A Look Inside the Vetting Process at the Works on Paper Fair

Exhibition from The Long Gallery.

For the third year in a row, Invaluable is proud to partner with the Works on Paper Fair, a specialty fair in a world of ever larger and more multidisciplinary endeavors. The 2018 fair takes place February 1-4 at the Royal Geographical Society in London, England.

Our editors spoke to the Chair of the Works on Paper Vetting Committee, independent dealer Guy Peppiatt, about the vetting process for this year’s fair.

Why is vetting important?

To exhibit at a leading fair is a stamp of authority for most dealers because it shows they have satisfied the expectations of the fair’s curators and advisory committee. Perhaps more importantly, exhibiting signifies that the dealers’ collections survived the exacting requirements of the vetting committee. Vetted dealers are trusted dealers; the work they sell is in good condition relative to age and of good quality, so buyers can make purchases with confidence.

Vetting in progress at the Works on Paper Fair.

In addition to maintaining their level of authority, the vetting process is an opportunity for dealers to bring pieces they are unsure about to a group of knowledgeably peers for an honest opinion.

Who is part of the vetting committee?

As a general rule, vetting committees are made up of specialists from a range of areas, including museum professionals, dealers and gallerists (usually some of those exhibiting), journalists, academics, conservators, and, in some situations, forensic investigators. Typically, vetting committees are broken into groups or sub-committees defined by specialty, practice, or era.

The front of the Royal Geographical Society, opposite Hyde Park.

In the case of the Works on Paper Fair, the nine-person vetting committee is loosely broken into two sub-committees who examine work from pre- and post-1900. Vetters for the Works on Paper Fair rely on a good eye and profound knowledge of the subject area over new technologies such as X-ray and UV light, although those techniques can be useful for paintings, sculpture, and jewelry. Peppiatt offers assistance in the form of topographical identification, “I might be able to identify a view or a castle,” he says, which reveals more about the provenance and can help to build the story behind a piece.

Because of the expertise required at the Works on Paper Fair, the vetting committee has at least one prints specialist available every year to avoid misattribution. The fair’s vetting committee also boasts Britain’s leading paper conservator, Jane McAusland.

For what does the committee look?

The vetters’ main concerns are authenticity (is the work what the label claims? This could be a question of era, artist or production method) and condition.

Today’s buyers are more concerned than ever with the condition of works. Some patina of age is regarded by many traditional dealers and collectors as a positive attribute. Peppiatt explains, “Most old drawings and watercolors will have had some treatment – it’s simply a sign of time and age.”

Vetting in progress at the Works on Paper Fair.

Other indicators of decay are less desirable. One must look out for works that have been mounted, as they may be hiding a tear. Although watercolors inevitably fade, a faded watercolor is of little value in today’s market. A tell-tale sign that fading has occurred is a sky that has become brown. A look under the mounting of a work may reveal the original color and show how much the painting has been muddied.

Despite these concerns, “It’s extremely rare that someone will try to enter a work in extremely poor condition into the fair. We would call this ‘Not Fair Worthy,’” says Peppiatt.

How does the vetting process work?

Peppiatt explains, “The vetting process actually begins before the fair. The first job is to decide what’s appropriate for exhibition. For example, is paper attached to metal appropriate?”

With constraints on venues and the availability of work for display (often exhibitors have to close their gallery or other exhibition spaces for the duration of a fair), vetters at any fair have to work fast. At Works on Paper, the process begins early on the morning of the fair. From then until the fair opens, the committee will examine each and every piece of work proposed for display.  

Unpacking works at Francis Iles Galleries.

As exhibitors themselves are vetted by the advisory committee before admission, exhibitors tend to be of a high caliber and the likelihood of a work being removed from the fair is slim. If a vetter questions a piece it will be examined by the wider team and removed if too large a question mark hangs over it.

“The odd piece of work is removed, but it doesn’t happen often. Sometimes there might be a simple change, such as asking someone to change a date if, for example, an exhibitor has dated a piece in the 1790s but the vetting committee recognizes it to be from th mid-1800s. Such changes are unlikely to affect the value of a piece, but it’s important nonetheless to be accurate,” says Peppiatt.

The Works on Paper Fair is open from February 1-4 at the Royal Geographical Society on Exhibition Road, Kensington, London. Complimentary tickets can be downloaded here using the code febpaperfair18.