Month: May 2013

On Authenticating a Potential Degas Drawing

One of the most interesting parts of this business is the detective work required to investigate and authenticate a potentially high value work of art. Recently a client came in with this pastel drawing on paper of a ballerina signed Degas. It had been purchased at a small auction house in New York City in the early 1960s. To look at, it appeared more or less “right,” trade parlance for authentic and/or original. There was a small area on the back of the drawing where some notation had been erased or removed which raised a small red flag, but it still looked good enough to pursue. Our client was interested in having us handle its sale if an original so we set to work to see if it was the real thing.

A Drawing Signed Degas
The potential Degas drawing

It is customary for important artists of significant historic interest to be researched and studied by art historians and students of art history. A part of that academic work is the compilation of a catalogue raisonné, a documentation in book form of every work of art known to have been created by an artist. Sometimes, if an artist has been particularly prolific in several mediums, there will be separate catalogues for each medium.

In this case we first went to the catalogue raisonné of works on paper and drawing of Edgar Degas at the Skidmore College Lucy ScribnerLibrary. A thorough search revealed no work that resembled ours—not good, but not necessarily bad. It would be easiest if the work was documented and/or had some known history, but works of art turn up on the marketplace regularly that are authentic and undocumented. In those cases, established authorities on the artist are contacted for an opinion and, if favorable, charge a fee for a letter of expertization attesting to the expert’s opinion that the work of art is an original work by the artist.

Paul Tucker
Paul Tucker

We contacted our good friend Paul Tucker, formerly of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, noted authority on Claude Monet, for his thoughts about the piece, as well as a referral to a Degas expert or experts. He replied that although the figure was remarkably awkward and ugly—pointing out the poorly rendered right arm—this might work in its favor because “who would imitate Degas with such an unattractive model so crudely drawn?” (poor girl!). He referred us to two Degas authorities to pursue our inquiries with.

We attempted to contact both experts by telephone unsuccessfully. I find it usually more productive to speak with someone first and make a connection before sending unsolicited material. Neither was available and we took a chance and emailed both with images. We received a response from Richard Kendall at the Clark Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts. Unfortunately, he let us know that in his opinion the work was not by Edgar Degas. If needed, he would supply a detailed analysis of why he believed that to be the case. This was not the news I was looking forward to relay to our client.

Close-up of the Drawing and Signature

I must say Mr Kendall was refreshingly professional and prompt in all of his communications, an uncommon trait in the art and auction world where specialists are often deluged with well-meant inquiries from hopeful people with items that are worth very little and/or have no commercial interest. The Clark Institute is a gem of a museum in the Berkshires, housing a world class collection of art in a beautiful white marble neo-classical structure. A perfect and satisfying day trip from Saratoga or the capital region.

The end result for our client was not what was hoped for. If authentic, an original pastel drawing of this size could sell for well over $100,000. In this case the value of the drawing as an interesting decorative picture might be a few hundred dollars. Could there still be a chance that the picture might have been done by Degas? A very small one, and here is where the art marketplace can get controversial. All it takes is an “expert” to say that in their opinion a work is authentic. The marketplace may then treat that object as such until such time as another “expert” decides that that is not the case. There are numerous examples of works of art over the years that have been determined to be authentic and were discovered at a later time not to be. This is why a known history of a work is so important, either from inclusion in a catalogue raisonné and/or a detailed history of ownership or descent through a family. This takes the guesswork and conjecture out of the picture and gives buyers the full confidence they need to pay an appropriate sum for an important work of art.

Battleship Nagato Japanese Naval Ensign Flag

Military memorabilia and collectibles continues to be an area of great interest to collectors. Original wartime items such as weapons, medals, field gear, flags, uniforms, etc., can be very desirable. We recently sold an original World War II Imperial Japanese flag from the battleship Nagato for a client for $1,800.

Imperial Japanese Battleship Nagato Naval Ensign Flag - World War II Military Memorabilia

The Nagato was the flagship of the Imperial Japanese fleet during World War II, and was the lead ship of her class with unmatched speed and armor capabilities. The Nagato was infamous for serving as Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s flagship during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Participating in a number of naval actions throughout the war, the Nagato was attached and seriously damaged in a U.S. bombing raid but survived until 1945 to serve as the last official site of surrender for the Imperial Japanese Navy. By this time, the Nagato was one of the only major Japanese naval ships still afloat.

Upon surrendering, the Nagato was boarded and secured by American sailors from the USS Horace A. Bass and all Imperial flags on board were confiscated by the crew. This particular flag was obtained by a sailor, William F. Wilson of upstate New York, who passed it down to his descendants.

The Nagato was too well-known of a ship to survive the end of World War II. For fear of it coming to represent a rallying point or a shrine for the Japanese, the United States Navy elected to tow the heavily damaged and limping Nagato to Bikini Atoll and sink it during a series of nuclear weapons testing known as Operation Crossroads.

Imperial Japanese Battle Ship Nagato - World War II Military Memorabilia

Our client’s flag was a very nice example of an Imperial Japanese naval ensign and war flag with the traditional off-set Rising Sun design. The flag came to us in great condition with the original rigging lines, and measured an impressive 134 inches by 69 inches.

Militaria is an interesting area of collecting with a wide range of eras and items to explore. Military items from around the world are often brought back when soldiers return home. We’re always excited to see wartime memorabilia, particularly when accompanied by family histories or records. If you have a piece of militaria, read more about selling to us, or contact us to set up an appointment.