Decision-Making: Stories From The World Of Art…

 About this series of articles…

This series of articles and stories is about the hazy crazy space of decision-making—in this case, stories from the world of art….

I hope you’ll find some of these stories interesting and even useful in helping you bring life to your ideas. And if they don’t and instead bore you to tears and put you to sleep, I hope you’ll have a wonderfully peaceful and restful sleep.

Being the eternal optimist, though, I’m betting on your sense of humor and curiosity keeping you awake.

Please don’t disappoint me…  🙂

Golden rule

My first story: Courtesy of Malcolm Gladwell…

Malcolm Gladwell’s wonderful book, “Blink,” is about decision-making. He begins with a story that compares decisions made quickly with decisions made after excruciating analysis. It’s a true story from the world of art. It also offers a useful lesson…

Some years ago, the Getty Museum was offered a marble statue dating back to the 6th Century BC. It was known as a “kouros”—a sculpture of a nude male youth. Unlike others, this kouros was almost perfectly preserved. The asking price was around $10 million. If it was real, the statue was clearly a rare work. And the Getty Museum understood this. Their excitement at being offered the opportunity was almost palpable.

The Getty quickly reached an agreement with the owner: It would take the statue on loan while it was being authenticated. Depending on the results, the Getty would then purchase the statue.

Over a period of 14 months, its experts subjected the statue to exhaustive scientific tests to determine its age. They used the latest technologies that included mass spectrometry, Xray refraction and florescence. They used electron microscopes and other weird and wonderful devices and contraptions. Each test seemed to confirm the findings of the previous tests. And based on the results of all of these tests, the experts concluded the materials from which statue was made were consistent with represented age of the statue. The Getty gleefully wrote their check.

Shortly afterwards, the statue was proudly shown to an art expert who happened to be visiting the Getty.  After looking at the statue for just a few moments, he said he thought something was “wrong” with it. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it, but it just seemed too “clean” for him.

A little later, another visitor, who just happened to be an expert on ancient Greek statues, was also shown the statue. Much to the Getty’s dismay, she asked her hosts if they had already paid for the statue. Her advice was that, if they had, they should try to get their money back. And if they hadn’t, they shouldn’t…

Again, she had looked at the statue for only a few minutes. Later, she remembered thinking there was something disturbingly “wrong” with what she’d seen. She couldn’t quite put her finger on what had so disturbed her, but she said she just “knew”

Unnerved, the Getty summoned other experts in Greek antiquities to look at the statue. Again, after the briefest of inspections, each expert concluded there was something wrong with it. For one, it was the fingernails of the statue that bothered him. For another, it was its cleanliness. Another seemed to agree. He commented that he’d never seen a statue come out of the ground looking quite like this one. His conclusion was that the statue had never been in the ground!

The Getty then packaged the statue and sent it to Greece for inspection by a panel of experts it has assembled. The initial reactions of all of these experts flew in the face of the opinions of the scientific experts. Soon, all doubt evaporated. It became clear that the documentary evidence that traced the statue’s ownership over many years was fake. Sadly, the Getty had no choice but to conclude that the statue was a fake.

The Getty was scammed—but how had this happened?

Like all marks, the Getty so badly wanted to believe that the statue was genuine that it believed only what it wanted to believe. In the process,  it had suspended its common sense. Remarkably, it had relied initially only on the scientific experts. The thought of showing the statue to actual art experts seemingly occurred by accident rather than by design…

The gifts of his story…

Sometimes, the initial impressions gained from experience and instincts can be more reliable than more exhaustive studies of scientific experts.

As a result, we shouldn’t dismiss those initial impressions too easily—particularly when they come from experts.

We also shouldn’t allow how badly we want to believe something to suspend our common sense.

Needless to say, this is all sometimes easier said than done!  🙂

Never ignore...

My second story: “If only…”

If only I’d have read Malcolm Gladwell’s book before I undertook the representation of a client that wanted my help in selling a painting on wood known as “The Head of Saint John”… 

The painting was being stored under seal in a bank vault in Chicago. I was told it was painted in 1652 and bore Rembrandt’s signature. A client had asked me to handle the sale for him on a quite generous contingency basis. He pointed out that, if everything worked out, I could make a small fortune…

Head of St John
A photo I was given of the “Head of St. John.”

Looking back, I now know my approach to making this decision would have been quite different had I first read “Blink”… Certainly, my starting-point in the due diligence process would have been quite different…

Temptation in the decision-making process…

Before agreeing to my client’s quite generous offer to make me rich, I naturally pored over the scientific and historical information I was given about the painting. And it was certainly quite impressive—particularly considering my not-very-flattering opinion of my client. Indeed, I was shocked by the amazingly professional quality of what he had assembled in the form of documentary and scientific proof of the painting’s authenticity. It was quite persuasive and certainly pointed to the painting’s authenticity.

