Elise Effmann Clifford, Head of Paintings Conservation at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco (FAMSF), presented a case study dealing with the complex topic of evaluating a painting’s attribution, drawing on the research of psychologists to consider the biases at play when conservators and scholars approach such investigations. The artwork in question was a portrait of Pierre-Edouard Baranowski, which entered the collection of the FAMSF as a painting by Amedeo Modigliani from 1918. After a demotion in attribution in the 1990s, the painting was subsequently reattributed to the artist in recent years. Effmann traced the research trails of both investigations in her talk, evaluating the reasoning of each that led to their opposing conclusions.
The first of these investigations began soon after the painting entered the FAMSF collection in the early 1980s, when scholars and dealers first raised doubts over the authenticity of the work. These were based on the existence of another portrait of Baranowski by Modigliani in the collection of Robert and Lisa Sainsbury from 1937-1999, and referred to as the ex-Sainsbury painting in this talk. This work has airtight provenance and little doubt over authorship. It is painted in a style typical of the artist. Two portraits of Baranowski were mentioned in the earliest catalog of Modigliani’s work, but this states both were on canvas, where the FAMSF painting is on hardboard. Only the ex-Sainsbury painting is mentioned in subsequent catalogs. The provenance of the FAMSF painting was unknown prior to 1953, the year the donor purchased the work. A report from the FAMSF conservation department notes an underlying composition of what appeared to by a figure similar to those in an early series by Modigliani. Early restoration treatments to address flaking paint were noted, as was an early campaign of overpaint in the face. Expert opinions were sought, and at least 7 records from dealers and scholars exist in the curatorial file stating they did not consider the painting to be by the artist, that something was not quite right. The FAMSF painting’s lack of technical similarities to the ex-Sainsbury painting, incomplete provenance, its absence in early catalogs of Modigliani, including the irrefutable Ambrogio Ceroni catalogue raisonne, and the frequency of Modigliani forgeries all contributed to a decision to deattribute the painting. This was made official after the painting was taken to England to compare to the ex-Sainsbury painting in 1994.
Prompted by questions raised by the family of the donor, a technical investigation of the painting began in 2011. Effmann found more information on the unusual underlying painting, finding other similar compositions by the artist, also on hardboard. She found other examples of similar paint application, and discussions with conservators and scholars revealed that the artist showed a great deal of variety in his technique. There were several fingerprints found in the paint, ignored in the earlier investigation. Effmann also traced the provenance almost back to the artist. Current experts were consulted in light of the new information, and the attribution to Modigliani was reinstated.
Effmann notes that in hindsight, the authenticity of the painting seemed obvious. She found herself reflecting on the trajectory of research and reasoning that led to the initial conclusion that the painting was a poor-quality copy, and the role that bias may have played. The idea that such research outcomes may be influenced by cognitive biases has never been examined in the context of conservation, so Effmann turned to psychology, where the topic has been a significant area of research since the 1970s. She discussed the implications of heuristics, or cognitive shortcuts, we make constantly in order to quickly and efficiently process the vast amount of information we encounter. These heuristics usually serve us well, but cognitive psychologists have studied numerous ways in which they can lead to predictable errors or biases. Effmann identified several biases at play, including Attribute Substitution, when a difficult question is unconsciously replaced by a simpler one. Here, the question of ‘is this painting genuine?’ was replaced with ‘does this painting look like the other painting?’ Confirmation Bias (the tendency to favour information that agrees with preconceived hypotheses), Overconfidence Bias (overestimating the accuracy of one’s conclusion), and even Hindsight Bias (feeling as though one ‘knew it all along’) were all at play in the course of these events. (A good introduction into this topic is Daniel Kahneman’s ‘Thinking Fast and Slow’, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011).
When we sit down at our microscopes, don our UV goggles, take endless notes, measurements, and photographs for documentation, it is easy to think we are looking at these artworks objectively. But the reality is: we’re not. Whether we’re embarking on a large-scale research project, or writing a condition report, we are drawing on previous experience and opinion which is necessary to guide us and make sense of the world around us efficiently, but can also lead us astray. Effmann says she’ll continue to research the topic of bias in the future, and I look forward to seeing what she finds. I know that I’ll be considering the reasons behind my reasoning much more carefully from now on.