute, Christie's,  Sotheby's... old master master masterpiece

Jmw turner critic expert/expertise  authentication...  Who and Why!

One can often determine how important an artist is by the number of books written about their life and works. This is also a quick check on the number of pundits with aspirations to claim the title of expert. For Turner, there is no exception; without doubt there are more books about JMW Turner than for any other British artist.

In recent years there has been an evolution in the way these aficionados have gained prominence. At one time connoisseurship was a much respected component of the selection process. Not only has it now taken an inferior roll, the areas of expertise that could possibly replace it--scientific and forensic studies--are largely shunned... 

There is the catalogue raisonné, the definitive and authoritative publication about any artist's body of work. Of course these have much to do with the marketplace--even Turner's. In her role as an analytical statistician, Geraldine Keen gives pause-for-thought over what it means to control any market:

"At any one time there is usually one particular scholar whose opinion is considered the most authoritative about the work of a particular artist, though sometimes several scholars may contend for this distinction. In expressing their opinions they may wield tremendous financial power. For instance, no definitive catalogue of Rembrandt's drawings existed until the 1950s when Otto Benesch published the results of his long years of research. Around 1950 three drawings catalogued as 'school of Rembrandt' were sold at Christie's for about $280; another, attributed by Sotheby's to one of Rembrandt's contemporaries, fetched only $25. By the time Benesch's catalogue was published, its inclusion of these drawings had raised their value to something 28,000 - 42,000 each." (Money and Art, G. P. Putnam's Sons, NY, 1971)     Art World’s Dirty Little Secret

                              Problems with contemporary expert opinion...........
                       .............Several authoritative references:                 

     * According to Friedlander, “Enthusiastic lovers of art – at the same time mere amateurs – have contributed most and in the best fashion towards artistic reconstruction… Coldly analytical scholars make fewer mistakes; they perform, however, less in the way of positive perception; they discover less, with weaker flair.”[i]

     * At the command center of the modern art world, London, there is a triumvirate of self-serving groups working in concert. These include: politically powerful aristocrats and bureaucrats, the auction firm group, and a select number of dealers. In fact, the last of what Bernard Berenson wrote in his lifelong diary broached with melancholy the pyramidal structure of society that Great art serves.[ii]
     Working parallel yet antagonistically toward debasing this pyramidal group were the Marxist intellectuals like Superintendent of the Queen’s Pictures, Sir Anthony Blunt, and other influential docents—those who had rejected the concept of private ownership, and in specific, private ownership of art. This ultimately allowed this same triad to take control by undermining the influence of independent dealers, and collectors; not to mention the less politically influential museums. “Steiner contends that the belief that, ‘great art is not and cannot be private property,’ played a crucial part in crystallizing Blunt’s, ‘contemptuous loathing for capitalism.’”[iii] 

* With control set firmly with an elite few, one might only hope for a good underlying value-system… “Art for art’s sake is really awful rot,” declared Sotheby’s long-term chairman Peter Wilson, “he would go on to preach a little sermon on the utility of greed… Peter Wilson divided the world into those who wished to appear richer than they were, and those who knew it was smart to seem poorer, and he practiced the auction business as the exploitation of the former by the latter… It was a complex amorality which drove Peter Wilson to generate, almost single-handedly, a new sort of international business that was dominated by the English.”[iv] Ultimately it is the way in which the benefits of such domination are allocated within this milieu that needs unraveling.

* In the British antique trade, it is common knowledge that ‘blackballing’ competitors, dishonestly condemning their inventory, and conspiring at auctions to control prices has been going on for years. Long established dealers condemning the inventory of the smaller dealers in order to keep control and maintain higher prices for the established few has been the standard within the industry for a long time. In the late 19th century when trying to get a foothold in London Joel Duveen admits nearly succumbing to this same sort of bullying, “He soon found out that there was a campaign against him, waged particularly by those men to whom he had shown his finest things. They depreciated them by raising doubts about their genuineness... this stabbing in the back nearly ruined him.”[v] Ironically, by jockeying for position within the purview of the landed gentry, his son Joseph became a Lord, the most powerful dealer in the world, and by far the biggest bully.

