Who Has the Last Word?: Connoisseurship in Academia and the Art Market

How can scholars go about the difficult task of deciding on a historical context for works about which we have no evidence beyond the work itself? In constraining situations such as this, scholars can turn to the practice of connoisseurship. The purpose of connoisseurship is to determine the authorship, date, place or origin of an art object. This determination is predicated on the close examination of style, carving or painting techniques, and material and the comparison of an object to securely identified works (Schwartz, 205). In terms of traditional painting, the goal of connoisseurship is to attribute a work to a specific artist or school. For objects from antiquity, the goal is to ascribe works to a specific period and/or location. Until the 1960s, this practice of connoisseurship was unquestioned as an expert technique for determining the value and authenticity of an object.

Connoisseurship has a rich history. Notions of connoisseurship have been articulated since the eighteenth century, but in the nineteenth century connoisseurship was solidified as a scientific discipline. The nineteenth century Italian art critic and theorist Giovanni Morelli (1816-1891) concentrated his approach on an empirical technique rather than written evidence. The prominent twentieth century connoisseur Bernard Berenson (1865-1959) continued this Morellian tradition in arguing that the practical contribution of connoisseurship was to authenticate and attribute works of art.

According to the German art historian Max Friedländer (1867-1958), the ‘genuine’ connoisseur needed no more than a single glance at a work to determine its authenticity and authorship. A connoisseur traditionally had longstanding first-hand familiarity with a specific period of art and a ‘good eye’ that gave them the supposed ability to attribute works based on intuition. Despite this confidence, out of all of the attributions handed down by Friedländer, only some fifty percent have stood the test of time (Van de Wetering, 90).

Public confidence in connoisseurship was dealt a blow in 1961 by art historian Meyer Schapiro’s scathing article, “Mr. Berenson’s Values.” The article exposed Bernard Berenson, a well-respected connoisseur of his day, as having a secret financial stake in his attributions. In conjunction with damaging commentary such as Schapiro’s article, the introduction of scientific techniques also decreased the art historical reliance on connoisseurship as the sole method for attribution and authentication (for more information on science and Late Antique reliefs, see “Chemistry” by Jamie Dal Lago).

The general critique of connoisseurship was twofold. First, scholars argued that the entire practice of connoisseurship was corrupted by its inextricable relationship with the market. Second, some scholars, such as T.J. Clark and George Schwartz, believed the question of authorship was not of chief concern when compared to the new directions and questions art historians should be exploring such as the ‘new art history.’ These two critiques triggered a wave of critical scholarship concerning connoisseurship.

T.J. Clark’s 1974 article, “The Conditions of Artistic Creation” that appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, marked a significant break in the development of connoisseurship. Today, many scholars view Clark’s proposition as representative of the beginning of the ‘new art history’ (Fernie, 247). To explain this shift, Clark divided the twentieth century into three periods. He contrasted a ‘golden age’ in the early part of the century with a more conservative period mid-century, and concluded with his thoughts on the future. During the ‘golden age,’ Clark lauded philosophers such as Erwin Panofsky (1892-1968) for examining notions of production and reception in art within a historical framework. Conversely, in the post-war period scholars concentrated on purely formal analysis, wrenching works of art from their historic contexts. Clark exhorted art historians to cease spending time attributing objects and return to a Panofskian focus on investigating the conditions and relations of artistic production in order to reveal the relationship between art and ideology.

The controversial debate over the Rembrandt Research Project (hereafter RRP) acted as a crucial catalyst in the discussion. The RRP is a group of connoisseurs and experts that formed in 1968 and still operate today with the goal of establishing Rembrandt van Rijn’s oeuvre. The project originally classified prospective works into the categories “A,” authentic Rembrandt works, “B,” unsure, and “C,” not by Rembrandt. These narrow parameters were overly optimistic as this system occasionally led to the de-attribution of paintings that were subsequently decisively shown to be authentic. Early on in the project, the RRP hoped that “B” would be their smallest category, whereas now, with some critical distance, they have come to realize that it should be their largest. The ensuing controversy between scholars associated with the RRP and collectors of Rembrandt resulted in the eschewal of connoisseurship by the majority of the scholarly community because of its flawed subjectivity. This debate over the ‘antiquated’ practice of connoisseurship versus the ‘new art history’ became increasingly prevalent in the late 1980s and 1990s when scholars such as David Ebitz and Gary Schwartz contributed to the discussion.

Recently, a small group of academics have begun to call for the reconsideration of connoisseurship. They argue that connoisseurship’s disrepute is too extreme and are lobbying for a middle ground. Art historian Richard Neer epitomizes this new trend of academics who argue connoisseurship is still essential. Neer argues that the ‘connoisseurship of style’ is fundamental to art and archaeology because, “everything that counts as evidence for human activity in the distant past- derives from some form of connoisseurship in that it is connoisseurs who identify the evidence as such” (Neer, 5). While this perspective is a minority in the academic community, perhaps the neglect of the theoretical interest in connoisseurship will be replaced by a renewed interest in the subject, ultimately revising and improving the practice for future generations. After all, in terms of our Late Antique Egyptian reliefs, without connoisseurship we are left with little to say. (For further reading on connoisseurship in relation to our reliefs, see “Connoisseurship and Our Reliefs,” by Sana Neumann).

In the early twenty-first century, the realization surfaced that the black-and-white perception of the art market as corrupt and academia as pure was misconstrued. Connoisseurship has direct monetary implications in both fields. An expert who provides opinion or authenticates a work of art contributes to the value of the object. In fact, even the research done at Colgate in respect to the Mayer bequest of Late Antique Egyptian reliefs increases the monetary value of these objects. Before our seminar, they were not valued (or cared for) as art objects.

Connoisseurship is both a contentious subject and useful tool in academia and the art market. This is evident by comparing three similar case studies in the art market involving connoisseurship that resulted in three different outcomes. The first case involves a George Braque still life pastel, the second concerns an Alexander Calder mobile sculpture entitled Rio Nero, and the third involves the contested appraisal of an Andrea del Sarto painting (see Brainerd, 79-96). In each case, a different type of expert had the last word. In the case of the Braque pastel, the court ruled in favor of the opinion of Claude Lorens that the work was a forgery. Lorens is the living descendent of George Braque and thus the proprietor of Droit Moral (“Moral Right”), the French legal term that gives the living descendants of artists the right to authenticate their work. In the Alexander Calder case, the Calder expert and scholar Klaus Perls influenced the final decision that the work was counterfeit. In the last case concerning the Andrea del Sarto, the opinion of the auction house specialist trumped the opinion of the leading scholar and author of Andrea del Sarto’s catalogue raisonné, John Shearman. Ignoring Shearman’s doubts about the authenticity of the painting, the auction house valued the work at over one million dollars. The fact that three similar cases resulted in three different verdicts raises the question: how do we decide who has the last word? The subjective nature of connoisseurship makes each situation unique and thus makes a single answer untenable.

Too many questions concerning historical context remain at this point in the research concerning the Mayer bequest of Late Antique Egyptian reliefs to Colgate’s Picker Art Gallery to make any definitive attributions. Therefore, it is important to recognize the immense value of connoisseurship to this project, while also acknowledging its limitations. Connoisseurship can provide tentative hypotheses, but cannot provide definitive answers. Thus, connoisseurship offers a viable temporary solution until more historical information on these Late Antique Egyptian reliefs surfaces.


Kathryn Widing, Class of 2012. Concentration in Art & Art History.