BY Jane Morris in Frieze | 04 SEP 16
Featured in
Issue 3

Expert Approval

A six-point guide to the discreet practice of vetting

BY Jane Morris in Frieze | 04 SEP 16

Ask anyone behind the scenes about their favourite moment at an art fair, and many will say the quiet just before opening. Crates have been packed away, marks washed off walls, and the reason for all the hard work – the art – is out on pristine display. But if Frieze London will be an oasis of calm expectation before the VIP opening on Wednesday, 5th October, for galleries at Frieze Masters there’s still the hurdle known in the trade as ‘vetting’ to clear.

1 What is vetting?

Vetting has become the norm at Old Master and antiquities fairs over the past 50 years, though it is rare-to-non-existent at modern and contemporary art fairs. Simply put, the vetters make sure that each work of art on a stand is what it says it is – more complicated than it sounds when objects range from African tribal sculptures to vintage photography. They also ensure that condition and quality matches the standards set by the fair. It can be a tense process – the vetting at some fairs strikes dread into the hearts of dealers.

2 Who are the vetters?

While the majority of the 35 or so vetters – who do the work unpaid – are museum or independent academic experts, expert dealers are also included (although, as stated in the fair’s rules, none that are exhibiting work that year). Previous Frieze Masters vetters include Taco Dibbits, now Director of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam; this year’s six specialist groups include incoming Wallace Collection Director Xavier Bray, Gavin Delahunty of the Dallas Museum of Art, Fondation Custodia’s Ger Luitjen, LACMA Chief Curator of European Art Jean-Patrice Marandel and Raimund Wünsche, the former director of Munich’s Glyptotek.

Charles Avery, renowned art historian and European sculpture expert, has been a Frieze Masters vetter since the fair began in 2012. He says vetters need ‘a good eye and an unflappable approach’. He is looking for telltale problems with sculpture: ‘spotting “invisible” repairs, regilding and, for example, with bronzes, checking the apparent date of the cast – is it ‘period’ in technique or later’. He adds that teamwork is important – ‘normally in discussion one can arrive at a sensible consensus’. But also ‘humility’. If faced with something outside the vetter’s knowledge ‘you have to consider it fairly and not jump to the easy conclusion that it must be a fake’.

3 What happens on the day?

The day before Frieze Masters opens, the galleries finish their stands and then leave. Once the vetting starts, the only people allowed in are the vetters, the Art Loss Register and Frieze staff (who have to contact dealers if a problem emerges). The vetters check every object. They may ask for a label to be changed, for further information on, say, research to back up attribution, or even for an object to be removed. Galleries can simply comply or appeal the decision. If no agreement is reached, objects are removed and held in a secure store, then returned to the gallery’s possession once the fair has closed.

Meanwhile, staff from the Art Loss Register make checks of any objects not already submitted in the preceeding month. They are searching, among other things, for art that may be stolen, illegally excavated antiquities, missing provenance for 1933 to 1945 that may indicate Nazi seizure or forced sales, works disputed by artists who have left their former galleries, even works that may have loans against them. Last year, more than 3,000 works were run through the Register’s databases.

All images: Elena Boils

4 What's it like to be a vetter?

Susan Davidson, Senior Curator at the Guggenheim in New York, has been on the 20th-century vetting committee for Frieze Masters’ since its outset. ‘We can’t confirm definitively, but with our collective knowledge, we tend
to be able to sniff out that something might be incorrect,’ she says. It can be complicated though. ‘We could be looking at minimalist works, say, and making sure that they haven’t been repainted [by someone other than the artist], but at the same time you have to know that Ellsworth Kelly often sent his works to be resurfaced by a restorer, and in his case that’s completely acceptable.’

Davidson says that although it is an intense day, it is challenging and enjoyable. ‘We have to be careful not to impose our “museum” taste or our personal taste: it’s the most difficult thing, but it also makes for lively discussions. It’s very good training.’

5 What's it like to be vetted?

Robert Bowman, a specialist in 19th- and 20th-century sculpture, will be exhibiting at Frieze Masters for the first time this year with works by Rodin, but has been an exhibitor at many fairs over the years and can still remember the bad start he got off to at one fair as a young dealer in 1994. Just before the opening, Bowman’s star exhibits – four life-sized 19th century marble statues representing the seasons – were ‘vetted off’. ‘The problem was that although they were clearly 19th-century and labelled as such, the vetters said they were close in style to 18th-century sculptures, and if someone was showing something similar, the public might be confused.’ He appealed unsuccessfully and was left with just hours to frantically rearrange his stand, having to fill the specially designed niches in which the sculptures would have stood.

It helped him understand gallerists’ reactions when he himself is vetting. ‘Art dealers tend to be a little egomaniacal, it’s a profession where you need a lot of self-confidence. So if you are that sort of person, plus the tensions of the fair, the amount of money invested ... you can understand that they get wound up. And this vetter, however charming and reasonable, comes along and writes a little note that says, “Sorry, this is being removed from the fair”.’

6 Why does vetting matter?

The phrase caveat emptor (buyer beware) has been known for centuries, but at art fairs like Frieze Masters caveat venditor is increasingly gaining currency too. While the decisions of the vetters and Art Loss Register are not legally binding, and contracts remain between the gallery and the collector not the fair, the fair’s selection of galleries and the vetting system itself is there to ensure buyer confidence.

Victoria Siddall, Director, Frieze Fairs, says: ‘Frieze was originally a contemporary fair, so we didn’t really have a lot to do with vetting because if you had a question about a work you simply asked the artist. But it became apparent when we discussed launching Frieze Masters that vetting was going to be necessary. In fact, vetting is what cements the reputation of a fair.’ So if you see the gallerists at Frieze Masters looking surprisingly relaxed as the fair opens, you now know why. They passed the test.

This article is taken from the latest issue of Frieze Week, the essential companion to the wealth of art and activity taking place in the city during Frieze London and Frieze Masters. To view more from Frieze Week, click here.

Jane Morris is Editor-at-Large of The Art Newspaper, based in London, UK.