At the Biennale, the Commission d’Admission des Œuvres is the necessary transit point for any object if it is to get into the Grand Palais. This year, vetting is particularly strict. An interview with two men from the art world, Frédéric Castaing and Michel Maket…
With the new season starting up placed under the sign of “moralisation”, it was hard for La Biennale Paris to offer anything other than irreproachable vetting. To oversee this “meticulous examination” of works, calling on two co-presidents seemed a good solution: Frédéric Castaing and Michel Maket, the heads, respectively, of the Compagnie Nationale des Experts and the Syndicat Français des Experts Professionnels en Œuvres d’Art et Objets de Collection. To find out more about the new standards of rigour upheld by the Commission for the Admission of Works (the Commission d’Admission des Œuvres or CAO), we talked with the two presidents, both high-flying valuers. How does one distinguish genuines from fakes? What constitutes a “Biennale-quality” object? A dive into the backstage of an art market that is regularly rocked by “cases”…
You’ve arrived at a timely moment when everyone in France is talking about “moralisation”…
Michel Maket: Let’s make things clear… We are acting upon a proposition from the Syndicat National des Antiquaires, at the initiative of Mathias Ary Jan, its president, to carry out a co-presidency according to new rules formulated on the operation of the Biennale’s CAO. The principle of independence – which is fundamental in our profession of valuation – is at the heart of the new committee this year. So of course, all this contributes to the moralisation and transparency of the market.
Frédéric Castaing: The thing that won my support straight away really was this notion of independence with respect to the management of the Syndicat National des Antiquaires and its board. This was the key necessary element in order for me to accept this mission. Starting with control over the list of experts, by bringing in a rule: from now on, no exhibitor at the Biennale can take part in committees in charge of vetting objects.
What’s the interest of setting up a two-headed authority? What is the reasoning behind this co-presidency?
- C.: I believe that it’s a strength to have combined two poles of experts: the Compagnie Nationale des Experts and the Syndicat Français des Experts Professionnels, to set up a new CAO for this edition of the Biennale. These two bodies gather a very large proportion of the experts working on the art market, in other words 160 members for the CNE, covering around thirty specialities. These two bodies uphold very strict recruitment rules, which distinguish their members from mere business finders and other self-proclaimed specialists. For example, it is necessary to have ten years’ experience in this profession to join either of our bodies. In addition, we apply a shared deontology code. In short, there’s a whole bundle of rules that go in the same direction as the new standards desired by the Syndicat National des Antiquaires.
- M.: And as no one is infallible, if certain issues arise, it’s always easier to reflect on them together, to exchange rather than making decisions alone. The SFEP has around 110 members who act in very different fields, covering a total of 46 specialities, with experts who, for historic reasons, are more geared towards public sales. With the Biennale, we are working on the convergence of new standards.
What do you see as the exact meaning of this word “vetting”, adopted in French from English?
- M.: I myself don’t really approve of the English terminology, even if it’s shorter! Vetting is carried out by the CAO, a committee that isn’t just made up of French professional valuers, but also recognised specialists as it also includes outside personalities. Vetting is like inventory work. What matters is what remains. In practical terms, we review all the criteria of authenticity related to a work. For modern paintings, for example, we check that historians or authors of catalogues raisonnés have been consulted. We examine the work attentively, and we decide on what it is supposed to be, we validate its nature. And the criteria aren’t the same for all specialities. This is why each of the committees encompasses different skills.
- C.: The CAO represents a key moment, which we don’t hear much about generally. But it’s the central element which, upstream, ensures the reliability or otherwise of a fair like the Biennale. It’s a moment of truth when experts authenticate, validate, offer security for the event. In short, it is a strong marker of this fair. At this 2017 edition, the CAO is made up of around twenty committees, gathering a total of about one hundred persons, 60 % of whom are professional valuers, the remaining 40 %, restorers, art historians, curators from overseas or from France if they are no longer practising in this latter case [editorial note: by virtue of the deontology charter relating to heritage curators].
You speak about new standards of rigour… What exactly do these consist of?
