The Science of Connoisseurship

In the nearly 40 years we have spent in the business of buying and selling fine English furnishings and works of art, the single most asked question has been: How do I evaluate a work of art? The answer lies in personal connoisseurship, i.e., the ability to collect the correct data to arrive at a rational judgement of a work of art, whether it be a piece of furniture, a painting, a piece of porcelain or silver or an oriental rug. This can be a complicated process to say the least but also a very satisfying one when an unknown "gem" is found.

The alternative is, of course, to deal with a knowledgeable dealer, who will guarantee what you purchase from him to be as specified, without reserve. Something, we might add, that no auction house will do. The disclaimer's in the auction catalogs should be very carefully read by anyone contemplating a purchase in an auction.

Perhaps the single most important book on connoisseurship and, incidentally, the first on the subject in the English language, is Jonathan Richardson's Two Discourses, published in London in 1719 and revised and republished in 1792 under the title The Works of Jonathan Richardson. His remarks with regard to the judging of the goodness of pictures and drawings are particularly pertinent as an approach to connoisseurship in any field.

Charles F. Montgomery, in an article published by the Walpole Society Note Book in 1961, laid out a series of Fourteen Steps to follow in the evaluation of any piece of art. "These steps are the prosaic homework of study and observation that provide the data for rational judgement. The goal is to determine the date and place of manufacture; the author, if possible; and where within the range of its fellows the object stands in terms of its condition, excellence of execution, and success as a work of art.

I. Over-all Appearance

  • A. Three-dimensional objects
    When first looking at an object, it is important to let oneself go and try to get a sensual reaction to it. I ask myself:
    • Do I enjoy it?
    • Does it automatically ring true?
    • Does it sing to me?
    • Is the stance one of grace?
    • Does the object have unity?
    • Is it sculpturesque in the relationship of masses and voids?
    • What about the harmony of the whole and the integration of the parts?
    • Did the author deviate from the norm to such a degree that this is a new conception and more interesting than the norm?
  • B. Two-dimensional objects
    Prints, drawings, water colors, textiles including needlework also demand harmony and integration of design. Quality of line and unity of surface pattern are all-important. Such unity is a thing of subtlety, yet more often than not, a prime factor in differentiating the work of the master from that of the follower.

II. Form

Form, more than any other quality, distinguishes a work of art. Conception and proportion give it nobility and distinction. Study of the orders of architecture to instill a sense of proportion was basic in the education of sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth century designers and craftsmen.
Over-all measurements and in some cases those of individual parts are necessary to establish the norm and general proportions. They are vital as a part of the record and for making comparisons with related pieces, especially through photographs. Some measurements help in determining authenticity of an object: Often the weighing of a piece of silver provided the basis for comparison of the present weight with the original weight (frequently scratched on the bottom of early pieces by the silversmith). A difference of more than an ounce (from wear and polishing) puts one immediately on guard against repairs or alteration of form. Measurements of individual parts may also reveal information concerning age. For instance, the difference of diameter of turned chair stretchers or round table tops is indicative of age in that wood, as it grows older, continues to shrink across the grain more than with the grain.

III. Ornament

The range to be considered here is very broad. Obviously, to evaluate the effectiveness and quality of ornament, one must be well acquainted with (1) the types of ornament employed and the heights of technical excellence achieved by artists and artisans in a variety of times and places, working in the style of the object in question; (2) the attitude of the artist or artisan toward the ornament; and (3) what the ornament was intended to accomplish. Ask yourself: Was the ornament used to cover up structural features that might otherwise be unattractive? Or was it used to highlight and emphasize certain elements or features? Ornament provides punctuation and, at its best, gives not only pattern and rhythm, but also unity to the composition.

Color, figure (as in wood), texture, turning, carving, engraving, enameling, painting, appliques, printed design, and a hundred other means may have been employed to attain ornamental effects. But for each, ask yourself: Why is it there? Does it accomplish its purpose? Is the over-all effect the better for its presence? Basically, ornament is secondary to form and ought to heighten its effect rather than obscure it.

