Patricia Moss investigates art for a living
interview by Sheila G. Miller
If you’ve ever wondered if that painting you found in your grandma’s attic is actually a priceless work of art, Patricia Moss of Fine Arts Investigations is your gal. Based in Long Beach, she seeks the provenance of paintings using historical documentation, technical tools and a lot of expertise.
Someone with a master’s degree in art history and history could have many different careers. How did you end up as an art investigator?
My hearing loss helped lead to a career as an art investigator. My plan was to teach, but life is all about adapting to what you don’t plan, isn’t it? I already specialized in portraits by artist George Caleb Bingham who lived from 1811 until 1879. I am fascinated with people’s stories and how those stories illuminate history, so I am drawn to portraits. People began to ask me, even before I began to lose my hearing, if Bingham painted a portrait others had questioned. My greatest professional strength is research. I learned to distinguish his work from his students’ and colleagues’ and expanded to other artists. Out in the world, there are a number of art appraisers who research paintings. Their primary purpose is to set a proper value on the artwork. But numbers and I have never been close friends. I am more comfortable with words and in solving mysteries, so I specialize in restoring the identities—and the stories—of the artists and subjects of nineteenth -century American portraits.
How does it work?
I think many people envision an art connoisseur as someone who knows a painting’s artist with one glance. The truth is that the great majority of artists are not well-known nor instantly recognizable, but their identities are discoverable if a good clue exists. For me, “when” is the first question to be answered. Even though the clothing a portrait sitter wore looks old-fashioned now, then, it was at the height of fashion. Those fashions came from fashion plates. So, with a split screen, I put an image of the portrait on one side and, on the other side, scroll through my chronological image file. From experience, I usually know the decade immediately, but the fashion plates help me pinpoint “when” to within a year or two. I have 3,000 fashion plate images that cover the entire century. A good clue helps me determine the region where the painting was created. To quickly determine which artists were in the region at during that time, I created a database of names, dates and places from various reference texts for hundreds of nineteenth century American artists. After I know when and where, I can narrow down the “whose.” Again, I split my screen and compare the image of the portrait in question with examples from the artists who were in the right place at the right time. I use consultants whenever possible and coordinate scientific examinations for high-value paintings.
You do a lot of this for a moral, ethical and integrity-based reason.
My undergraduate degree is in philosophy. My focus was on ethics, but I also had to study and teach logic. Now, ethics informs why I work, and logic informs how I work. Art, to me, is sacred in a way. It literally pains me when I see unscrupulous dealers attribute a painting to the most valuable artist or make up stories to entice buyers. Dishonest people play loose with the truth in all fields, but perverting art for personal gain feels particularly immoral.
What does an average day look like for you?
I don’t think there is an average day. Depending on the top priorities of the day, I may do genealogical research to determine the portrait sitter, or on an artist to ensure that the lives of the artist and sitter intersected. I may spend hours comparing an image of a portrait with examples of the work of a small handful of artists, sometimes examining details such as eyes, or ears or hands. I spend time keeping up to date with art news, watching auctions, corresponding with people from all over the country—other researchers, curators and clients, I may spend all or part of a day writing–either a report for a client or on one of several long-term projects.
What are your clients like? Are they people who find something in their grandma’s attic and don’t know what it is, or museums, or a mix?
Most of my clients simply want to know the truth about a painting, often one they inherited. Time has passed, memories have faded and no one wrote anything down. Most of these clients become friends. I’ve had clients who have purchased items at an estate sale or auction and are hoping they found a masterpiece and are disappointed when they didn’t. For others, I try to find a painting that may be a good investment. I’ve had clients from around the country, and one from Sweden. But the ones in the Northwest are the most enjoyable—I’m able to see the artworks in person.
What are some of the more interesting or odd experiences you’ve had researching the provenance of an artwork?
Nearly every portrait mystery is interesting. One client inherited five family portraits, all by different artists, from the Colonial era to Reconstruction. Her family was fascinating. One ancestor vied with George Washington for the hand of Mary Custis. Another freed his slaves and paid their way to Liberia. By far the most interesting is an antebellum portrait miniature that the client thought might be the earliest image of Abraham Lincoln because the previous owner was distantly related to him by marriage.
It’s not an exact likeness because it’s a painting and not a photograph. Especially before photography, portraitists used artistic license like a plastic surgeon does today. They enhanced a sitter’s best features and eliminated or improved the worst. The best artists gave us a feeling of the character of the person. The man in the miniature looked somewhat like Lincoln, especially the intelligent yet sad and gentle expression, but I did not think it possible. Logic told me the subject should be the previous owner’s grandfather. Research showed the date to be 1840-1842 and the artist to be Joseph Henry Bush.
Bush’s studio was in Louisville, Kentucky. I knew those facts ruled out Lincoln, but as I gathered still more facts to break the news to the client, I found that in the summer of 1841, Lincoln visited his friend Joshua Fry Speed in Louisville and that Bush was the Speed family’s portrait artist. WHAT?! The subject still could have been the previous owner’s grandfather. In 1843, he studied anatomy with Bush’s brother at Transylvania University in Lexington, Kentucky, 30 miles from Louisville.
Which one was it? The miniature has been examined by one of the nation’s top conservators without a conclusion. An academic team who developed portrait-based facial recognition software found the miniature to be a “pretty good match” to Lincoln. After four years, I finally located a good photograph of the grandfather. He was a handsome man with a round face. He was not the man in the miniature. But, a photograph of another, older family member has the same dark hair, long face and a wandering eye. In the end, it is up to the individual viewer to look at all the evidence I’ve found and be the judge.