Thursday, March 16, 2006

The Argument for Expertise

I'm fully aware of the fact that no one would expect me to say anything else, but I do so firmly believe in the value that dealers add to the promotion and preservation of art that I was both appalled and bemused by the facts in Carol Kino's brilliant article in The New York Times this morning. In an email exchange, Carol indicated to me that originally the article was meant to be a simple anecdotal story about the art market, but the more she probed, the more it became apparent that something was amiss. From the Times:

From diamonds to dog food to Dom Pérignon Champagne, Costco is known as an astute marketer of high and low. Recently, it even ventured into the rarefied world of Picasso, selling a crayon drawing at its Web site for a bargain $39,999.99.

The buyer, Louis Knickerbocker, a meat distributor from Newport Beach, Calif., had never fancied himself a big-league collector. But as he was cruising to work in his sport utility vehicle one day, a radio news report about the Costco offering roused him to action.

Mr. Knickerbocker, 39, quickly called his wife, Diana, on his cellphone and asked her to race to the Web site and charge the purchase to his American Express card.

"They just sell the top quality — whatever you buy at Costco, whether it's a washing machine or a vacuum cleaner," he said in an interview. "I just thought, if it's a Picasso, you can't go wrong."

"Worst-case scenario, we can always return it," he recalls telling his wife.

Actually, the worst-case scenario may be that the drawing is not a Picasso — an assertion that has Costco scrambling to live up to its consumer-friendly image.

Carol does an exquisite job of tracing back how this "Picasso" came to be offered on the Costco site and asks the questions along the way that should have been asked the first time, eventually leading her to Pablo's daughter, Maya Widmaier-Picasso, who is the authority Sotheby's and Christie's turn to for authentication questions about the Spainard's works. Apparently the dealers working with Costco had a certificate with Widmaier-Picasso's signature, but the 70-year-old daughter of the lengend told Kino the certificate's a fake.

Now here's where my interest really begins to pique. The world is awash with fake artworks, and there's only so much any dealer can do to ensure what they have is the real deal. In this instance, there was a dealer who tried to get Widmaier-Picasso to affirm that the certificate he had was indeed real, but she never returned his faxed messages. Frustrated, he eventually relied on the word of an associate in Rome who unofficially got "a verbal nod" from an unnamed expert at Christie's in Paris that indeed the certificate was consistent with Widmaier-Picasso's other certificates. A claim she totally denies:
"I would have said, 'In my opinion, I can certify that this drawing in pencil on paper measuring 12 by 24 centimeters representing a scene from a bullfight — I would put in more details concerning what's on the actual drawing — is a work in the hand of my father.'

"On the same line, I would have written, for example, ' "Paris, le 14 mars,' and I spell out the month. My lines always run from the far left to the far right, and there is no break between paragraphs."
All of which simply emphasizes the need for folks in the art world to slow down a bit. When the leading authority can't be reached, you simply have to wait. But the "experts" know that. The person in all this I think really needs to learn something is the collector, Louis Knickerbocker. When told that the drawing he bought was possibly a fake he responded:
"Seeing as she signed a lot of those things, who knows how many years ago, I'm not surprised if she's going to say that it's fake unless she has it in front of her," he said. (Ms. Widmaier-Picasso viewed printouts of high-resolution digital photographs of the drawings and certificates.)

Mr. Knickerbocker, who once bought his wife a two-carat diamond ring at Costco, said he remains a loyal customer and that for now he has no plans to return the drawing.

"I think a lot of times with this, especially with art — high-end, number one — I'm sure that the art galleries hate that Costco's selling art," he reflected.

"I would still feel just as comfortable buying from Costco — even more so than buying from one of the other dealers — because I know that Costco stands behind what they sell."
OK, so he's half right. Galleries do indeed hate seeing Costco's selling art, but his faith in Costco should not be confused with reasons to have faith in that Picasso. Whether Costco stands behind what they sell or not is irrelevant in this case. I'll draw this out a bit to explain.

