Evolution of an Art Detective
In 1999, I was not yet an art detective. I was in the midst of earning advanced degrees in art history and history. But, my search for George Caleb Bingham portraits brought me to the attention of a board member of an historic house. The organization owned a Bingham portrait of a woman that had been donated to them 15 years before. The board members and volunteers, almost exclusively women, displayed their most valuable artifact by a famed and beloved artist in the main hall across from the grand staircase and featured it in their home tours. Shortly before my involvement, several art connoisseurs on visits to the home, all of them men, stated, without explanation, in a manner that the board and volunteers perceived as condescending and paternalistic, that their portrait was not a Bingham painting. They dismissed the pronouncement, but seeds of doubt grew within the group. The board member asked if I could help resolve the concerns.
From the beginning, I knew George Caleb Bingham was not the artist. Nothing about the piece resembled Bingham — size, color, pose, brushwork. And there was something else that was absolutely wrong that I couldn’t put my finger on it. Finally, I figured it out. The woman’s clothing was different from any other Bingham portrait. She wore a slim skirt, a bustle, a laveuse (complicated hip drapery based on a washerwoman’s apron), and small straw bonnet. All these styles were fashionable in the 1880s: Bingham died in 1879.
How had such a mistake been made? From local historians, I learned the anonymous donor from 1985 was one of the region’s wealthiest people. From a newspaper article, I learned the authenticator was a socially prominent painter and gallery owner. He embellished the authentication with a story I had never come across in years of studying Bingham. He said Bingham waited to paint the ears of his portrait subjects until he was paid. Guides repeated the anecdote during tours of the historic home.
According to a former model and friend, who knew the art dealer well, he played the role of the artist to perfection. He was a man of sophisticated tastes. He wore a cravat. He was an extraordinary dinner guest. He had a fine sense of humor, yet time and again, he told tales of his life in eastern Europe. He was a freedom fighter who had spent time in the Gulag. From scavenged horsehair, he made brushes and painted portraits of the guards. In exchange for the portraits, the guards were to give him food or light duty. He learned not to finish a painting until the guard upheld his part of the bargain. For the rest of his life, he painted the ears in last. After his release from the forced labor camps, he escaped to the United States. He spent extravagantly, and often, he was out of money.
Still more research revealed that in the early 1980s, federal prosecutors accused the anonymous donor of altering scales to sell customers less than what they paid for, and for underpaying employees. The individual avoided jail-time, but owed a huge bill for tax fraud. Among the individual’s acquaintances was the artist turned art dealer.
The dealer appraised the portrait at $48,000. In 1985, the highest price a Bingham portrait had ever achieved at auction was $16,500. Even following the rule of thumb of doubling the auction price for a private sale, the donation was over-valued. Can you imagine how the artist / art dealer and the shady business owner connived to create a charitable deduction to reduce the donor’s tax bill?
I could not conceive of such thing. Neither could the board members of the historic house. Despite my 100-page illustrated report detailing all the reasons why the portrait was not the work of George Caleb Bingham, only the pictures of other dresses and hats made after Bingham’s death convinced some of the board members. Others still could not believe that the prestigious and valuable donation had all been based on a lie.
The truth was heart-breaking for these dedicated women. I also wondered how George Caleb Bingham would feel if he knew of the gross misrepresentation of his work. Was he turning in his grave? I learned that such lies and unethical actions are not uncommon in the art world. I learned the ethical standards in place to prevent them. I also learned that the guidelines are constantly broken. The average person does not know how to avoid art fraud or to notice the conflict of interest of art dealers selling the same pieces they authenticate. Egregious examples of mis-attribution continue. For reasons not fully understood, I feel a commitment to right this wrong. Am I quixotically tilting at windmills? Or am I restoring the integrity of George Caleb Bingham’s legacy one portrait at a time?
My experience in re-attributing or authenticating Bingham portraits evolved into a comprehensive system, which, in turn, evolved into attributing the work of other 19th century American portrait artists. Not all corrected attributions are heart-breaking. Far more often, learning the truth resonates with the portrait owner. Through our authentication adventures together, more that 80% of my clients become life-long friends. In the large scheme of life, this work is small, but with each correct attribution, it feels as though one small piece of the universe is back in order, and that fewer artists are spinning in their graves.