T. Kinney Frelinghuysen: The clues behind the painting

Editor's Note: In light of recent discussions about artwork being sold, we've been asking ourselves, how are work of art authenticated before a sale? How does the art world know if a piece is real? What clues are there? Why is this work important? We turned to T. Kinney Frelinghuysen, nephew of artist Suzy Frelinghuysen and director of the Frelinghuysen Morris House and Studio, to answer those questions.

Several times a year, art collectors, auction houses and museums ask me to determine the authenticity of a work of art by my late aunt or uncle, Suzy Frelinghuysen and George L.K. Morris. They are interested in my opinion because in my capacity as executor of their estate and trustee of their museum, I have had years of experience seeing, handling and cataloging hundreds of examples of their work.

To authenticate the artwork in question, anyone in the art world will have already done the basic research on the piece, verifying the provenance. This process consists of establishing the record of ownership of a work of art by searching published articles, exhibit catalogs, chronologies of the artist's career, photographs and letters in order to prove the attribution. This is especially important information for auction houses, insurance claims, estate tax returns and gifts made to individuals or museums.

When authenticity of a work of art is thrown into question, perhaps from an inconsistency in the provenance, or when the work is suspected to be a forgery, forensic experts are often called in. They do scientific testing of materials in the paint itself, such as the pigments, the medium and the support ground, and even X-rays. Testing can confirm a date to within a reasonable time of the creation of the work. However, forensic proofs do not always solve the problem.

In the case of a questionable Jackson Pollack painting, even though the forensic evidence proved that the materials and dates lined up, curators at the Museum of Modern Art refused to concede that the painting was by the artist for stylistic reasons.

Recently, the Google Arts & Culture project needed my permission to reproduce a high-resolution image of a collage by my late aunt, Suzy Frelinghuysen. I had never seen the work before and had no record of it in the estate inventory. My permission to reproduce the work would certainly be an indication of my opinion that it was an authentic. The museum that bought it, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, offered only that it was from a private collection. This is a fairly common practice considering the discretion art dealers and auction houses provide for their clients.

What should I do? I considered the choice of subject matter in "Glass & Bottle," 1948, which was a still life in the classic Cubist style and was typical of her work. The materials, pieces of corrugated cardboard, oil paint and the dimensions for works from the 1940s checked out.

I recognized the way her crisp shapes diffused into background spaces. However, the colors were somewhat atypical. The harmony of colors, vibrant though softly muted, gave a dynamic tranquility to the scene. These observations convinced me the art bore the artist's inimitable touch.

Historic labels and stickers on the backs of paintings are some of the most significant evidence of solid provenance. On museum walls we never get a chance to see this information that often tells compelling stories. This season at Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio, we are exhibiting six of our Cubist masterpieces on pedestals, so visitors can observe both the front and back of the works. Two paintings by Picasso and one by Juan Gris feature stickers that read Galerie Kahnweiler. Daniel Henry Kahnweiler was the exclusive art dealer for Picasso, Braque, Gris and Leger from 1907 to 1914 in Paris. He supported them with monthly stipends in exchange for paintings to sell.

At the outbreak of World War I, Kahnweiler, a German national, was declared an enemy alien and his entire inventory was seized and later sold in the French government's "Sequestration Sales" after the war. Each painting in those sales bears a small blue stamp indicating the lot number. The Juan Gris on view from our collection shows one of these stamps. Kahnweiler managed to re-enter France after the war and establish a new gallery in his partner's name, called Galerie Simon.

In 1929, George L.K. Morris was a young man in Paris studying art with Fernand Leger and visited Kahnweiler's new gallery, Galerie Simon. Two other paintings in our exhibit bear the Galerie Simon label, so we know that Morris bought them there. This is the beauty and power of provenance. For the Frelinghuysen Morris House & Studio, the labels attest to collector George L.K. Morris' passion for the earliest iterations of modernism to influence his own artistic career. Considering the stories, the labels suggest a miraculous journey into the psyche of American Art.

If you go ...

Frelinghuysen Morris House and Studio

Where: 92 Hawthorne St., Lenox, Mass.

Hours: Open for the end of the season Thursday, Oct. 5-Sunday, Oct. 8

Tickets: $15 adults, $14 seniors, $7.50 students with valid ID, $7.50 grounds only. Children under 12 are free.

Information: 413-637-0166, frelinghuysen.org


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