Exploring the Early Origins of the Quest for Authorship in the Art Market. Evidence from Jean-Baptiste Pierre Lebrun (Paris, 1748-1813)

Hans J Van Miegroet and Anne-Sophie V Radermecker

You can read the full paper here

Exploring the Early Origins of the Quest for the Artist’s Hand

The guarantee of the artist’s name is one of the most important factors for art buyers, as any misattribution or reattribution can have dramatic financial consequences. Our research explores the early origins of our modern obsession for authorship in art, by focusing on 18th-century Paris art dealer, Jean-Baptiste Pierre Lebrun. Lebrun operated in a specific economic context, marked by a booming art market and the entry of new profiles of wealthy – albeit less-knowledgeable – buyers who began to envision art as an asset. Unlike 18th-century amateurs and connoisseurs, for whom the attribution of a painting was not the most important evaluation criterion, certified authorship became increasingly important for these new buyers, eager to put money on works of art. In a market notoriously known for its high degree of information asymmetry, art dealers such as Lebrun had to develop more straightforward authentication and sales strategies to reassure buyers and increase their willingness to pay. In this context, autograph works became the most sought-after and valuable goods, signaling financial security to less informed buyers.


Lebrun’s Innovative Authentication and Sales Strategies

Our analysis was based on data from Lebrun’s business, collected through printed sales catalogs and digitized archives from the Getty Provenance Index, the Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art (INHA) and the Wildenstein Plattner Research Institute. Our sample totaled 3,017 artworks from 23 catalogs (each containing several sales), with 2,347 lots associated with handwritten prices. More specifically, we used a three-step analysis. First, we tested whether a difference in the writing of the artist’s name (e.g., Peter Paul Rubens, PP. Rubens, Rubens) could entail a significant price difference. Our main hypothesis was that Lebrun already used an implicit authentication system that signaled different levels of authorship. When the artist’s name was fully written, one could expect an autograph work, while when only the family name was provided in the lot note, the buyer was most likely to face a work of uncertain authorship. Our Hedonic Pricing Model confirmed this first assumption by revealing the higher value paid for works designated by the artist’s full name, while controlling for all other covariates known to affect art prices (topic, size, technique, material, artist’s name, etc.). Interestingly, this systematic attribution strategy is not without recalling the authentication system long used by Christie’s and Sotheby’s. The close relationships that Lebrun and James Christie maintained at the time support the assumption of mutual influences originating from France. In the second phase, we looked closer at unique and under-researched documents known as feuilles de vacation. Traditionally, early modern sales catalogs were structured in the manner of a catalogue raisonné, with artists and paintings organized by school. A new and interesting feature of Lebrun’s catalogs resided in the inclusion and disclosure of sales sheets a few weeks before the sale. In these sales sheets, the lots described in the sales catalogs were strategically reordered. Our assumption was that this reorganization aimed to boost the biddings, with authorship playing a role in this re-ordering process. Using a Multinomial Logit Regression, we provided statistical evidence that autograph works were at greater risks of being put up for sales at the beginning of the vacation, and at lower risks to be sold at the end. Similarly works by famous artists were less likely to be offered in the last sequence of the sale. As vacations were held across several days, this strategy allowed Lebrun to create profitable auction dynamics, as shown in our adjusted Hedonic Pricing Model. This third stage of our analysis indeed revealed that the price of paintings offered in the last sequences were, ceteris paribus, significantly cheaper.

Our findings contribute to shedding light on early authorship-based sales strategies, price formation mechanisms and consumption behaviours that durably shaped the inner-working of the art market. From an art historical perspective, our research provides empirical evidence on the development of a market for names throughout the long 18th century, a crucial turning point in the history of art markets.

Lebrun’s sales catalog Source: INHA – Institut National d’Histoire de l’Art (Paris