Six Tips for Spotting a Fake Painting

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Today’s art market commands extraordinary prices, and these prices are strong enticement for forgers to create and sell fake paintings to unwitting consumers at high profits. According to the Fine Arts Expert Institute in Geneva, Switzerland, forgeries account for over fifty percent of fine art sales, and that number is probably a conservative estimate.

After a fake has been successfully passed off as an original, it will often masquerade as authentic for a long period of time, in some cases fooling its owners for centuries. People commonly assume that forgers only go through the trouble of trying to pass off artworks in the highest price points of the market, but this is not true — forgeries enter the market at all price points. In fact, because of this misconception, it’s often easier for a forger to sell a copy of work by a lesser-known artist, rather than, say, a fake Picasso.

Although it is always best to ask for a third-party expert’s opinion on authenticity before purchasing any type of fine art, here are six tips that can help the average collector determine if a painting is authentic.

1. Does the work look like it fits the style of other works by the artist?

Survey other works by the artist, especially those created in the same time period as the work in question. Does this work look like it fits in logically with the style of the other works? For instance, maybe the work in question is bright and airy, and was supposed to have been painted at the end of the artist’s career. However, the artist was known to use dark colors at the end of his career, and had abandoned the fresh, bright colors of his youth. This would be a red flag that the work is probably a forgery. In this case, the forger did not fully understand the evolution of the artist’s style, and the inconsistent date and style is a dead giveaway.

2. Is the signature consistent with other works from the same time period?

Most artists have a fairly consistent signature. Look at other works from the same time period. Is the signature similar to the work in question? Are the letters formed in the same manner? Does the signature on the work in question look “forced” or less fluid than on other works? If the answer is yes, this could be a sign that the work is not authentic. It is shocking, but unscrupulous dealers have been caught adding the signature of a marginally famous artist to an otherwise unremarkable work, allowing the dealer to sell the work for a few thousand dollars more than they would have otherwise been able to. Finally, is the artist’s name spelled right? This seems like a ridiculous question, but in a recent case, investigators caught the Knoedler Gallery in New York City selling Jackson Pollock forgeries signed “Pollok” instead of “Pollock”.

3. Were the materials used available at the time the work was supposed to have been painted?

This is a simple question that can produce damning results. For instance, if the work was supposed to have been painted in the United States in the 1820s, it should not be done on plywood, which was not available in the United States until 1865. Or, if the work is supposed to date to the 1920s, it should not be painted in acrylic paint, which was not developed until 1934.

For high-value paintings, experts can use lab technology such as radio-carbon dating, to determine the exact date of the paper and materials, and x-rays can reveal what drawings lie underneath the finished work. If an x-ray reveals that the composition was not planned and executed in the normal style of the artist, the work might be a forgery.

4. Look at the back. Canvas material, stretcher wood, and nails should all show appropriate signs of age.

In some cases, an overzealous forger may have made the back of the painting look too distressed. Are there lots of labels and seals on the reverse, to the point that the forger may have overdone it? Look at the edges of the painting. Does it look like the forger may have applied layers of amber-colored varnish, meant to simulate the look of varnish that has yellowed from age? Finally, does the work smell like tea? It sounds silly, but forgers have been known to use black tea bags to stain wood, paper, and canvas, artificially aging the look of the painting. Dying materials with tea can fool the best eyes, but if its fresh, not the nose.

5. Can the owner tell you where it was purchased?

Is there clear provenance, or documentation of ownership, that can be traced from the artist to the present owner? Ideally, there should be no gaps in the ownership of a work. The owner should be able to document where it was purchased and who has owned it since it left the artist’s studio. If there is a catalog raisonné of the artist’s work, check to see if the work in question is included. If it is present, see if the history of the work you are purchasing matches with that published in the catalog. If a work is recorded in the catalog raisonné as “located in the collection of a person living in New York City” and the work in question is coming from a “Private Collection in Russia,” you need to ask when and under what circumstances the work moved from New York City to Russia. If the work comes from a “mysterious secretive collector with a stash of paintings purchased directly from the artist,” use extreme caution because this is a common lie that forgers use when selling fakes.

6. Does the price seem “too good to be true?”

If, after asking yourself these questions, you have doubts that the painting, or if the circumstances of the sale seem like “the deal of the century,” don’t buy the painting. If something seems “off,” it probably is.

Featured Image: The original Odalisque in Red Pants by Henri Matisse, left, and the not very good fake that had replaced it. Photo: Sofia Imber Contemporary Art Museum, via New York Times