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Buyer beware: art on the internet

by and

Two weeks ago, William Yager, owner of Roselawn Galleries in Pittsford, was arrested and charged with selling counterfeit art online. I was instantly curious, of course, about the details. What kind of counterfeit are we talking about? Fakes? Copies? Is there a difference?

            At least in principle, a work of art has always been reproducible. Historically, part of an artist's training included making copies in the studio of the work of his master. The master, too, might make his own copies. We know the Romans reproduced in marble their favorite Greek bronzes. Later, cuts into woodblocks could produce multiples of the same incised images. These prints were soon followed by engravings and etchings in the Middles Ages and lithography in the 19th century.

            During the Renaissance, wealthy patrons and collectors like Isabella d'Este built impressive collections of terra cotta figurines and bronze statues, medallions, and coins --- art works that could be produced in quantity and therefore represented in more than one collection. Still, these were objects of desire, of status. They came into existence as indicators of the intertwined processes of capitalism and social integration (or the lack thereof).

            Long before the internet even existed --- 1936, to be exact --- German literary critic Walter Benjamin wrote his eminent essay, "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Benjamin's concern was not how to mechanically reproduce art, but rather, with the impact of mass reproduction on an original work of art, like Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. For Benjamin, it was the authenticity, the ritual function, of such a famous object that was compromised by reproduction. In other words, "that which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of a work of art."

            So, what exactly was Yager selling or, allegedly, reproducing? His clients believed they were buying original works --- paintings and drawings --- by esteemed Impressionist artists Edgar Degas and Mary Cassatt, among others. Prints would be much easier to trace --- especially when you're dealing with really well-known artists.

            But if you're interested in a print, local appraiser and art consultant Roz Goldman says you should immediately consult a catalogue raisonné, where, if it's a legitimate print, you'll find all the descriptors you need: exact dimensions, date, how and where signed....

            Proving the authenticity of a drawing is harder because it's unique, but, again, check out the signature and the style. With any work of art you're considering for purchase, ask about the provenance or history of the work in question; is there a record of the passage of the item through its various owners?

            But if art has always been reproducible, then what's the big deal about buying a fake (which isn't technically a "fake" per se but maybe a copy)? I mean, so what if I have just a copy of an original drawing by Picasso? Don't I still have claim to a certain kind of status? Am I not sensitive to creativity and imagination? Am I not worthy of peers who own the original?

            More and more, technology is becoming a part of the production of works of art. And that same technology is also responsible for what Benjamin referred to as "the decay of the aura." Mechanically reproduced copies destroy the distinctiveness and rareness not only of the original itself, but also the context from which it came. That context was a specific time and place, which, in turn, is how and why the original can claim cultural authority and authenticity. The uniqueness of the original cannot be separated from history and all its constructed traditions.

            So I guess it does matter whether you have an original or a copy. After all, the true collector is in the business of amassing aura.