Attribution is often the single most important factor in assessing the value of a work of art – but it is also a subject on which expert opinions may reasonably differ. The Court of Appeal made that point in exonerating a fine art specialist of accusations that he negligently sold an old master painting at a significant undervalue.
The painting was consigned to the specialist by its owner, a family trust, for cleaning, assessment and possible sale. The specialist attributed the work to 18th-century French master Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin and others working in his studio. On that basis, he arranged its sale to an art dealer for £1.15 million. The trust launched proceedings after the dealer subsequently sold on the painting at what was apparently a much higher price.
The trust contended that there was at least a chance that the specialist could have sold the painting for a considerably larger sum on the basis of a full attribution to Chardin. It was alleged that he was under a duty to advise the trust of that possibility and that there should have been further discussion about attribution prior to the sale. He was, overall, said to have failed to act with reasonable care and skill so as to obtain the best price reasonably obtainable for the painting.
The trust asserted that the option of canvassing the opinion of a leading expert on the painter should at least have been drawn to its attention. The painting having been sold to a dealer, rather than its value having been tested on the retail market, the trust argued that the price achieved was a ‘best guess’ or was ‘fudged’. Following a trial, however, a judge found that the specialist had not been negligent and rejected the trust’s claim.
Dismissing the trust’s appeal against that outcome, the Court noted that it had not successfully challenged the specialist’s opinion that the painting was only partly by Chardin and so should not be fully attributed to him. Consulting the expert would have amounted to a spin of the roulette wheel in that a negative response could have destroyed, rather than enhanced, the painting’s value.
There was no dispute that the trust had authorised the specialist to sell the painting. Even had there been further discussion concerning attribution before the sale, the trust would have followed the specialist’s advice, as a recognised expert, that the painting was inferior to other versions of the work. His attribution of the painting to ‘Chardin and Studio’ was the product of an appropriate process of assessment and his opinion was not one that it would be negligent for a reasonably competent specialist to hold.