Costco relied on a series of experts to authenticate the piece. At each step of Carol's investigation, though, these experts backed down (read the article to see this). When finally she got to Picasso's daughter, there was no one left, not even Costco's executives, who were willing to swear the piece was indeed a Picasso. In light of this, keeping the drawing makes no sense. Costco may go the extra mile to ensure they're offering their customers quality, but in this instance that extra mile has been shown to be full of potholes. They really should insist Knickerbocker let them buy back the drawing until there's more conclusive evidence.

Appropriately, each of the experts Kino interviewed expressed immediate shock and dismay at the news, keenly aware of the effect this revelation could have on their reputation, which, in the end, is the only currency a dealer has. No one is perfect. Even the most careful dealer can make a mistake, but when one's pointed out, the appropriate response is to correct it right away transparently and fully. I can't help but feel that the entire string of experts involved owe it to Knickerbocker to convince him to at least consider getting the drawing authenticated by some other Picasso authority. He's clearly already skeptical of Widmaier-Picasso (as are other scholars, Kino indicates), but he seems to be clinging to the drawing through some misguided loyalty to Costco. In a nutshell, though, Costco are not experts in Picasso. And, I assume, $39,999.99 is a high price to pay just to prove you have faith in a corporation...unless Knickerbocker has stock in Costco or something...but that's another investigation I suppose.


Anonymous onesock said...

Oh I love this story! I love the fact that the guy is relying on a store chain's product endorsement as authentication. What a hoot! I love that he has a history of buying expensive things at Costco and this drawing is just one of many- he is a loyal customer. I could care less if its a real picasso, i hope he keeps it and continues to rely on Costco's stamp of approval. If one day he decides to donate it to a museum, then i can see the need for a more legit assessment.

3/16/2006 11:05:00 AM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

I get where I think you're coming from onesock (i.e., that so long as the guy loves the drawing, who cares whether it's a Picasso or not), but reading the article it's clear that he only bought the drawing because he thought it was a Picasso:

But as he was cruising to work in his sport utility vehicle one day, a radio news report about the Costco offering roused him to action.

He didn't see it somewhere and fall in love with it. He clearly wanted a Picasso and thought that's what he was getting.

3/16/2006 11:11:00 AM  
Anonymous onesock said...

It is just so telling on so many levels. The name "Picasso" among the masses has that mistique of high class value. The guy heard the names "picasso" and "Costco" in the same sentence and he was sold- how odd, telling, fantastic, etc. I just remember hearing about Costco doing this on NPR a few months back and wondering who would ever buy this? Well, someone like this guy i guess.Thanks for posting this!

3/16/2006 11:54:00 AM  
Anonymous bambino said...

that's funny story.
dunno what to say.
i wouldn't buy by phone just knowing that it's picasso. i have to see it to buy.

3/16/2006 12:50:00 PM  
Anonymous Ethan said...

I heard the same NPR piece... when I went to the Costco site to check out the drawing, I noticed that anything purchased online could be returned for a refund at the local Costco store. I was sorely tempted to buy the Picasso, have fun with it for a week or two, then return it before the credit card bill came due.

3/16/2006 12:51:00 PM  
Anonymous David said...

He can always sell it to the Getty.

3/16/2006 01:15:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

He can always sell it to the Getty.

heh heh

3/16/2006 01:38:00 PM  
Blogger Tim said...

There is a big clue here about marketing art. Apparently, what is stopping many prospective buyers is that they need some security to drop 90 thou on an artwoork of questionable provenance. This explains so much, as onesock points out.

Next month I am going to put a big banner in the window, "Your Satisfaction guaranteed, or your money back."

I expect the parking lot to be full of SUV's every Saturday from now on.

3/16/2006 03:38:00 PM  
Blogger crionna said...

I'll say that I really have no sympathy for this guy. To me, he's just like every other speculator collector out there. He heard about something cool that'd make him the hit of the neighborhood for a while and would probably increase in value. He heard about it on the RADIO. So, he didn't know whether he liked it or not before he purchased. Pathetic...

Having said that, there's a long political comment in me about how this is really no different for art dealers than it was when Costco started to sell meat and seafood and baked goods etc., putting neighborhood craftspeople out of business, but the Tourney's on, so away I go. Cheers!

3/17/2006 03:54:00 PM  
Blogger aurix said...

The New York Times just posted a correction today (March 17). Check it out at:

3/17/2006 05:14:00 PM  
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