One of the functions traditionally performed by auction houses is the authentification of works of art. Art historians usually stop short of selling themselves as connoisseurs, but in the auction business the sales person claiming the mantle of expert is essential to establish authority, and secure ‘value’. So, along with formal attire we have special protocols and language that includes exotic (French) terms like “provenance”, which translates into something not unlike the pedigree certificate you can expect from the Miniature Doberman Society.
In the art-world the status of the auction houses is just one floor below God’s Loft, the directors of these institutions occupy the same elevated level as the canonizing cardinals of the Vatican. However, while these mercenaries of the art market promiscuously purchase the participation of professors to prop them up, it is really their ability to break sales records that confers ‘greatness’ – Irma Stern becomes South Africa’s most important artist not because she is so startlingly brilliant but because she has the most exclusive client base. It becomes commonplace that at every auction, hitherto obscure items are declared to be “major” works of art. A dodgy Irma Stern seascape is major, perhaps because most South African seascapes are the works of ‘amateurs’, and a bowl of flowers by her that looks like a wishful Van Gogh is major, because they say so.