The Art of Judging Art

The New York Times ran a fascinating article yesterday about lawsuits in which courts are asked to rule on the authenticity of works of art. Of course it is a rare judge or member of a jury who has any sort of experience expertise in such matters. So the cases become battles of experts, with the triers of fact “with no background in art” having to “arbitrate among experts who have devoted their lives to parsing a brush stroke.”

As the article points out, this is not, in itself, unusual. Medical malpractice cases are like that – judges and most jurors don’t know the first thing about what good medical practice is. So are a great many other cases. What is unusual is that the art world (buyers and sellers of works of art, and the intermediaries they employ) seems pretty much to ignore the courts’ judgments. The market, the articles says, is “a higher authority” than the courts; an artwork declared authentic by a judge or a jury can still be treated as a fake and go unsold for decades.

One explanation for this, provided by an “art law specialist” quoted by the Times is that “[i]n civil litigation the standard of proof is ‘more likely than not.’ Now picture yourself walking into a gallery and seeing a Picasso. You ask, ‘Did Picasso paint that?,’ and the dealer says, ‘Yes, more likely than not.’ You wouldn’t buy that.” The relevant community – the market – imposes a higher standard of proof (though the article doesn’t tell us which one – is it something like beyond a reasonable doubt, or perhaps an even heavier burden?), and a court judgment will not often meet it, because it is not designed to do so. (Judges, the article notes, are aware of this disconnect.)

Still, although the article does not focus on this, while the community as a whole may be able to ignore the pronouncements of ignorant or credulous judges and juries, the actual parties to the cases are not. If, say, a buyer sues a seller for fraud on the basis that the painting she bought is a fake, and the court finds that it is authentic, she has to live with the judgment, even though the art community may conclude that the judgment is mistaken. The buyer is then stuck with a valueless painting, and no remedy at all. In the same way, I suppose, doctors may think that a colleague of theirs has been unfairly found liable in a malpractice suit, and is actually a great professional and completely blameless in the case – but he still has to pay damages.

This is yet another reminder of the limits of the courts’ ability to grapple with the world’s complexity and to serve as an effective dispute-settling and/or truth-finding mechanism. Other areas in which these limits are manifest on which I have already blogged include foreign policy and emerging technologies. These limits are not necessarily a bad thing; no human institution is perfect. The good news is that we have a number of institutions trying to deal with difficult questions – courts, legislatures, the market, etc. – so we need not rely on just one of them.  Sometimes one will be better at dealing with questions of a particular type, so we can defer to its answer. The bad news is that sometimes it is not clear which is better, and indeed sometimes it is clear that none of them are very good at all (as I concluded was the case for new technologies). In the case of art, it is arguably better to live by the decentralized, collective wisdom of the art community than the necessarily uncertain and ignorant judgments of the courts. That collective wisdom is not infallible, but courts, it would seem, are even worse.

One thought on “The Art of Judging Art

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