I get asked all the time to authenticate antique artwork over the internet. In fact, I get paid to do it as part of my consulting work. I always qualify my statements to show that I must assume certain aspects of a piece I have been asked to authenticate. The simple truth of the matter is that regardless of how good a photograph one is looking at, no one can absolutely tell you whether a piece of art is antique or fake without holding it in their hands, taking it out of the frame, and looking at it under a loupe. To absolutely authenticate a piece as antique, one must have scientific testing done on a sample of the paper, canvas, wood stretcher, paint, etc. Those who tell you otherwise are blowing smoke and showing their ignorance. It’s not that some of these people do not mean to be helpful. But “helpfulness” does not always equal “help”. It would be great if one could say, this silhouette/portrait miniature is absolutely correct by just looking at a photograph. But, even museum collections have fakes that have been misidentified as “real” antiques. It is only since the advent of scientific testing that these fakes have been identified.
Similarly, no one can determine that all pieces with a certain die-stamp signature are not antique without hard evidence to support such an all-emcompassing belief. And “evidence” does not include statements telling you how many years one has spent looking for a certain listed artist but never finding one, so all pieces purported to be by that artist are fake. One must compare known pieces with a piece being evaulated to make an assessment. If an antique silhouette is stamped with a certain artist’s die stamp, and that silhouette cannot be attributed to another known artist, how can one say the stamped silhouette is not by that artist.
We should also not take “attributions” at face value unless the attributor can give you reasons he/she made the attributions. What other work was compared for the attribution? What characteristics are found in the work that point to a certain artist? What publications were considered? How recently were those articles or books published and has there been later published findings that refute earlier attributions? Scholarship is always evolving. One must consider the most recent scholarship for attributions and that scholarship must be based on known evidence. With silhouettes we often look at known bust termination lines for attributions. For example, for many years, almost all folk silhouettes depicting a man with a hollow cut head and shoulders but uncut collar, coat lapel and shirt front where attributed to William Chamberlain. Apparently, the reason for these attributions was that Chamberlain was identified in early books by a silhouette that fit that rather general description. But Chamberlain never signed his work and the only silhouettes that we absolutely know were done by him are found in his duplicate book, donated to American Antiquarian Society by his granddaughter. I have examined the silhouettes in that duplicate book and they all have the same bust termination line. While Chamberlain may have used other bust termination lines, we have no evidence that he did. Therefore, we cannot attribute silhouettes with any other bust termination line to Chamberlain. Plain and simple….no evidence, no legitimate attributions.
Remember that authentication and attributions are opinion and may be wrong no matter who makes them. (Yes, I admit that my opinions and attributions may also be wrong.) But expect and demand evidence before you accept opinions and attributions. Don’t let blind statements sway your collecting. Check out multiple sources before you believe unsubstantiated opinions.