* Morris Eaves summed things up by referring to Western art history as a myth. With feudalism and the aristocracy in his crosshairs he acknowledged the interdependent of the art trade: “the loosely organized network of clubs, societies, and schools through which the English art trade had been conducted.”[vi] Within this framework, James Barry feared a conspiracy, whereby; “the agents of profit must thwart the agents of knowledge.”[vii]

     * The architect of the Cubist movement Daniel-Heinrich Kahnweiler knew all too well how important it was to carefully ration works onto the market. After WWI the French government wanted to auction off en-mass the modern paintings that had been confiscated from aliens (and vaguely defined aliens) such as Kahnweiler. Kahnweiler told authorities: “What you are doing is idiotic. These auctions will lower the prices of valuable paintings. The first one will fetch one thousand francs, the second five hundred, and so on.”[viii]

     * Looking back over the years it is evident that some qualified critics were already trying to alert the public. Kahnweiler in the 1950s confidently implicated himself with the “Picasso Business” and its four main individuals: Picasso, Braque, Gris, and Léger, “he was, as he used to say, chief executive of ‘The Picasso Business’…Kahnweiler handled everything, making sure Picasso was rationed in just the right amounts.”[ix] He also fought to keep the number of artists within the group as limited and controllable as possible; using as his rational the argument that artists outside his own stable were insignificant. This included the most gifted: Dali, Metzinger, de Chirico, Matisse, and Derain. Collaborating dealers would be adamantly advised to “exhibit only works of the highest quality to the detriment of quantity.”[x] And again, Kahnweiler would narrowly define the handful of artists he considered quality.

* It does not take much imagination to make a connection here with the now historic Peau d’Ours sale of 1914, when the important Picasso, Les Bateleurs (Family of Acrobats) and other cubist works were put up for auction. This was the first real test for cubist painting in general. The question was could they stand against the vagaries of the auction process and maintain credibility? This made Kahnweiler especially nervous because his whole stable of artists depended on positive results from this highly publicized sale. Others that had a vested interest, in particular, were the Russian collectors of cubist paintings, Shchukin and Morozov. They had bought several paintings through Kahnweiler’s exclusive dealership. Ten days earlier Kahnweiler, “had written Shchukin and Morozov, offering to send them the auction catalogue and to bid for them without charging any commission.”[xi] Ultimately another German dealer[1] bid the highest price and won the top prize, Les Bateleurs; so whatever the finer details of the process really were, things worked out just fine. Picasso, Kahnweiler’s most prominent cubist made a record price of 11,500 francs. 

* According to one newspaper report: in the mid 1920’s “sensational and also suspect bids,” under the aegis of commissaires-priseurs, Alphonse Bellier, established several previously little known artists in this way. The winners here of course were the artists themselves, and the dealers that had presumably stockpiled their works: 

“Bellier continued as a dominant force in the art market throughout the Twenties and Thirties. In fact, the auction in Paris in the Twenties resembled those in New York some sixty years later… The rather feverous excitement generated in the auction sales became particularly associated, from 1925 onwards, with sales of modern art, where spectacular leaps in price were common…From the time that the auctions of modern art began to succeed in 1925-26 they were considered as the key to the state of the art market and the gauge of the boom in modern painting. As prices steadily rose, observers became increasingly suspicious of the way in which the bids occurred. There was a tradition attached to the Hotel Drouot concerning the sales of antiques, which portrayed a mysterious gang of dealers rigging all the auctions (the bande noire). Now the notion was adapted to interpret sales of modern art—the dealers were accused of buying at inflated prices, paintings by artists whose work they had in stock.”[xii]

