crowdsourcing is the answer


just because it’s in the catalogue raisonné, does that mean it’s accurate?

“Research is important—it’s a ‘buyer beware’ situation,” says Elizabeth Szancer, art advisor, curator, and Vice President of ESKart LLC, New York, “you have to check: does the seller of an artwork have clear title going all the way back? How does one even know which catalogue raisonné is the right one? And, just because it’s listed, how does one know if what’s listed is true?”[1]

This last question may be surprising, even shocking, but how does one know? Take a look at Paul Cézanne’s Pommes et Serviette, 1879–80, (shown above) from one of the most famous catalogues raisonnés in the literature. Everyone knows by now that the biggest drawback, in addition to limited accessibility, is that a catalogue raisonné is out of date the moment it goes to press—errors and all. But, this book’s layout, or lack of layout, is almost impossible to understand, not because the information is 20 years old, but because it was originally composed in a form that only specially trained individuals can understand.

A year ago, the authors of the revised Cézanne catalogue published a new digital version online (the paintings only). In contrast to the print version above, take a look at the online entry for Pommes et Serviette:

Feilchenfeldt, Walter, Jayne Warman, and David Nash. “Pommes et serviette, 1879–80 (cat. no. 778).” The Paintings of Paul Cézanne: An Online Catalogue Raisonné. http://cezannecatalogue.com/catalogue/entry.php?id=410 (accessed September 30, 2015)

Since cataloguing and publishing online is a fluid, open-ended process, an environment of participation and collaboration, a kind of crowdsourcing if you will, has developed among all the stakeholders—curators, writers, historians, teachers, students, appraisers, galleries, museums, libraries, archives, auction houses, collectors, insurance companies, educational institutions, foundations, estates, artists, and anyone else interested in the subject—all able to give feedback to the authors. The result is no longer a static collection of records and documents to be occasionally referenced by a few, but a mechanism that plays a continuously dynamic and very public role in both the appreciation and the business of art.

Since authority doesn’t necessarily rest in the accuracy of data alone, but results instead from the frequent and comparative testing of combinations of data sets, there is little one can say against displaying information in as many permutations as possible.

And, it can only be a good thing for information to be open to public scrutiny. As a colleague of mine recently said, “publishing online has democratized the catalogue raisonné.”

[1] Ms. Szancer was one of four experts at Vetting the Object, Vetting the Source, an Appraisers Association of America panel discussion held at Sotheby’s New York, June 5, 2015.

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Roger Shepherd is the Creative Director of panOpticon.

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