That said, I was conflicted…

On the one hand, I badly wanted to be rich…

On the other hand, I had long suspected that my client preferred the dark side, preferring to saunter along the shadier sides of the road. Indeed, I was quite sure the reason he’d asked me to represent him was that he needed someone respectable to be his face of the deal. He knew with a certainty he couldn’t possibly have survived anyone looking too deeply into his background…

So, unashamedly driven by my greed, I was sorely tempted to represent him…

The painting had an extensive provenance. Documents tracked its  ownership from 1652 BC. And there was even the physical evidence to support some of this. For example, there were stamps of previous owners imprinted on the wood on the back of the painting. Included amongst these stamps was the stamp of the Habsburg family, which was consistent with the information provided in the provenance. Not only was the Habsburg stamp authenticated, there were records of the Habsburg family itself that confirmed that they indeed owned this painting for time indicated in the provenance. Also, the painting was included in historical works dating from 1600 BC that listed Rembrandt’s paintings.

Then there was the scientific analysis of the wood and the paint. The older results were the basis upon which my client apparently came to own the painting. The results concluded that the age of the wood was as old as represented. Also, the analysis of the paint showed that it was consistent with paint used in 1652.

These older results, however, were viewed with some skepticism. My client and his colleagues therefore retained their own scientific experts who subjected the painting to the latest and most modern scientific technologies and procedures. Happily for them, each new test and analysis confirmed the earlier results.

All of this seemed to me to point to the painting’s authenticity. As a result, and as I now grudgingly admit, temptation and greed led me along the path to accepting my client’s generous offer. I saw making a small fortune within my grasp…

Jumping to the end of my story…

After pre-qualifying potential buyers over some months, and after giving them copies of all the material I’d received, I assembled five buyers who had agreed to bid on the painting—subject to its authenticity being verified by a Rembrandt expert.

We all agreed to meet in Chicago. Thus is was that we found ourselves one frigid morning in Banco di Roma where the painting was stored in one of its vaults.

As you might now imagine, none of us noticed the cold. Certainly, the buyers were probably each wondering where they’d hang the painting if they were the successful bidder. As for me, I faced the daunting challenge of wondering how I would be spending my small fortune that would be within my grasp within only a few hours…

In a tiny dimly-lit room outside the bank vaults, we all waited with breathless excitement  for the arrival of the Rembrandt expert from the Metropolitan Museum in New York.

The expert could have come from central casting. He was a small, impeccably dressed skinny, balding man with thick spectacles. After laying out his tools that consisted mainly of a lamp and magnifying glasses, it took him no more than a minute to inspect the painting. In fact, it took much longer for us just to unwrap the painting with its many signed seals and wax stamps. Whenever the painting had been previously examined, it was resealed with stamps, seals and signatures. And it seems to have been  examined two dozen times—at least.

Needless to say, removing the wrappings was like one of those Russian dolls. The painting started out being a reasonable size. With the removal of each layer of wrapping, the painting shrank. With the removal of the last layer, a tiny dark painting lay on the table for our expert to examine…

Well, within a few minutes, he concluded that, while the “Head of St. John” may well have been painted in 1652, and while it apparently bore Rembrandt’s signature, it was NOT painted by Rembrandt. Oh, and it wasn’t his signature…

This is what I remember of his explanation:

“In those days, Rembrandt had a group of students around him who studied under him and learned from him. These students would routinely paint in Rembrandt’s style and would often sign their paintings in their master’s name. On examination of their paintings, however, it was quite clear from the type of brushstrokes used and the style of the painter of this particular painting that Rembrandt had not painted it. Also, on examination of the signature, it was clear that too wasn’t Rembrandt’s.”

For a further fee, the expert offered to try to identify the particular student who had painted the painting. This offer was  greeted with the enthusiasm of receiving a lead balloon at a birthday party. As you might imagine, by then, nobody in the small room was even remotely interested in identifying the student.

The expert tried his best to make us feel better:

“Don’t feel bad about this. Since 1652, everyone who owned the painting had made the same mistake. Each thought Rembrandt had painted it. And this WASN’T a forgery. No, this was simply a student’s project painted in Rembrandt’s studio in 1652. Everybody thought is was a Rembrandt, but they were all wrong…”

I know that somewhere buried deep in my sub-conscious, there was a moral to this story. And this is what I found…

The gift of this story…

Could it be that the most important part of the decision-making process is to decide where to begin?

Certainly in the art world—and perhaps in other worlds too, it might not make sense to start by incurring the enormous cost of retaining scientific experts to analyze the age and authenticity of the materials of the work of art. Perhaps, as this example demonstrates, it might make more sense to start by retaining the Rembrandt expert to see if he had really painted it…

The value of experience and common sense…

In another post, I’ve offered some observations about two approaches at either end of the decision-making spectrum that I believe show the extraordinary value of experience, common sense and in sharing our stories… Please enjoy!

Decision-Making: Balancing “Paralysis-By-Analysis” And “Leaping-Before-You-Look”