The recent case of a businessman who bought what he believed to be a Marc Chagall for £100,000 – only to be told it was a fake – has highlighted once again the proliferation of frauds and fakery in the art world.
Counterfeits of classic works of art has always been big business, with some fakes proving so convincing they’ve even defied and eluded the experts, making their way into top auction houses such as Sotheby’s and Christie’s. A lot of the fakes today, in fact – DaVincis and Warhols, for example – are manufactured in China.
Image by D Group
The investigation into the underground, controversial and ultimately very costly world of the art forger has always been a fascinating one, and recent programmes such as BBC’s Fake or Fortune has only served to highlight the art world and the public’s appetite for unveiling the truth about some of the finest works ever committed to canvas.
It’s an artistic whodunnit, a kind of Poirot with paints, a labyrinthine quest to uncover the true provenance of some of the art world’s finest masterpieces.
The reality, of course, is that no art collector wants to get trumped by what they believed to be an authentic work only to discover they’ve been well and truly hoodwinked. The personal and emotional cost is significant, the financial burden often devastating.
There are, however, a few damage limitation tricks you can employ to help you suss out whether an artwork is genuine or fake.
Age of the frame
Check the age of the mount and the frame. Art works by prominent pre-20th century or 20th century artists have generally been mounted or framed for generations. Forgers often re-use or adapt inappropriate and cheap frames.
Despite all the emphasis on signatures in works of art, never base the decision to make a purchase on the signature. They’re not as unique as number plates and are the easiest thing to fake or add. Another trick employed by fakers is to add deliberately obscured signatures that suggest the artist’s name without being fully comprehensible.
Confirmation of age
Price tells you everything – and if a painting is a fraction of the cost of what is clearly the real thing, it usually isn’t. A good tip is to ask the seller to provide written confirmation that the artwork is of a certain age and not a contemporary piece. If he refuses, that tells you everything you need to know.
Google the artist if the work looks familiar. Chances are that if it’s reliant or based on a painting that’s been reproduced or illustrated somewhere you can find it.
Learn about the artist whose work you’re interested in and whose piece(s) you’re going to purchase, from their style, techniques, signatures, themes and colours. That way you’ll be in a better position of understanding their work and working methods and able to hone in on any potential inaccuracies, inconsistencies or blatant deceptions.
Giving the game away
Heavy-handed signs of provenance-adding on the back – collections, exhibitions, famous names, for example – is a classic tell-tale sign of fraudsters laying it on too thick, overplaying it and making the piece’s fakery conspicuous.
Get advice if necessary
If possible, take a decent photo or take it on approval and, if you need advice, consult an auctioneer or specialist dealer for more detailed information about the work. Most of them are happy to offer such advice on a friendly basis if you approach them properly and aren’t going to quote them.
If the measurements of some older works are in metric, it’s likely to be a fake. The metric system didn’t exist 2-300 years ago, so any art created before the late 19th century with metric measurements is almost certainly fake.
If it’s a fake, should it be destroyed?
Despite all this, however, the question still remains: if a painting is discovered to be a fake, should it be destroyed?
Whilst there’s a minimal school of thought that they should, the resounding consensus from the recent Chagall fake story is no, it shouldn’t, and no supposed group of experts or committee should resign any painting to its fate in an inferno. The act has also be referred to as “extreme, inappropriate and thuggish.”
There’s also the entirely apposite question of whether or not any painting can unequivocally, categorically be ascertained as a genuine or fake, and that destroying paintings could have a seriously detrimental effect on the art world in general.
Nobody wants to be the victim of fraud in any aspect of life – but you could heavily, and literally, pay the price if you don’t do your utmost to verify the authenticity of your artwork.
Have you got any other good tips for spotting fake art? Share in the comments.