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.

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9 Responses to “On Authenticating a Potential Degas Drawing”

  1. Joe Mesec

    Thank you for detailing some of the research process. As a collector, I appreciate stories of how others, especially professionals, go about authenticating items. I’ve found numerous and valuable resources over the years as a result of articles like these.

    Are these “catalogue raisonne” available to the general public? Or are they paid or professional resources? Thanks!

    • Joyce

      It depends on the catalogue raisonne in question. Sometimes the title you’re looking for might be available in your local public library, but more often you’ll need to visit a more specialized collection. College, university, and museum libraries will hold these titles and in most cases will be available by appointment (though every institution has their own rules about professional academic vs non professional academic access).

  2. Eloisa

    An impressive share! I have just forwarded this onto a colleague who had been doing a little research on this.
    And he actually bought me breakfast due to the fact that I discovered it for him…
    lol. So allow me to reword this…. Thanks for the meal!!

  3. nanette

    I have two pastels my Mother bought in Paris in 1940 of Degas Ballerina. Trying to find out if “real” or not. Can’t afford to spend a lot of money to find out. Any ideas?

  4. Lawrence M Wittig

    I found a Degas Ballerina about six or seven years ago. I kept it out of the above store of ours because I had a feeling, a sense that I should keep this one.

    I found it being displayed with about a half a dozen others in a museum in Seoul. I sent some pictures to one of my daughters who Graduated from the Ths School of The Art School of Chicago with honors awhile back.

    She sent me this article and I found it quite informative and will be of help to me as I pursue finding out just what I have.

    We both agree it is an exact match to the one in the museum don’t know if that is good or bad as yet.
    Again thank you for this article. I am sure it will help others.


  5. Wendy S

    I have a’Degas’ sketch of the bust of a jockey. Style very similar to the above with a similar signature. I was told that it could not be an original Degas because he NEVER signed his drawings or sketches. What you think?

    • Joyce

      Hi Wendy,

      It’s a little more complicated than “never”. The majority of signed Degas sketches or drawings found out there in the wild are probably reproductions or forgeries. Many of the Degas forgeries and reproductions are rough sketches that would have been unlikely to actually be signed (if you’re an artist making a rapid drawing in your sketchbook to block out an idea, it’s unlikely you would bother to sign each and every scribble). Many authentic Degas sketches and drawings, especially early rough sketches, tend to be unsigned. But, although we are not the world’s final authority on Degas drawings, I would not say that his drawings and sketches were “never” signed. There are some drawings and studies that can be found in museum collections that are signed. I’ve included a few links below:


      • Joyce

        We should also clarify that the red signature often seen on Degas drawings is not a real signature in the full sense of the word. After his death, the executors of his estate stamped imitation signatures in red ink on all the works left in his studio. It’s a signature mark found on many Degas sketches and drawings, but not a signature per se.


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