Had the world of fine art—that around which cultural identity is formed, become little more than a ‘cash cow’ for the influential. Two top European dealers, “Kahnweiler, and Rosenberg had trained in commerce, in commodities in London, Antwerp, and Paris.”[xiii] In Lyon, July 1915, Tony Tollett delivered a lecture at the Academy of Sciences, and Literature and Arts dealing with the corporate influence of a few dealers in French art. He said that, “these dealers quickly prospered by cultivating wealthy collectors, by buying all the works of an artist in order to speculate with full control over the stock, and by falsely inflating the prices. He blamed them for having influenced and bribed critics and having started art magazines in order to better control the market.”[xiv]

The modern business model and the sorts of exploitation that can accompany such practice were clearly being applied to the world of art and apparently with great pecuniary reward. With Kahnweiler, in his biography by Pierre Assouline one is first led to assume that his financial venture into collecting art as a young man was altruistic and mainly driven by an innocent passion for his subject. It might be interesting to rationalize this in light of his introduction to the world of finance under the aegis of his maternal uncles, who had “specialized in the buying and selling of precious metals for over a century, and enjoyed a considerable fortune… They could best be described as bankers, speculators entrepreneurs, or brokers…and they controlled gold and diamond mines in South Africa.”[xv] After being sponsored by those same family members Kahnweiler opened a gallery in Paris. The way in which he was to apply his ancestral wit in controlling the earliest bits of his own art-world empire—Braque, Derain, Vlaminck, and van Dongen—was described by Assouline as such: “When he decided to buy he bought everything... Exclusivity was the basis of his actions and the only rule he would never forsake:”[xvi]

* An even more worrisome unnatural pressure on art prices happened within the last couple of decades. There was an enormous price-spike for Impressionist and modern paintings caused, this time, by unintended consequences. It is mentioned here in order to show how: no matter what side of the economics equation price pressures come from, there are always gate-keepers to guide things in an orderly direction. This major price-spike was driven by unmanageable demand as opposed to intentional limitations on supply. Thousands of very expensive impressionist and modern paintings made their way to Japan as a way to offer bribes during real estate dealings. Obviously the pressure of this abrupt increase in demand impacted prices internationally, they “not only rose sharply, they rose madly as well.”[xvii] But this artificial price increase was not the worst of it. Works were sold, then immediately bought back for many times their value in order to secretly bribe people or at least surreptitiously transfer funds during land deals.

With the stock market downturn in 1987 and subsequent real estate market collapse in Japan these over-valued paintings were redirected into the hands of creditors who wanted rid of them. “When Michael Ainslie later analyzed the top twenty Japanese buyers at Sotheby’s in the years 1984-92, he discovered…that seventeen of them were either bankrupt, in jail, or under serious investigation.” [xviii] The British auction firms, in all shrewdness have made it clear that if these paintings were dumped over a short period of time the art market would collapse. These paintings still sit in waiting. Surely the appropriate gatekeepers will ensure an orderly reintegration for some of those forsaken masterpieces (notwithstanding rumours that are already circulating over the authenticity of many of those works)!  

* Then there was Maurice Rheims’ encounter with Peter Wilson of Sotheby’s, involving the sale of King Farouk’s collection in 1954. Rheims, a top Paris commissaires-priseurs at the time, said that Wilson was “no neutered pet but a formidable tom… [He] threw a blockade round Paris and made London the turntable of the art market.”[xix] One effective part of the process was to open a Monte-Carlo office in the 1970s. The international positioning of the firm was further enhanced with the acquisition of Parke Bernet, New York in 1964, and from that point onward offices were opened worldwide.

* Most recently there has even been a challenge to the Wildensteins' primacy in the world of Impressionist painting. This had to do with a Manet. In 1997 Sotheby’s refused to sell this fully authenticated painting which had been catalogued by Daniel Wildenstein. Could this be the frontline in the battle over control of the impressionist market? In the same article about the Wildensteins, Suzanna Andrews joins the chorus about the “growing dominance of the auction houses over the market.”[xx]

According to the report by George Rush, the disputed Manet, La Liseuse was from the estate of Mildred Allen, widow of Charles Allen Jr., who was head of the New York investment firm of Allen and Co. The Wildensteins had sold it to Allen in 1957. In a rare interview with this secretive family of art dealers, the richest in the world (conservatively estimated to be worth more than 5 billion dollars), Rush quotes the frustrated Alec Wildenstein: “We happen to make the book on Manet. I think we know a bit more about Manet than either Sotheby’s or Christie’s.”[xxi]  (In fact they produced: Rouart, Denis and Daniel Wildenstein, Edouard Manet, Catalogue Raisonné. Lausanne & Paris: La Bibliotheque de Arts, [1975] in 2 volumes.)

