As someone who has been involved in the gaming industry for more than two decades, I hear a lot of news and rumors, most of which I completely ignore because it's all noise. There is too much real work to do to engage in all the rumormongering, fearmongering, and hatred. Sometimes though, real news happens that helps to open the eyes of people inside and outside of the hobby. Today, we're going to talk a little bit about that news. Logan Paul (whose name I heard for the first time yesterday, and I still have no idea why they are important) apparently spent $3.5M on a sealed case of Pokémon cards. This is a dumb amount of money for small pieces of cardboard, and I was unaware that any sealed case of any TCG would have this much value. Some folks on the internet began to talk about the potential issues with this case, but one person, Rattle Pokemon, went much farther and started doing the research. I don't want to crib their research, and as a former journalist I have a great deal of respect for the work they put into the research and the time they took to share it, so go watch it on their YouTube channel. If you want to not watch all five parts just skip to the one on 8 JAN, where they recap everything before the Logan Paul opening video goes up. End of blog. Wait, no, not really. There was a real purpose here, and that purpose is to discuss something that is important to me as a member of the hobby industry, the practice of authenticating collectibles. This entire case (SPOILER ALERT) comes down to a company that looked at the outside of a brown cardboard box and declared it legitimate. Rattle spent a lot of time talking about this, go watch their video. I've seen a lot of different companies enter into this space, telling you the thing you are purchasing is real. I don't want to talk about whether or not it is real, I want to talk about what makes someone qualified to make this assertion. Over the course of this entire saga, the thing I've seen the most is "people in the art world get fooled too." That comparison is both brilliant, and specious...at best. Let's talk about the brilliant part. Comparing a $3.5M box of Pokémon to the world of fine art seems perfectly fair and reasonable to me. The fine art world is billions of dollars annually, and pieces of that world move around constantly, in hundreds, if not thousands, of annual auctions. I know it, I've purchased dozens of pieces at art auctions. (Let's be clear, there is no Da Vinci or Monet in my collection, I don't get invited to auctions at Christies, I'm still in the game industry.) When I purchase something at auction it's quite clear that it's been authenticated in some way, through available provenance or an expert opinion, or it's clearly NOT been authenticated, and is being sold as 'in the style of'. You can find hundreds of pieces "in the style of" Claude Monet and "in the style of" other famous artists. But what makes an authenticator an expert? Who decides if you have the real thing or a fake? In the art world that's a really sticky question with a lot of moving parts. For some artists, you may have a foundation, like the Warhol Foundation, where you can tell them "I own this thing, I think it might be a Warhol original." They'll take a look at it, and if they agree with you, it will be added to the catalogues raissonés, and therefore become an official work of art by Andy Warhol. But, there is a lot of fine print involved. ----- Q: Does the Andy Warhol Foundation authenticate works of art, or offer certificates of authenticity?
A: In 2011, the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board was authorized to cease operations, and no longer exists. The Andy Warhol Foundation does not offer opinions on works of art purported to be by Andy Warhol, nor does it state whether or not a work will be included in the Catalogue Raisonné prior to publication. The Foundation does not offer certificates of authenticity, nor does it offer appraisals, valuations, or recommendations of an appraiser. Further, the Warhol Foundation cannot advise or comment on certification, authentication, or representation by other parties. ----- So, they may authenticate it as Andy Warhol by including it in the Catalogue Raisonné for Andy Warhol, but beyond that, forget about it. This is true of many artists who have their own foundations, dedicated to their work. Some of those artists have large catalogues raissonés that the foundation doesn't even know the location of, and they would love your help finding out where they are. You can see a large list of lost works from Roy Lichenstein on the foundation for their artwork.
But what if your artist doesn't have a foundation. How do you prove the painting is real? In some cases, it's super easy, like this painting by Tom Lynch. First of all, he's selling prints of it on his own website at that link, so you can own it as well. Second, if you flip it over, you discover all kinds of awesome stuff, like an original inscription to the person who he made the painting for, as well as biographical information about Tom Lynch on a pretty little sticker thingy. Finally (no picture attached) we
have all kinds of other useful information that came with the painting, a photo of it hanging in the US Embassy at Paris, an invitation to a special gallery showing of Tom Lynch works that hung in the US Embassy at Paris, the original invoice to Noel Goldblatt, an an appraisal for insurance purposes. In the art world, we call these provenance. They are documentation that proves the thing is the thing we say it is.
