The Argument for Expertise
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.
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.
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.'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:
"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."
"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.)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.
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."
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.