* An interesting parallel can be drawn from the intentions of the late Durand-Ruel, at one time the most visible Paris art-dealer. He too was either, innocent, or indifferent to the implications of his actions when in the 1870’s “throughout his memoirs, [he] stressed that a dealer must always do what he could to protect the prices of his artists. Wherever possible he sought to obtain a monopoly of an artist’s oeuvre, buying up works from other dealers or collectors, and even ‘bidding up’ pictures at auction to prevent prices from falling.”[xxii] But how does this relate to more recent times; could this have been the first situation where market control of an artist’s oeuvre was first orchestrated and the seed from which the modern art industry grew?[2] 

* What might a Rembrandt be worth once you factor-out the predictability of those who pull the strings? Historically, culturally, and aesthetically—priceless, but monetarily his work would certainly be worth much less than today. When Thomas Hoving asked Colin Simpson, the author of Artful Partners, “Do scholars still give misattributions the way Bernard Berenson did,” he confidently replied that, “Scientific technology has lessened the temptation.”[xxiii] 

* Beyond the networking ruse, there is a frightening new development that may threaten, even worse, the long-term health of the art-world. What are the consequences and risks of the new age of auction house domination; narrow focus on glamour artists (those that are recognizable as household names); bribing of nouveaux-riche into the bidding arena with near-limitless credit, and high-powered marketing? Not only are prices being driven up astronomically for a select group of artists, but also the appreciation of art on an equitable level is being forgotten. Clearly, many great artists are being neglected in order to fuel the narrowing market. Peter Watson espoused that, “as price levels have soared, the variety of painters and of schools achieving top prices has shrunk.”[xxiv]

  Most new collectors within this fray are largely unfamiliar with art, other than the glamour artists. They make vanity purchases to please friends within a milieu that reeks of stock-market speculation. A crash in prices for those auction room darlings seems inevitable. And to add more fuel to the fire, suspicions over in-house bidding by some auction firms, and Sotheby’s credit policy that encourages unabashed participation in feverish bidding battles—caveat emptor—buyer beware! Even Jo Floyd in his financial report for Christie’s publicly recognized that such financial services “provide an undue influence on demand and create an artificial level for works of art,”[xxv] When the sale of van Gogh’s Irises made a record price of $49 million in 1987: of every two dollars bid, “one was provided by Sotheby’s. Credit provided by the auction house clearly inflated the market—not to mention the $4.9 million buyer’s premium which was Sotheby’s cut on the deal.”[xxvi]

There must be a more vital concern here than a fiduciary one. This is of course the artificial direction of art scholarship caused by such marketing ballyhoo. And Martin Butlin’s declaration that everyone is “in each other’s pocket” should ring alarms about the potentially sinister results of such insider control. The 1990 bold comment by Christie’s George Walker, over credit-checks on clients should confirm the idea about the meshing of interests by key players, “When we do get a negative reference,” he admitted, “we usually alert Sotheby’s as well, and they do the same for us, for obvious reasons.”[xxvii] This sort of cooperation is far from what might be expected of ardent competitors in a fair market economy. With 90% of the entire auction business going through the twin-firms: including all of the important paintings, it appears that the art-world has a dilemma. The sometimes rocky but oft times yielding love affair between the twin firms reached its apex when over a fifteen-year period mid-century, they proposed to merge more than once.

* As for the private picture dealers, more often than other dealers by far, the aristocratically connected Agnew’s has been involved in the sale or purchase of JMW Turner’s work, and most often through Christie’s if an auction room is involved. Early on, their founder, William, “fashioned links with the great aristocratic collections of England [and] indeed, the firm claims that over the years it has been Christie’s biggest customer.”[xxviii] There were early sales where they in fact contributed more than 60% of the proceeds of an entire Christie’s sale.

