Via kottke.org, here is the first installment of an Errol Morris essay on Han van Meegeren, the Dutch artist who duped the art world into thinking that his paintings were the work of Vermeer. Morris concludes with the following
To be sure, the Van Meegeren story raises many, many questions. Among them: what makes a work of art great? Is it the signature of (or attribution to) an acknowledged master? Is it just a name? Or is it a name implying a provenance? With a photograph we may be interested in the photographer but also in what the photograph is of. With a painting this is often turned around, we may be interested in what the painting is of, but we are primarily interested in the question: who made it? Who held a brush to canvas and painted it? Whether it is the work of an acclaimed master like Vermeer or a duplicitous forger like Van Meegeren — we want to know more.
The economics version of this question is why the price of a painting would fall just because it has been discovered to be a forgery by technical means and not because the painting was considered of lesser quality. And a corollary question. If you own a painting which is thought by all to be a genuine Vermeer, why would you or anyone invest to find out whether it was a forgery. There is probably a good answer to this that doesn’t require resorting to the assumption that buyers value the name more than the painting.
The value of a painting is the flow value of having it hang on your wall plus the eventual resale value. For the truly immortal works of art the flow value is negligible relative to the resale value. The resale value is linked to the flow value to the person to whom it will be sold to, the person she will sell it to, etc. Ultimately this means that the price is determined by the sequence of people who have the greatest appreciation for art, since they will be willing to pay the most for the flow value. The existence of just one person in that sequence who is sensitive enough to distinguish a true Vermeer from a Van Meegeren implies a large difference in the prices, even if that person is not alive today and will not be for many generations.