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Preserving the Œuvre

The Significance of Catalogues Raisonnés

What is a Catalogue Raisonné?

The purpose of a catalogue raisonné is to record all known artworks by an artist and to provide information such as title, medium, inscriptions, date, provenance, exhibition and literature references for each work. These publications are a substantial authority of an artist’s œuvre and a crucial tool in the authentication process. Consulting the relevant catalogue raisonné is often the first step in the due diligence process for collectors, art dealers, museums and auction houses when presented with an artwork. If the work does not appear in that artist’s catalogue raisonné, it should raise a red flag, necessitating further research and consultation with the relevant expert.

Relevance for Collectors

The existence of a comprehensive and reliable catalogue raisonné imbues a sense of confidence in that artist’s œuvre on the part of museums, art dealers and collectors, which can have a positive effect not only on scholarship but also on the artist’s market. However, these publications can suffer from an absence of historical records, poor editorial choices and weak scholarship. Furthermore, disputes over who has the right to update an existing catalogue can dampen the market for unrecorded artworks.  A well reported example of this being Modigliani. The catalogue raisonné for Modigliani was compiled by Ambrogio Ceroni who died in 1970 before completing his project. Because the battle to succeed him has been fraught and no single authenticating body has been universally acknowledged, the market for unrecorded Modigliani artworks remains complicated to say the least, especially because financial stakes are so high.

Living Field of Expertise

Absent a reliable catalogue raisonné, the market-acknowledged expert (or experts) is the primary authority used to authenticate works and issue certificates of authenticity or opinion letters. This responsibility places them in a position of power but can also leave them exposed if their opinion is ill-received.  The Warhol and Lichtenstein Foundations, for example, no longer authenticate works because of the fear of litigation and the cost of liability insurance. There are also many artists for whom there is no living expert, which jeopardizes the authentication process and could eventually limit an artist’s market.

Many of these issues could have been avoided if the artist had kept complete records and collaborated with an author during their lifetime, as Picasso did over four decades with Christian Zervos resulting in a thirty-two volume catalogue raisonné published between 1932 and 1978.

Contemporary artists generally understand that they have a legacy but may not know or care how to participate in helping ensure the longevity of that legacy. Unfortunately, the primary source of information on a work is lost when that artist passes away, often leaving the estate responsible for preserving an artist’s œuvre. This creates an extra level of separation between the information that is published and the original source of that information.

Lessons from the past should be sobering. Contemporary artists, their studios, and their primary dealers can have a transformative effect on the artist’s legacy by prioritising the creation of a comprehensive catalogue raisonné during their lifetime.

Technology is helping facilitate a shift away from traditional printed publications towards the digitisation of catalogue raisonnés which could make the information more accessible and the process of producing them less costly. Though there is pushback against technological advances in the field, ease of digital documentation should encourage living artists to keep more meticulous records of their artworks.

Organising Professionals

In what was often considered a reasonably solitary profession, scholars and researchers in the field are now building networks to raise important issues, share knowledge and facilitate collaboration.

In the United States, the Catalogue Raisonné Scholars Association (CRSA) was founded in 1993 as a resource for art researchers and scholars and as a conduit for information and support. Subjects of CRSA conferences range as wide as exploring connections between scholarship, the market and the law as it relates to posthumous casts, to issues of consistency within bibliographic citations of publications. By identifying relevant issues and creating forums to discuss them, CRSA brings awareness and relevance to the study and publication of catalogue raisonnés in the US. The rest of the world may well follow suit to promote these same goals and standards.

Hannah Krasny

Hannah Krasny was a summer associate with the Art and Cultural Property Law Group at Constantine Cannon LLP in London, England. She is currently enrolled at Emory University School of Law in Atlanta, Georgia.