This may underscore an interesting connection with Evelyn Joll, who was at the same time: the chairman of Agnew’s, Chairman of the Turner Society, and co-author of the definitive catalogue raisonné on the artist work.

     * In a CBC interview with Evan Solomon, Lewis H. Lapham, the writer and editor of the eminent Harper’s magazine theorized the existence in all societies of a hereditary ‘control group’, but questions this group’s self-awareness or commitment to the common good, ‘there is always going to be some kind of ruling class, or governing class, or possessing class, elite, what ever word you want to use; it is a question of what kind of elite, how self-aware, how engaged in the common good.’[xxix]

The self-interests implicit in Lapham’s statement are exemplified by the relation Duveen had to this ruling class. John Walker, former director of the National Gallery in Washington quotes what B.B. (Bernard Berenson) had divulged to him:

  “I once gained from B. B. an insight into the source of Duveen’s influence… [B. B. had] placed a low but fair value on the picture [altarpiece by Cima da Conegliano]. To his amazement his valuation was discarded and a much higher sum paid. The owner of the painting was the Viscount d’Abernon, a life-trustee of the National Gallery in London, a former ambassador, and in the eyes of the British government a prestigious personality. At that time Duveen was plain “Sir Joseph.” A peerage was highly desirable.[xxx] 

Under such circumstances one might ask: “Is there any commitment to the principal of noblesse oblige?” On Plato, F.M. Cornford wrote: “The ruler, from the Homeric king onwards, had been called the shepherd of the people [but] that these shepherds have commonly been less concerned with the good of their flock than with shearing and butchering them for their own profit and aggrandizement.” [xxxi]

     * On a more intimate level, the respected altruist Bernard Berenson in old age gave an honest review of a man of many talents who was perhaps the most cultivated and influential docent of the twentieth century—himself: “So I cannot rid myself of the harassing feeling that I am at best, but a refined and affectionate cannibal… But I must define what I mean by cannibalism. I mean the use of anything alive, especially of our own species, and particularly any member of our own cultural group, solely for our own personal advantage, with no regard for their private interest and the common good of us all.”[xxxii] This brutal self-portrayal not only illumines the dark side of human nature, it exposes the underpinnings of the art-world. As things exist today, the amateur art collector will surely be confounded by introspective blockades erected within this milieu by the ‘established order’, those that invariably possess a bit of the cannibal instinct.


    * We have seen how the art-world is plagued by innumerable shortcomings ranging from decisions over authenticity based on bureaucratic petty jealousies, to the more clandestine reaches of pure corruption. Let those that want to enjoy artworks on any other level than the ethereal—beware. Those motivated by financial gain can be sure that art will never be a safe investment amidst the foil of so many disparate and counterproductive causes. And as for those unassailable gatekeepers, the ones that have conquered their high post as judge, jury and condemner, there were some plain words spoken by the sage John Henry Merryman that need reconciling:


“Diligence” is a homely, old-fashioned virtue. The word evokes the Scout laws that some of us may recall from our days of innocence: a Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent – and, we could easily add diligent, which fits right in… To be diligent is to be active, assiduous, sedulous, which are good. To fail to be diligent is to be lazy, careless or indifferent, which are bad. We appear to be in a universe of clarity here, where there is little room for ambiguity.” [xxxiii]


crisis of fakes 


                                                                    Art World’s Dirty Little Secret
r malcolm setters / graham setters


[1] At the time of the sale there were wild and harried suspicions voiced in the press about a conspiracy by German dealers to subvert the French art market completely.

[2] When Durand-Ruel died in 1922 he had 800 Renoirs and 600 Degas in his inventory (Manet to Manhattan p.211).


[i] Max J. Friedlander, On Art and Connoisseurship, (Bruno Cassirer, Publishers Ltd., London, 1942, translated from the authors manuscript by Tancred Borenius), 168.

