With authentication lawsuits becoming more prevalent than ever in recent years, there has been a trend of artist foundations either substantially increasing their liability insurance or entirely dissolving their authentication boards or committees. The late artist Richard Diebenkorn's 1971 abstract painting "Ocean Park #48" was sold at a Christie's auction earlier this month for a record $13.5 million and had been certified as genuine by the Richard Diebenkorn Foundation in Berkeley, California. A number of other purported Diebenkorn paintings and drawings from various owners were either declined to be certified or did not reach the board at the Foundation. Because an unauthenticated art work is worth significantly less, three of the owners had their lawyers send threatening letters to the Foundation.
According to a recent The Economist article, The Richard Diebenkorn Foundation expects to protect its authentication board's seven experts with a multi-million dollar liability insurance policy when a comprehensive list of the late artist's genuine works, commonly referred to as a catalogue raisonné, is published about three years from now. The Foundation's director Richard Grant believes that the "expense is worth it" as "[a]uthentication reassures buyers, which stimulates sales."
Earlier this year, the authentication board of the Andy Warhol Foundation was dissolved after the Foundation spent $7 million in a lawsuit brought by an aggrieved art collector in London. More recently, as of September, the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Keith Haring Foundation no longer authenticate art works by the two late artists. Last year, the authentication committee of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation was dissolved so as not to "jeopardise our health and well-being", according to the Foundation's director Jack Cowart. The Economist recently reported that in the past five years insurance policies for art authenticators have more than doubled at Hiscox, a major insurer of art.
While most of these authentication suits fail, fears of such expensive suits continue to build, claims Sharon Flescher, director of the International Foundation for Art Research in New York. At the International Foundation for Art Research scholars are given an opportunity to authenticate works under the organization, but only after art owners have signed its waivers. It is quite common for such promises not to sue, but they have proven to be unreliable in some cases. In particular, the disgruntled London collector who sued the Andy Warhol Foundation circumvented an earlier such waiver he had signed by accusing the authentication board of monopolism. The collector eventually gave up the suit.
The top of the art market is already feeling the effects of decreased sales as a result of authentication experts' fears of being sued by art owners. Veronique Wiesinger, the chief curator of the Ministry of Culture in France, recognizes that as scholars become increasingly reluctant to provide opinions of art works, forgers find it easier to circulate their wares. "Savvy art-buyers have noticed" and are "spending less than they otherwise would," she adds.
As the fear of lawsuits continue to be disconcerting for art experts, some foundations are moving toward the trend of publishing online-only catalogue raisonnés as an "ever-modifiable work-in-progress" in order to reduce liability. As one expert notes, it's more difficult to sue "a constantly moving target." Some fear that such digital-only catalogue raisonnés pose a threat to the art market as many art collectors will likely spend significantly less on an art work that can be deleted from a catalogue raisonné with the touch of a keystroke.