Brent Batten: Art in the large, sad eyes of the beholder


I’m the sort of person who can’t tell a Monet from a Manet.

So you can imagine my consternation upon learning that there’s controversy afoot at the Naples Museum of Art, where an East Coast artist is challenging the authenticity of some of the pieces in an exhibition of work by Edgar Degas, the legendary French painter and sculptor.

If learned men such as Gary Arseneau, the Fernandina Beach skeptic, and Robert Flynn Johnson, a former curator of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and owner of the artwork in question, can’t come to agreement on what is and is not an original, then how are the rest of us supposed to distinguish between a real realist and someone impersonating an impressionist?

While not prepared to wade into the debate between the camps of Arseneau and Johnson over whether an artist’s clay or wax model, when cast into bronze after the artist’s death, constitutes an original work, I have assembled a set of guidelines you can use in determining if your next art purchase is genuine.

You can clip this list out an take it with you to Walmart the next time you seek to add to your collection.

■ Pay attention to details. Degas, Manet and other painters of the era are famous for their depictions of unclad women. But if the model has a Harley-Davidson tattoo on her butt, chances are the artist you’re considering is not one of these 19th Century masters.

■ Similarly, if you notice the five of hearts the Doberman is holding has six hearts on it, then the Dogs Playing Poker lithograph you’re looking at is probably a cheap knockoff of the original classic.

■ Great artists have the ability to make it appear is if the subject’s eyes are following you. However, if the eyes that are following you are cartoonishly large, sad, children’s eyes, then the piece you’re looking at probably isn’t what we call “museum quality.”

■ Accept no imitations. Forgers have been known to use dark blue velvet and purple velvet. But when buying, insist on only a black velvet background for your portrait of Elvis.

■ Be discriminating. No matter how insistent the salesman at the adult novelty store might be, a plastic blow-up doll does not qualify as nude sculpture.

■ Look for bargains. Some snooty art collectors might pay thousands for a picture of a Campbell’s tomato soup can. Idiots. You can get the real thing at Publix, two for a dollar.

■ Be aware, you may have to do some of the work yourself. Certain artists draw nice but put things out of order. If you should happen to be in possession of an original by this Pablo Picasso fellow, you’ll probably want to cut out the shapes then paste them together again in the proper places, so as to enhance the value of the picture.

■ Names matter. Full names too. If someone tries to sell you a “Leonardo” be sure you’re getting an actual piece by Leonardo DiCaprio. Unscrupulous dealers will try to pawn off work by a guy named Leonardo da Vinci instead.

■ The Mona Lisa is remarkable for her smile. But she does not, repeat does not have a gold tooth.

■ Believe it or not, if you purchase “American Gothic,” you won’t get a cool book with lots of dark castles and monsters. It’s a picture of some boring farmers.

Armed with these tips, you should be able to amass a collection of fine art to rival even the finest roadside motel.

And if asked if a particular piece is a Monet or a Manet, simply answer “Yes.”

Connect with Brent Batten at

© 2011 All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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