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Judging early works: When did Manet become Manet?

What's art, what's trash?

As works by major painters get more expensive, and rarer, collectors are looking in a different direction: art from an artist's salad days.

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Most renowned artists mature after a long trail of sketches and paintings, trial-and-error works they may wish to disregard as stepping stones. But for the art world, the question becomes "When did Manet become Manet?"

Works from the periphery of an artist's life frequently pop up at galleries and auction houses, and there is usually no shortage of buyers.

The signature of a famous artist on a painting gives the owner hope that there is value to it, says Elizabeth Oustinoff, director of the Adelson Galleries in New York. Recently, the gallery was asked to help authenticate a watercolor entitled "Italian Lake View," which the owner attributed to the noted American portraitist John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) when the artist was just 12 years old.

The issue of authenticating early works (known as juvenilia), including work done as a student, is troublesome. These works may be unsigned or atypical of the artist's later style. A studio-class nude can be vexing because these art-school efforts often all look alike, says Alan Fausel, director of paintings at William Doyle Galleries in New York City.

Authenticators look for evidence in many forms. It could be a reference in the artist's diary or collaboration from a family member who saved the work. Or maybe the artist gave it as a present.

Some experts refuse to authenticate an artist's early work. A 19th-century copy of Velazquez's painting "Infanta Margarita" - which its Chicago owner claims was created by Impressionist Edouard Manet - has not been ruled as a Manet. That's because there's nothing much stylistically in it related to Manet's later work. It's just another copy of one of the most copied works in the Louvre, says Anne Coffin Hanson, professor of art history at Yale University.

Critics consider youthful works of art as formative if there are clear traces of the mature style. The artistic importance and the market value of juvenilia and student artwork depends on how it may prefigure the artist's mature work.

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Still, the value of art has no other foundation than a collector's desire to own it. Juvenilia, even copies of other artists' works, may have curiosity or "signature appeal." A signed Arthur B. Davies copy of a landscape by Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot sold for $2,000. A copy of a Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres odalisque signed by artist William McGregor Paxton sold for nearly $20,000. The Texan buyer didn't even see the painting, says Michael Grogan, president of Grogan & Co., the Boston auction house that sold it. The signature was enough. (Lore has it that merchants on the French Riviera withheld from cashing checks from Picasso. The signatures on them later proved to be worth more than $1,000 each.)

Susan Brundage, director of the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York City, notes that collectors bring in pre-Pop paintings of Jasper Johns from his South Carolina days or works by Roy Lichtenstein, when he was an Abstract Expressionist teaching at Ohio State University. People think they are bringing something valuable, she says, "and I just tell them that we don't handle the pre-Pop period and hope they go away."

But the art world has a magic of its own: an irresistible lure to some, who would do anything to get a painting, even if it means embarrassment to the artist. Two paintings that artist Frank Stella considered trash, and put on the landing of his loft in the rain, were stolen and put up for sale. The incident led to a lawsuit in 1982 that was resolved when Stella bought back the two pieces.

Then he destroyed them.

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