An old chestnut has raised its head again. Today’s Daily Telegraph has a report of a “Russian oligarch demand[ing] £1.7m refund from Christie’s for ‘fake’ work.” Viktor Vekselberg, 56, an oil tycoon and art collector, is arguing that the painting, Odalisque, bought through his Aurora Fine Arts fund in 2005, could not possibly be by the prominent Russian artist Boris Kustodiev as it was signed several years after his death. His lawyers, apparently, are wanting “a “cross-sectional test” of the signature to determine if there was a layer of dust between it and the painting” to see if the signature is genuine.
I wonder if there will be much discussion about the artistic merits of the painting. In his book “The Act of Creation”, Arthur Koestler discussed two examples relevant to this.
“A friend of mine, whom I shall call Catherine, was given as a present by an unobtrusive admirer a drawing from Picasso’s classical period; she took it to be a reproduction and hung it in her staircase. On my next visit to her house, it was hanging over the mantelpiece in the drawing-room: the supposed reproduction had turned out to be an original. But as it was a line-drawing in ink, black contour on white paper, it needed an expert, or at least a good magnifying glass, to show it was the original and not a lithograph or reproduction. Neither Catherine, nor any of her friends, could tell the difference. Yet her appreciation of it had completely changed, as the promotion from staircase to drawing room showed.
“I asked her to explain the reason for her change of attitude to the thing on the wall which in itself had not changed at all; she answered, surprised at my stupidity, that of course the thing had not changed, but she saw it differently since she knew that it was done by Picasso himself and “not just a reproduction”.
“I then asked what considerations determined her attitude to pictures in general, and she relied with equal sincerity that they were, of course, considerations of aesthetic quality – “composition, colour, harmony, power, what have you.” She honestly believed to be guided by purely aesthetic value-judgements based on those qualities; but if that was the case, since the qualities of the picture had not changed, how could her attitude to it have changed?”
The second story Koestler tells was that of “a little girl of twelve, the daughter of a friend of mine, who was taken to the Greenwich Museum, and when asked to name the most beautiful thing she had seen there, declared without hesitation: “Nelson’s shirt.” When asked what was so beautiful about it, she explained: “That shirt with blood on it was jolly nice. Fancy real blood on a real shirt which belonged to someone really historic.” Her sense of values, unlike Catherine’s, was still unspoilt.”