IV. Color

Art historians have sought for many years to arrive at a uniform color vocabulary for describing and analyzing paintings. And today there are several complex methods and theories for color analysis. But whereas the student of paintings must learn to chart value, hue and intensity in order to evaluate color effect, the problem seems less difficult for the student of decorative arts. Here the ideal is to find objects with original color showing as little fading or discoloration as possible for its age.

V. Analysis of Materials

In this step, the goal is to gather and assess information on the individual constituents such as woods, textile fibers, pigments, metals, and fasteners. Instruments ought to be used to heighten the powers of perception so that one may may make the most accurate possible observations. As an example, today, the microscopic identification of woods, particularly secondary woods in furniture, is a tremendous aid in determining the origin of furniture since cabinet makers were accustomed to using for the interior parts of their cabinetwork, woods native to their locality.

VI. Techniques Employed by the Craftsman

Here the goal is to evaluate (1) the quality of craftsmanship; (2) the techniques and practices employed (and through this study to determine whether they are typical of a period, local, and culture); (3) the personal idiosyncrasies of workmanship of the author of signed or documented pieces; (4) the congruency of the parts and whether the whole is by one author or is made up at a later date of two or more antique parts. This study often reveals restorations.

Although excellence of craftsmanship may seem self explanatory, it is important to keep in mind the fact that quality of workmanship within a craft varies widely with time and place. Some men worked with a high degree of naturalism, their products rivaling nature in fluidity and artistry; others sometimes achieved equally successful results with less skill, utilizing abstract ornament and simplified form.

The phenomenon of regional and national characteristics of objects is widely recognized and is one with which every connoisseur must be thoroughly familiar. Characteristics for most objects fall into a pattern, more often than not, peculiar to a particular area. Since consistency is the hallmark of method and work of any craftsman, congruency of the parts of an authentic object can be considered axiomatic. Hence, one expects that the dovetails of drawers within a section or upper and lower sections will be similar in concept and execution.

VII. Trade Practices

Trade practices often reveal valuable information. The branded name of the maker, while common in French furniture, is, like the label, seldom encountered in English cabinetwares; yet both are quite occasionally met in the American product. Therefore, one would be much more wary of a labeled piece of English furniture than of an American piece.

Excise and tariff laws result in many practices which are of assistance in dating. As an example, the wares of the English silversmith must be stamped with a letter indicating the date of manufacture, quality, and maker's mark, in the colonies no mark was required: Hence an unmarked example is more likely to be American than English. The presence of the word England, Japan, or China on an object usually indicates that it was made after the enactment of the McKinley Act of 1891, requiring the presence of the name of the country of origin on a newly made article before it may be imported into the United States.

VIII. Function

The study of function ought to lead us to the understanding of basic character as well as give us the reason for an object's existence. One of the most widely used dictums of the twentieth century art historian and designer is "Form follows function." This is, of course, as true of decorative arts as of Architecture. Exploration of either form or function leads to such questions as: Why was this object made? What were the limiting conditions imposed by materials, techniques, and skills? What was the intent of the artist?

Sometimes important clues to authenticity may be gleaned from observation of functional qualities. Can the object have adequately performed the uses for which it was intended? Does the evidence of wear and tear occur where one would expect it if the object had been used as designed?

IX. Style

The analysis of style involves the study of form, ornament, color, craft techniques, and the weighing of data gained through virtually each of the preceding steps: but it particularly involves a knowledge of function since, in the decorative arts, most objects were made for useful purposes. This knowledge of function enables the connoisseur to understand better the objects with which he is working. As is well known, there was a succession of historic art styles such as mannerism, baroque, rococo, and classical revival, to name but four. Through knowledge of the history of art, the connoisseur will be well aware of these broad movements so that he can analyze the object within a frame of reference of such styles in their broadest dimensions. Perhaps the greatest shortcoming of the American connoisseur up to now is his failure to attempt an evaluation of the American product against these standards.