- M.: First of all, this year, you’ll no longer see Biennale exhibitors within the CAO, nor any SNA board members. Next, the president of the Syndicat National des Antiquaires naturally keeps out of all decisions on any level whatsoever. In addition, appeals of decisions made by the committee are now limited to three per exhibitor. I also draw your attention to a pre-vetting procedure that has been set up in order to work more serenely, which has meant that one-third of the objects were validated by the end of August. In the long-term, we’d like 75 % of the volume of standards to be checked during the summer. Other standards: the absence of vetting during the fair, no admission of new objects either… I think that all these criteria, added together, make the Biennale the world’s most rigorous fair today.
- F. C.: These new standards are written into the rules of the CAO, which strictly defines the criteria for each category of cultural goods: Hispanic America, historic weapons, Islam art, Russian art, etc. For ceramics alone, for example, the text of the regulations runs over two pages! My feeling is that we are setting up, with this CAO, something completely original. The independence from the organisers, the absence of exhibitors from committees, the presidency held by bodies of experts… All this is very new, not just in relation to previous editions of the Biennale, but also in relation to what is done in international fairs.
- Beyond authenticity, the new standards also concern the quality of objects. What exactly does this famous “Biennale quality” consist of?
- F. C.: Obviously, here we touch on a notion that is a little delicate, hence the interest of making collective decisions. It’s true that here, there is an element of subjectivity, even if it is very limited.
- M. M.: I’ve had this experience with a Souverbie painting. Quite a classic artist, but one with real personality. There were several of us valuers working together at an Art Deco standard, and a debate arose. I, for my part, believed that the painting fit in well. If it had been between a Renoir and a Modigliani, on another stand, perhaps there could have been a problem, but there, no. This “Biennale quality” is something quite subtle; for example, the work’s contextualisation can sometimes also count. The idea is always to aim for quality and guarantees. The same goes for bronzes. We don’t accept late-produced casts, but we might make exceptions. I’m namely thinking of Degas, whose bronzes are all posthumous. Also, a Hébrard cast remains a wonder, in the same way as a Barbedienne cast for Rodin.
How can this profession’s confidence be boosted after all the cases that have rocked it, from Bill Pallot’s stamped furniture to the Aristophi handwritten documents?
- C.: Through the vetting process that we’ve just described. It’s essential to pay attention to the composition of committees in particular. In this way, we’ve, for example, proceeded to renew the members of certain committees compared with those from the previous year. I’d also add that with regard to the examples that you mention, in both cases, the Compagnie Nationale des Experts and myself have taken adequate measures whenever it’s been necessary to react. We protect valuers when they are unjustly accused, but we apply disciplinary sanctions when they are necessary. Here you have another element that offers reassurance. Otherwise, it’s a matter of safeguarding the very notion of expertise, that is the practice of ethics and the exercise of the valuer’s profession.
Would you say that a typically French cultural exception exists in this domain?
- C.: The Anglo-Saxon approach consists in seeing the valuer as dealing with all sorts of problems and forging a way ahead. People do business and tell themselves that the selection will be carried out as problems come up. In France, the conception is different: the view is that it’s necessary to select and train experts upstream, precisely in order to avoid problems. This is the basis of our organisations.
- M.: In our bodies and syndicates, we pay great attention to the application of deontological rules, the sound functioning of our disciplinary systems. Because there are historic specificities regarding law in the French system. In France, we have very good guarantees inherited from the Napoleonic Code, which are sometimes not very well known. Here, the dealer and the valuer hold genuine responsibility. And going back to confidence, I’d say that the CAO’s independence sends out extremely strong signals.
How would you define the Biennale on the eve of its twenty-ninth edition? What is unique about it?
F. C.: Its magic… First of all, thanks to the Grand Palais, a major asset on the French art market, and the only place of this type in the world. You can go to New York, Berlin, London, but you won’t find any equivalent. Next, because unlike international fairs, this is a “salon”, an intimate place with an atmosphere that is specific to each stand. Objects aren’t lined up as if on parade, but everyone shows creativity.
- M.: Frédéric is right when he talks about the spirit of the place… The Biennale, without neglecting the commercial aspect, is a history, the image of Paris, the showcase of a profession. A wonderful setting for exceptional works…