19th Century French Paintings and the Principle of Identification

As appraisers, we cannot be authenticators; our role is to witness, identify, and value.   At times, to value a property we rely on the “Principle of Identification” if not enough information is readily available.   The Principle of Identification, defined by the American Society of Appraisers, states that “a genuine article has certain identifying characteristics, traits or marks.  If the identifying characteristics of a genuine article match the same characteristics as the subject property, the subject property is assumed to be genuine (The Appraisal of Personal Property, 1994, pg 14).”

This Principle came into play when Enservio recently appraised a 19th century Realism landscape painting by famed French artist Gustave Courbet (1819-1877).  Gustave Courbet led the Realist movement in 19th century French painting.  He occupies an important place in 19th century French painting as an innovator and as an artist willing to make bold social statements through his work.  His works can be found in many major museums around the world, including the Musee d’Orsay, the Getty, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and more.

The insured/owner of the Courbet painting explained he inherited the piece from his great-uncle, who was an avid art collector in the 1930s.   He provided extensive documentation with the claim from the 1930s which identified the subject painting with various titles: “Villa d’Orneau”, “Ville d’Orans”, and “Velle de Ornans”.  We believed the title referenced the French city of Ornans, as evidenced by the painting’s scenery in the photograph provided.  The documentation provided listed a purchase date of October 1936.  A framing invoice for the Courbet painting from Rodman W. Edmiston (Old and Modern Paintings) in Rose Valley, PA dated June 1, 1937 was provided, as well as an inventory listing from M. Knoedler & Co., Inc. on July 25, 1949.   According to the documents, the insured’s great-uncle also owned major works by Impressionist artists such as Renoir and Cezanne.

While we were provided with ample supporting documentation, only one blurry photograph of the piece was in existence.

Photograph of subject property painting Ville d’Ornans

Photograph of subject property painting Ville d’Ornans

To research this painting further, we referenced Gustave Courbet’s catalogue raisonné, La Vie et l’œuvre de Gustave Courbet : catalogue raisonné  to see if this work was listed.  A catalogue raisonné (French meaning “reasoned catalog”) is a monograph giving a comprehensive list of artworks by an artist, describing the works so that they may be reliably identified by third parties.  While we found many similar paintings by Courbet depicting landscapes of the French city of Ornans, we did not find the subject painting listed in either volume of La Vie et l’œuvre de Gustave Courbet.  The photograph provided of the subject painting shows Ornans from an angle where its church steeple is prominent.   In only one other painting referenced in the catalogue raisonné, did Courbet paint the church steeple in Ornans; Ornans et son Clocher (View of Ornans and its Chruch Steeple) from 1871-1872, catalog number 803.

Photograph of similar painting from Courbet’s catalog raisonne Ornans et son Cloucher

Photograph of similar painting from Courbet’s catalog raisonne Ornans et son Cloucher

Photograph of index listing in Courbet’s catalog showing the number of paintings depicting Ornans

Photograph of index listing in Courbet’s catalog showing the number of paintings depicting Ornans

 

We concluded from our research that the city of Ornans was painted by Courbet numerous times from various viewpoints, and the subject painting was very similar to the pieces we found in the catalogue raisonné.   However, because we did not find the subject piece specifically in the catalogue raisonné and because we were not provided with better quality photographs of the piece showing the signature, we were not able to make a full attribution to the artist Gustave Courbet.  From the documentation provided from the 1930s and the subject matter of the city of Ornans being a common theme for Courbet, we appraised the work as “attributed to” Gustave Courbet using the Principle of Identification, as the identifying characteristics of a genuine Courbet painting match the same characteristics as the subject property painting.   Had this painting been offered at auction without being referenced in the catalogue raisonné, the auction house would have used the words “attributed to Courbet” rather than identifying the work as being a genuine article. In this instance, we valued the work in the same manner.  The painting had a claimed value of $120,000.00 which we felt was reasonable in comparison to auction results for similar landscape paintings by this artist.  While we were able to confirm the claimed value as an being in an accurate range for like kind and quality piece by Courbet after extensive market research, we did not continue the research to provide a solid true market value for the work because of our inability to make an affirmative attribution.

For the most part, the oeuvre of high caliber 19th century artists is published in their catalogue raisonnés and few paintings are left unknown, as art historians have tracked down most of the artist’s work in museums and personal collections over the last 100 years; however, there are exceptions and new discoveries.   To authenticate paintings of this era, French experts — typically from the Musee d’Orsay would have to be consulted — and possibly even family members or executors of the estate for the particular artist contacted.  Carbon testing would have to be performed on the paint to determine age, and the piece would have to be examined closely by the experts to see if the brushstrokes and painting style are an exact match.   We recommended such expert consultation for the Courbet painting to the insured and to the insurance company when we completed and processed the claim.

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