[ii] Hanna Kiel, The Bernard Berenson Treasury, (Methuen & Co. Ltd., London, 1964), 395

[iii] John Costello, Mask of Treachery, (William Collins Sons and Co. Ltd., 1988), 244.

[iv] Robert Lacey, Sotheby’s—Bidding for Class, (Little, Brown & Company (Canada), 1989), 144,149, and 151.

[v] James Henry Duveen, The Rise of The House of Duveen, (Alfred A. Knoff, New York, 1957), 73-4.

[vi] Morris Eaves, The Counter-Arts Conspiracy: Art and Industry in the Age of Blake, (Cornell University Press (Getty Grant Program assistance), Ithaca and London, 1992), 25.

[vii] Ibid, 31.

[viii] Pierre Assouline, An Artful Life, A Biograhy of D.H. Kahnweiler, 1884-1979, (Grove Weidenfeld, New York, translation Charles Ruas 1990), 155.

[ix] Peter Watson, From Manet To Manhattan, (New York: Random House, Inc., 1992), 302.

[x] Pierre Assouline, An Artful Life, A Biograhy of D.H. Kahnweiler, 1884-1979, (Grove Weidenfeld, New York, translation Charles Ruas 1990), 247.

[xi] Pierre Assouline, An Artful Life, A Biograhy of D.H. Kahnweiler, 1884-1979, (Grove Weidenfeld, New York, translation Charles Ruas 1990), 111.

[xii] Peter Watson, From Manet To Manhattan, (New York: Random House, Inc., 1992), 209-10.

[xiii] Peter Watson, From Manet To Manhattan, (New York: Random House, Inc., 1992), 208.

[xiv] Pierre Assouline, An Artful Life, A Biograhy of D.H. Kahnweiler, 1884-1979, (Grove Weidenfeld, New York, translation Charles Ruas 1990), 128.

[xv] Pierre Assouline, An Artful Life, A Biograhy of D.H. Kahnweiler, 1884-1979, (Grove Weidenfeld, New York, translation Charles Ruas 1990), 4.

[xvi] Ibid, 32-3.

[xvii] Robert Lacey, Sotheby’s—Bidding for Class, (Little, Brown & Company (Canada), 1989), 256.

[xviii] Robert Lacey, Sotheby’s—Bidding for Class, (Little, Brown & Company (Canada), 1989), 256.

[xix] Frank Herrmann, Art at Auction, (editor Joan A. Speers, Sotheby Parke Bernet Publications Ltd., 1980), 12.

[xx] Suzanna Andrews, Bitter Spoils, (Vanity Fair magazine March 1998), p 255.

[xxi] Ibid. 251.

[xxii] Peter Watson, From Manet To Manhattan, (New York: Random House, Inc., 1992), 83.

[xxiii] Thomas Hoving, The Berenson Scandals: An interview with Colin Simpson, (Connoisseur; The Hearst Corporation, Oct 1986), 137.

[xxiv] Ibid. 475.

[xxv] Peter Watson, From Manet To Manhattan, (New York: Random House, Inc., 1992), 385.

[xxvi] Robert Lacey, Sotheby’s—Bidding for Class, (Little, Brown & Company (Canada), 1989), 259.

[xxvii] Peter Watson, From Manet To Manhattan, (New York: Random House, Inc., 1992), 19.

[xxviii] Peter Watson, From Manet To Manhattan, (New York: Random House, Inc., 1992), 72.

[xxix] Evan Solomon, Hot Type, (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, CBC Apr 15 2001)

[xxx] John Walker, Self-Portrait with Donors, (Little, Brown and Company (Canada) Limited, 1974), 295 and 297.

[xxxi] Francis MacDonald Cornford, The Republic of Plato, “Oxford University Press, London, 1951), footnote, 23.

[xxxii] Bernard Berenson, Sketch for a Self Portrait, (A Midland Book, Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1958), 29-30.

[xxxiii] John Henry Merryman is Sweitzer Professor of Law and Cooperating Professor of Art, Emeritus, Stanford University and Member, IFAR Advisory Council. (IFAR conference 2000.)


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