X. Date

To arrive at a date for an object requires not only consideration of all of the preceding data, but also mental and actual comparison with documented objects. Appearance, form, and particularly a knowledge of its evolution, ornament and style, all play an important part in arriving at an approximate date.
In the preceding steps, many clues to dating have been noted, such as the value of information to be derived from technology, date of men-made constituents, trade practices, etc.
In cases where the author is definitely known, it is essential that the biography of the author be noted to establish beginning and end dates of the period within which an object by him could fall. A knowledge of his career and works will yield information as to where this particular piece falls in his overall production.
Obviously, no piece can be earlier than its earliest feature, nor later than its latest part. The connoisseur will have at his fingertips the general periods in which a particular style flourished, and the particular methods of workmanship then in vogue.

XI. Attribution

  • A. Signature of the Author
    For signatures of any type, the observer must determine whether the signature is actually that of the author applied at the time of manufacture; or an authentic label or mark (stamped with an old die) applied at a later date to an unmarked piece; or a fraudulent inscription or signature of some type applied to an unmarked example by the forger.
    Types of signature include (1) engraved inscription, or handwritten signature in ink, chalk, pencil, or in enamel on glass (signatures could also of course be scratched or otherwise imposed); (2) printed or engraved labels; and (3) a device, name, or initials stenciled, printed, punched, stamped or burned.
  • B. Stylistic Attribution
    One of the most difficult aspects of connoisseurship is to make sound attributions on the basis of style. The problem is widely recognized in the case of unsigned paintings. How can one be absolutely certain that an example bearing the label of Duncan Phyfe was actually made by him, when one remembers that he had more than one hundred journeymen and apprentices working for him at times in his cabinet shops.

    Another problem of which we know little as yet is the contribution and influence of the independent carver, inlay maker, turner, or parts maker. It is already established that many cabinet makers bought strips of inlay, turnings, carved legs, or chair backs from other shops.

XII. History of the Object and Its Ownership

Documentation through sales and exhibition catalogs or family history is a well-known method and device for authentication. Such history can provide valuable information as well as an aura of authenticity; but one should constantly ask: Is such documentation logical? Are there gaps in the history? Are there implausible assumptions? As in all attribution, we must ask: Is this history or attribution possible? plausible? probable? certain or positive? The history of an object and its ownership should be considered as supporting data rather than primary data.

XIII. Condition

Evidence of natural aging and wear such as coloration, patination, and softening of edges, corners and contour are but a few of the attributes of the antique that add fascination to any object. But the thing with which the connoisseur must come to grips is the demerit to be attached to wear, tear and accidents. The older, the rarer, the less obtainable, and the finer the object, the more restoration, repairs, or blemishes the connoisseur is prepared to accept. Here each must be his own judge and set his own criteria. But it goes without saying that the higher the standards of connoisseur in this respect, the finer the quality of the individual objects in his collection is likely to be, and by the same token, the less likely the great rarities.

XIV. Appraisal or Evaluation

As an initial comment on this subjective exercise, one must begin with a highly debatable point; namely, the weighing of importance versus rarity. In some categories, the bigger the piece, the more important it is or was, inasmuch as more material and normally more labor were involved in its making, and hence its initial expense probably greater. It may follow that, because of its initial cost, its incidence was lower; and thus it may well be more important, as well as rarer, today. On the other hand, some large pieces, particularly paintings and furniture, are difficult to house or to display and consequently the market price lower. But the connoisseur, who is always pitting his judgement against that of marketplace in the hope or expectation that the history of taste will swing to prove him right, must make his own decision.
It must be noted that in all ages, while the public has been fascinated by the large, the imposing, the grandiose, more often than not the connoisseur has delighted in the miniature, the jewel-like, and the exquisite. The ultimate goal in studying any object, as mentioned before, is to answer the question: How good or how bad is it in terms of (1) beauty or aesthetic value; (2) Intrinsic value in terms of materials and long hours of skillful fashioning; (3) extrinsic value in terms of association, ownership, or competition? The connoisseur must ask himself: Is it important as a thing of beauty? Is it rare, typical, or illustrative of the culture that produced it? Is it worthy of purchase? And, if so, at what price?" Always remembering that the second rate piece of today will also be tomorrow's second rate piece.

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