But, say you own a painting from someone who isn't famous enough to have their own foundation, but you've purchased a couple of their works of art because you like pretty landscapes. Let's call this person, Daniel Sherrin, and because we want to be super fancy, we'll call him Daniel Sherrin THE ELDER (because his son also became a famous painter). You might own a painting that looks something like this:
It's got a signature on it, therefore it is clearly Dan Sherrin, right? I don't need any more proof than that.
Wrong. Signatures don't prove anything. We need provenance. What do we do if we don't have provenance? We get expert opinions. Like the gaming world, the art world has experts, in this case the group I have used is the International Foundation for Art Research, a 501(c)3 established in 1969 to educate the world about art. IFAR has no vested interest in the value of a specific piece of art, and because of that is has an army of experts at its disposal whose sole job is to determine authenticity in an honest and fair way. The Director of Art Research at IFAR is Dr. Lisa Duffy Zebalos, who received her BA from Holy Cross (PoliSci), before getting an MA in Art History from Arizona and a PhD in Art History from NYU. If you're bored and start doing the Google on the IFAR About Us Page you will find piles of MA and PhD degrees from respected universities, and you will discover these people are experts in a well-established field with real research goals and massive amounts of available information. Even with all of that, these people aren't one hundred percent sure all the time and sometimes they may get it wrong. (Neither of the linked articles is about IFAR, they're about art forgeries and authentication issues.) With the knowledge that art collection is growing, art forgery is common, and art theft is happening constantly, IFAR even acknowledged the need for people to understand provenance and art research, so they published a guide so that people can better understand it and learn about it themselves. So did Daniel Sherrin paint the two pieces on my wall? Maybe? A strong maybe? Likely? Yes. Which brings us ultimately to this issue that has been making the rounds. The authentication and research of artwork is transparent, done by experts in their field who attended school for a very long time, and continue their education constantly. They have no vested interest in their answer except academic research, as a 501(c)3 dedicated to knowledge about art. Now compare that to the for-profit companies who do this work in our industry. They make promises about the authenticity of a thing, but what happens when they're wrong? This case is getting a lot of attention, and I'm sure there will be legal, and PR consequences, but what about the other times they're wrong? How many times will a slabbed collectible change hands before someone finally bought it open it, and that person opens the slab to discover fraud? Do for-profit companies have a vested interest in saying 'yes', this item is authentic? Is there a better way to do this in a market that is worth tons of money, and becoming more valuable all the time. What qualifications do the "experts" in our industry have? I've done a few random Google searches, and not one of them include educational backgrounds. I can't figure out what makes the people at any of these firms (I found a few) qualified? I can't figure out what type of education makes a person qualified to identify a cardboard box, when they've never seen an actual, known, verified, example of what that a box should look like, or what a pack of cards should look like. I read art history textbooks for fun. I also read graduate level papers on art conservation and curation for fun. I even understand some of what they're writing about. I'm really thinking about going back to college to study this because I enjoy it. I also own about two dozen original pieces of art, some from artists who are hanging in museums or taught classes on PBS. I visit a couple dozen museums every year, and am fortunate enough to be surrounded by a growing list of professionals in that field. None of that makes me an expert who can tell you if a piece of art is real. I've spent two decades in the gaming industry. I've walked through UDE while Vs. System cards were coming off the printer and seen them collated, packed, boxed, and cased. I've been into the Vault at Upper Deck and seen all the authentic pieces of history there that they will eventually destroy (no, seriously, when I was working there I watched them remove a bat that was going to be shredded so the pieces could be embedded in cards, a bat that belonged in a museum). I've been to Carta Mundi and seen cards printed. I've handled more sealed cases, packs, and boxes of collectible card games (especially Magic) than I even want to think about without calling my therapist. Across two decades I've worked as a contractor for Wizards, for Brainburst (just before it became, and during the transition to, TCGPlayer), and as a retailer buying and selling these products. Yet, with two decades experience, and more than that as a player of Magic, I would never even begin to label myself an expert in this product. Or in cardboard boxes...