Collecting masterworks is anything but an infallible art. But the business of art must be infallible. Where you buy the piece of art is just as important as what you buy. A reputable source that will stand behind what they sell is an imperative.
A few years ago, I worked for a major retail gallery and we made a purchase from a major European auction house. Normally, their documentation is impossible. The fact that it was not correct and that they stood behind their mistake only verifies their reputation and their credibility.
The piece in question was a woodcut from the print oeuvre of Albrecht Durer. Specifically, it was the Birth of a Virgin (M. 192 B. 80) from Albrecht Durer's great woodcut cycle, the Life of a Virgin.
It was bought as a Meder A impression before the 1511 edition with Latin text on the verso . The image was perfectly documented in Joseph Meder's catalog raisonne, Durer-Katalog, Ein Handbuch Uber Albrecht Durer's Stiche, Radierungen, Holzschnitte, Deren Zustande, Ausgaben und Wasserzeichenn , as being:
Clear, clean, and with full borders, before the crack and the defective shawl of the woman sitting on the left. Printed before the Italian journey.
Since Joseph Meder did not differiate which Italian journey, it had to be printed before 1510 at the very least.
The description from the auction house's catalog described the masterwork as being printed on laid paper, not having a watermark (which is not rare) and having two collectors' stamps on the verso from previous owners (which I honestly do not remember what they were) .
The woodcut was a beautiful piece of art. It was exactly as the auction house described. In short, it looked perfect!
So what was the problem? To be honest, I do not know why I had a problem with it, but I was having one of Malcolm Gladwell's blink experiences.
I put it under a light table again; and, there was a watermark that was not described in the auction house's description. After further review, I realized it was a watermark that carried an incredible history in its own right.
The watermark was from the accused paper house of J. Honig and Zoonen, which was the paper used to print the broadsides of the Declaration of Independence – in 1776.
I asked myself (rhetorically), how can a Meder A impression before Latin text from Albrecht Durer's great woodcut cycle, the Life of a Virgin, which was printed before the Italian journey (1510) have a watermark from a paper house that did not exist until two hundred sixty-six years later?
Aside from his many other accomplishments, without Albrecht Durer was also capable of time travel, a Meder A impression of the Birth of a Virgin before the Latin text edition of 1511 with a J. Honig and Zoonen watermark was simply impossible.
Quite a conundrum. If the auction house did not honor its mistake, this certainly would have made matter worse.
However, this was not the case. As soon as the auction house was contacted, it immediately reimbursed the money with a sincere apology.
We continued to do business with the auction house because they stood behind what they sold.
So even though collecting masterworks is not an infallible art, the business of art must be infallible.