When is the date of an artwork deceptive?


On two occasions, along with a couple of mates, I have applied to appear on the best quiz show on TV, ‘Only Connect’, only to fall at the final hurdle, namely the mock version of the game the producers set up for their in-person auditions. I often lament this failure while watching re-run episodes, and recently enjoyed Episode 23 from Series 12 in which the players were asked what connects the following:

  1. Ship of Theseus
  2. Sugababes
  3. George Washington’s axe
  4. Trigger’s broom

The answer? They are all things that had all of their original components replaced.

I thought of this yesterday when reading The Guardian's interesting report on an investigation they had conducted into Damien Hirst's practice of dating certain of his formaldehyde works to the 1990s even though they were fabricated in 2017.

In response to The Guardian's questions, Hirst's company Science Ltd said that:

Formaldehyde works are conceptual artworks and the date Damien Hirst assigns to them is the date of the conception of the work. He has been clear over the years when asked what is important in conceptual art; it is not the physical making of the object or the renewal of its parts, but rather the intention and the idea behind the artwork.

For what it's worth, I would say that it is reasonably obvious to any informed onlooker that any formaldehyde work shown in the last ten years cannot be constituted of original components from the 1990s, given what is well known about how quickly those works degrade. However, it is also tolerably clear that a clear distinction ought to be made between (1) those works originally fabricated in the 1990s and whose components have since been replaced (Trigger's broom style); and (2) those works that have only recently been physically realised for the first time.

Beyond that, museums, scholars and collectors could all be excused for seeking clarity on what evidence there is that any given work was ‘conceived’ at a certain date — for example, if the work was not actually produced were there at least drawings and instructions made at the time, or was the idea held entirely within the artist's head without any physical manifestation whatsoever?

Hirst's lawyers are correct to say that “The dating of artworks, and particularly conceptual artworks, is not controlled by any industry standard.” A client of mine who is prominent sculptor messaged me yesterday to say, “I must admit, I sometimes don’t know whether to date a work by the artist proof or the cast date.”

My advice to him and to all artists and artists' estates grappling with these issues that this is an area in which more is more, and where the prudent course of action will usually be to err on the side of providing maximum transparency and clarity in the form of information on exactly when an artwork was conceived, first fabricated and refabricated, and whether or not the artist was directly involved in overseeing the process. Although there are no hard and fast “industry standards”, there are well-established conventions that buyers rely upon when making purchasing decisions. Where a consumer has been misled by the description they were provided with, there is a risk that the consumer may be entitled to claim compensation, a reduction in price, or to cancel the contract of sale completely.

Why might an artist or estate be tempted to fudge or even misrepresent the position?

The potential for commercial pressure to do so is obvious. If works from a certain period achieve higher market prices than works from other periods, there is a clear incentive to increase the supply of such works to meet the demand for them. As discussed in this article by Sophia Maxine Farmer, there are some who say that this is what Giorgio de Chirico was up to when revisiting the greatest hits of his ‘Metaphysical' period (1910–1919) by making backdated copies in the subsequent decades.

Another motivation might be less financial and more art historical in nature. In the linear, Western conception of art history in which ‘originality’ is often elevated above all other artistic virtues and great store is placed in being the ‘first’ artist to arrive at a particular development, artists have sometimes been given to tampering with the historical record. It is widely agreed that this is what Kazimir Malevich was doing when he backdated the first version of his Black Square to 1913 even though he didn't paint it until 1915. “Maybe he was thinking about his future reputation as the father of abstraction and wanted this radical artwork to seem earlier" speculates this piece on Tate's website.

Although de Chirico, Malevich and others provide art historians with endless hours of entertainment debating these issues, ultimately confusion and suspicion in relation to information provided by an artist are not likely to inspire confidence in that artist's market and rightful place in art history in the long run.

In the meantime, whenever viewers or buyers view a date alongside an artwork either in a museum or a gallery showroom, they could be forgiven for regarding it with some scepticism.

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Three Damien Hirst sculptures that were made by preserving animals in formaldehyde were dated by his company to the 1990s even though they were made in 2017, an investigation by the Guardian has found.
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