The value of the 'certificate'

July 14 2014

Image of The value of the 'certificate'

Picture: Telegraph

Here's a more than usually bonkers story from the world of contemporary art: the owner of a genuine Damien Hirst spot painting cannot sell it because it is 'worthless' without a certificate of authenticity, which Hirst is refusing to issue, even though there is no dispute that he made it. In other words, all the value is in the certificate, not the work itself. Which pretty much sums up the contemporary art market. 

The Telegraph has the story:

Hirst [...] painted the artwork [called 'Bombay Mix'] directly on to the wallpaper in a house in Fulham in London, which was then lived in by Jamie Ritblat. [...]

When the four-bedroom house was subsequently sold, the painting remained in situ. The property changed hands again, in 2005, when Jess and Roger Simpson bought it for £471,000.

In 2007, they employed specialists to take Bombay Mix off the wall, and have had it mounted on an aluminium backing board. The couple now want to sell the painting.

But when they came to cash in on it – “as it is not really to our taste” – they hit a major sticking point.

The painting is valuable only if it is sold with an accompanying certificate of authentication issued by Hirst’s company, Science Ltd.

Science Ltd, however, insists Bombay Mix should have been painted over years ago, when Mr Ritblat moved out of the house. The company insists that Mr Ritblat was given an alternative version of the painting on canvas in exchange for its taking back ownership of the original.

Science Ltd retains ownership of the original and the corresponding authentication certificate.

Without the certificate, the Simpsons’ painting is effectively worthless. In an email sent from Science Ltd to lawyers acting for the Simpsons as long ago as 2012, an employee of Hirst’s company wrote: “The owner of this artwork at the time your client purchased the property, I understand, was James Ritblat. However, the owner of the certificate is now Science Ltd (Damien’s company), and therefore your client has no right of ownership of the artwork.

“Damien has requested that this particular artwork is returned to Science Ltd in order that it may be destroyed.” [...]

A spokesman for Mr Hirst said: “The ownership of a wall painting in the series titled 'Wall Spots’ always resides with the owner of the 'Wall Spots’ signed certificate which accompanies the art work.

“The certificate certifies ownership. Someone being in possession of the painted wall surface without the certificate does not have any entitlement to the work.

I think someone needs to tell Damien, and his spokesman, the difference between a work of art and a 'certificate of authenticity'. What is particularly odd is that in this case we are dealing with that rare thing, an undisputed early work by Damien Hirst which he actually made himself. So it should really be far more important, and valuable, than all the later spot paintings, which are made by Hirst's assistants. But here we're getting into the topsy-turvy world of art attribution: if a c.1630 religious picture made in Rubens' workshop, under Rubens' supervision, following his design, and with his own intervention in parts, appeared in an Old Master auction, the specialists would have to catalogue it as 'Studio of Rubens'; but if one of a thousand Hirst spot paintings, which Hirst might never have seen or thought about until he signed it, appeared in the same auction house's contemporary evening sale, they'd unhesitatingly catalogue it as 'Hirst' in full.

Update - a reader writes:

I have had modest experience of contract law and I was struck by the wording in the “certificate”.  I would have thought that, at best, this creates a contract between Hirst and Jamie Ritblat but cannot bind any future owner of the house.  Possibly Hirst might want to sue Ritblat for breach of contract but I fail to see what right he has against the Simpsons.  Nor do I see how he can assert that an original painting which is acknowledged to be by him is not by him unless accompanied by the certificate.

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