What Does Authenticity In Art Mean In 2020? Recording + Highlights

Is that prestigious artwork still ‘authentic’?


This week on ArtEvolve we were joined by Montana Alexander, Partner at Heather James Fine Art New York. Together, we chatted about authenticity in art, looking at the recent news that some of Edward Hopper’s earliest paintings are actually copies he made from a how-to art magazine.


The discovery came to light thanks to Louis Shadwick, a graduate student at the Courtauld Institute in London. By referring back to old copies of Art Interchange, Shadwick identified three paintings that were copies of works featured in the magazine along with instructions of how amateur artists could reproduce them.


Old Ice Pond at Nyack, one of the early works painted by Hopper while he was honing his skills, is currently being sold by Heather James Fine Art at a price tag of $300,000 to $400,000. As Montana shared with us, the discovery brings up a number of questions. Does this change our perception of Hopper as an American original artist? How is the value of the work affected? The answers depend on our own individual understanding of authenticity.


Authenticity means different things to different people.

In contemporary society, much of the concept of authenticity revolves around legal issues such as the fair use of imagery or copyright and reproduction legislation. Many artists sample the work of their peers, adding to it and changing the message in the process. However, when the intent is simply to copy without giving credit to the original idea, the work becomes inauthentic. Of course, these are two subjective points on the same scale and grey areas can be interpreted in different ways.



Authenticity and technology

Using technology to help identify authenticity looks set to become more and more prevalent in the art world. However, it’s important to remember that technology is a tool powered by our human inputs. While a computer program or algorithm could verify if a piece is similar to other known works of an artist, it would need a person to determine if that is enough to declare the piece authentic.


Aside from analyzing individual works, technology can also help us answer questions of authenticity by bringing different sources of information together in a central, non-corruptible database, helping to connect the dots and fill in the gaps in our knowledge.


Concepts change over time…

A few hundred years ago, anyone buying a painting would have to rely on the word and reputation of a gallery that the artwork was indeed authentic. Only in a few cases would there be some kind of paper trail. Now, we have access to many more sources of information and can undertake more thorough investigations. However, not all information is equally accessible, nor equally accurate.


Artists’ foundations are invaluable in confirming if a work is authentic, but, over time, these are often disbanded, and the relevant information lost. As well the artwork itself, paperwork and certifications can also be faked, so it pays to seek out expert opinion from an authority on that artist – though, of course, the experts don’t always agree!


Art (and its value) is subjective

The monetary value of an artwork is determined by a number of factors including the artist’s reputation, the state of the art market, and how prolific the artist was, as well as the quality of the work itself. The authenticity, or perceived authenticity, of a piece can further affect its sale price.


In the case of Edward Hopper and these early copies, the discovery certainly adds to the backstory and informs us about who he was as a young artist. Artists have learned to paint by copying existing artworks for centuries – Salvador Dalí used to visit museums like the Louvre and repaint masterpieces, for example – while even the old masters had studios and assistants helping them produce works. If the intention isn’t to deceive, then who’s to say the resulting artwork cannot be authentic?


How would you judge the authenticity of the following?


  • Renaissance artists replicating ancient artifacts.
  • Copyist artists imitating the techniques of the old masters to make the works accessible to others outside the museum environment.
  • Plaster casts of antiquities on display in museums.


Images courtesy of Heather James Fine Arts.

A special thank you to our guest speaker Montana Alexander, Partner at Heather James New York, for joining us.