Can fake art be authentic?

Graham Boettcher at TEDxBirmingham

Graham Boettcher at TEDxBirmingham (Photo: TEDxBirmingham)

A clay jug made by a high school student in the 1970s was appraised on an episode of Antiques Roadshow as having a value of up to $50,000. The mug was mistaken for a type of “grotesque face” pottery from the late 19th century and was later — once identified as the work of then high school student Elizabeth “Betsy” Soule — reappraised to have a value of a few thousand dollars.

Graham Boettcher is the Deputy Director and the Williams Cary Hulsey Curator of American Art at the Birmingham Museum of Art. In other words, he’s seen a lot of authentic and unauthentic art throughout his career. During a TEDxBirmingham talk in 2014, Boettcher spoke about the rigorous steps that are taken to ensure that art in museums or galleries are in fact what they claim to be.

While many people have a fantasy that a sculpture they’ve found in a garage sale or a painting that has been hanging in the family den for generations might be worth millions, that’s rarely the case, he says. Instead, Boettcher says that it’s important to place another kind of value to our  relationships to art.

He spoke about one woman who thought she might be the owner of an expensive painting; that painting turned out to be fake “It was nevertheless authentic as a work of art and as such had the same potential to provide someone with an authentic experience,” he says. “Even though works [like this] aren’t authentic from the point of view of connoisseurship, I’m sure the pleasure they give their owners is real in every way.”

And when it was discovered that some of the art found in the Birmingham Museum of Art wasn’t authentic and was  subsequently removed from the collection, many of the patrons were sad not to be able to visit the work, says Boettcher “Our patrons enjoyment of this work has nothing whatsoever to do with its authenticity,” he says, “they can have genuine enjoyment of a fake.”

Check out his talk below:

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