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Saturday, October 28, 2017

Art Authentication

The Bust of Napoleon, ca. 1904, Auguste Rodin
In 2014, the Hartley Dodge Foundation hired 22-year-old Mallory Mortillaro, with her undergraduate degree in art history, as a temporary archivist. Without a doubt, it was the smartest move they ever made. In Madison, New Jersey, (about 30 miles west of New York City) in an unusual space that feels more like a museum than a municipal hall, the Morris County Borough Council meets every other week to handle the usual affairs of a small suburb. Silver-plated chandeliers hang from the ceiling. Oil portraits of American forefathers line the walls, and by a window, is an old wooden desk that once belonged to Abraham Lincoln. It is a rare environment where a bust of Napoleon on a pedestal in the corner, chiseled from marble and weighing some 700 pounds, could easily blend in.
The Hartley Dodge Memorial Building and the
Morris County Borough Hall, Madison, New Jersey

The foundation, which owns and maintains the artwork, hired Mallory Mortillaro, to cre-ate an inventory of the art in the building. It’s a place where you have really nice things hiding among other really nice things. Her job was to examine the paint-ings, photographs, and sculptures, measur-ing and photographing them. It took her a few weeks to get to the bust. When she peeked behind the sculpture she found something that had apparently been over-looked for almost 80 years. The markings on the white marble were faint, but she saw a signature: A. Rodin (below).
Mallory Mortillaro
The artist's signature carved on the back.
The borough hall, named the Hartley Dodge Memorial Building, was built by the heiress Geraldine Rockefeller Dodge as a tribute to her son, Marcellus Hartley Dodge Jr., who was killed in a car accident in 1930. Mrs. Dodge filled the building with art from her own collection. A desk that had belonged to her father, William Rockefeller Jr., is now the mayor’s desk. A large portrait of her hangs in the council chamber, presiding over every meeting. She also left an endowment, funding a foundation that owns and maintains the art as well as well as the building itself (below). Ms. Mortillaro initially had her doubts. She found it difficult to believe that the foundation, which had hired her, did not already know the piece was a Rodin. She was reluctant to ask. At one meeting where she updated the foundation’s board on her work, she waited until the end to bring it up. There had been rumors over the years that the sculpture might be the work of Rodin or a protégé, but there were no records to support it.

The borough meeting hall. The Bust of Napoleon is in the back corner of the room on the far right.

Rodin and his Napoleon,
circa 1910.
As Ms. Mortillaro kept digging, progress proved difficult, meeting dead end after dead end. However, over time, she was able to stitch together the bust’s journey to Madison, working her way back to Rodin’s studio outside Paris. The piece had been commissioned in 1904 by a collector from New York City, but it went unfinished until the American financier, Thomas Fortune Ry-an bought the bust after seeing it in the sculptor’s studio several years later. Mr. Ryan kept it in his home before loaning it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. There, Ms. Mortillaro found, the bust had been dis-played for more than a decade. After Mr. Ryan died, Mrs. Dodge bought it at auction. Ms. Mortillaro's break came when she discovered that the Comité Auguste Rodin in Paris, a group that could determine its authenticity. Jerome Le Blay, the head of the committee and a leading Rodin expert, recognized the Napoleon bust. He knew the piece existed, but its whereabouts had been unknown for decades. Mr. Le Blay traveled to Madison in 2015 to examine the bust. A thorough authentication process required more time and research in France, but as soon as he saw it, he knew it was genuine. The foundation announced that the bust, could be worth between $4-million and $12-million, and that it would be loaned to the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

A sample certificate of authenticity.
Sample bill of sale.
I cite this story with its happy ending to make a point. All of this could have been avoided had those who had custody of Rodin's misplaced sculpture made the effort to preserve what art authenticators refer to as provenance. Rodin was a professional sculptor and Thomas Fortune Ryan was likely an experienced art collector. Thus such "paperwork" was almost certainly created at the time of sale. Moreover, the Metropolitan Museum of Art would not (or could not) have sold the work, nor would Mrs. Dodge (a highly experienced collector herself) have purchased it without a bill of sale or certificate of authenticity signed by Rodin (probably both).

The two certificates of authenticity shown here and above were chosen because they incorporated photos of the work on the face of the document. If you are not in the habit of providing such provenance, these make ideal models in creating your own certificates.
Provenance is a chain of evidence documenting the ownership and whereabouts of art (often in great detail) from the artist to the current owner. It would appear that Mrs. Dodge, or the foundation she set up to maintain her art collection, was negligent in their record keeping. Or, as so often happens, when people die, valuable papers can, and do, get misplaced or destroyed. Even works by amateurs or relatively unknown artists can be worth far more (including prints, as seen above) when backed up with a conscientious chain of ownership. But, as in the case of Rodin's lost Napoleon, the major responsibility for maintaining a history of a work of art rests with future owners and their heirs...and their heirs.

Another outstanding certificate of authenticity model.
Even LEGO sees the value of a certificate
of authenticity for their models. (Notice
the size of their "limited" edition.)


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