Flossing your collection: Best practices for buying (authentic) art

Part I

Fraudulent artwork represents the art market’s darker side. What do collectors need to know?

British street artist Banksy acquired international fame when he destroyed his own artwork after its sale at a Sotheby’s auction in 2018. The artist makes an equally bold statement about the shredding of his reputation through fraudulent works. “Product Recall” is his cheeky commentary concerning artwork he didn’t create and exhibitions held without his consent, and it brings attention to the broader art world issue of forged or counterfeit works. While Banksy actively monitors unauthorized replications of his artwork, not all artists—or collectors—are so diligent.

International art market sales exceeded $67 billion in 2018, a 9% rise from one decade prior, according to art economist Dr. Clare McAndrew.1 Yet market euphoria is also accompanied by a darker shadow—a rise in fraudulent art. The art market is a unique environment. It is unregulated—there is no governing body that regulates the sale, purchase or price of art, nor are buyers and sellers regulated. As a result, there is no pricing transparency and there is more pressure on the art buyer to execute due diligence.  So what should art collectors know to make informed decisions?


The good, the bad and the right questions


Do you know the difference between a fake and a forgery? While the terms are sometimes used loosely, they represent different concepts and we will be using them distinctly for the purpose of this two-part article series. From Roman sculptors imitating the works of their Greek predecessors over two thousand years ago, to art students copying the masters on museum walls today, people have long copied works of art. A fake generally refers to a work that is a copy or replica. Think of the knock-offs of coveted luxury items available at a fraction of the price for the luxury brand. The buyer knows she is purchasing a “fake,” even though the label may suggest otherwise.  A forgery generally refers to a work that intends to deceive someone into believing it is something other than it actually is.

In 2011, Knoedler & Co, Gallery, a New York gallery in operation since 1846, shuttered its doors after being embattled in lawsuits alleging that they sold millions of dollars of fake artwork by Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. Most of the suspect works had never been shown publicly or published in any of the artists’ catalogues raisonnés, ARTnews explains.2 Yet despite some of these warning signs, collectors purchased artworks that were subsequently proven to be forgeries.

Why do some people end up purchasing forged artwork? Art is often an emotional purchase, and when acquiring an artwork we’ve fallen in love with, our rational senses may take a back seat, resulting in a lack of due diligence prior to a purchase.

How can a collector protect him or herself when acquiring a new objet d’art? The best way is to ask many questions before the purchase. Knowing the right questions to ask can be challenging to determine in an unregulated market. However, collector due diligence is like flossing your teeth—the more thoroughly you undertake it, the more you can help protect yourself from future damage.

What factors should collectors take into consideration? Here are some questions to help you get started.

  • Where does the artwork come from?
  • What is the provenance of the object?
  • Has the artwork been documented in a catalogue raisonné?
  • Is there exhibition history or literature about the item?
  • Is there a condition report?
  • Can a conservator examine the art on your behalf?


Talk to a person, not the cloud


The art market is a “buyer beware” market. It’s important for collectors to work with trusted experts and establish a protocol for due diligence.

The digital age can make this more difficult than ever. While the internet has made accessing images, information and objects easy, it has also become a leading source of false information. Collectors can be at risk when purchasing from sources that do not have established art-vetting standards.

That’s why it’s important to follow best practices to help you find sources you can trust. Regardless of whether you are buying at a brick and mortar gallery, auction house, or online, Joseph Stanfield, Director of the Fine Art Department at Hindman Auctions, advises that “Asking questions about quality, condition and provenance are important, and any reputable seller will be happy to engage potential buyers with those inquiries.”

The expertise of staff at auction houses and galleries can be invaluable, as most employees have spent years working with artists and reviewing art. Emily Lenz, Director of D. Wigmore Fine Art gallery, shares an example. “We do our best to monitor the online marketplace for the estates we represent and work with the auctioneers to identify fakes,” she explains. “Recently, a collector of one of our artists called me to ask about a work he found online at a price that was ‘too good to be true.’ When I found the piece online, I recognized it immediately as a ‘lazy fake.’ There were too many colors; the scale of the design to the signature was too large, and the crude edges of the shapes were not in the style of the artist. These were easy signs to my trained eye that the painting was questionable.”

The trained eye is an informed eye, and an instrument for collectors to use as in making a new acquisition. Scientific evidence, another valuable tool, can often validate a premise.


A conservator’s chemistry kit


Authentication is not an exact science, but rather a multi-step process which takes into consideration a physical work of art as the primary object, and paperwork and documents as supporting documentation.

Conservators are an excellent resource for collectors to consult for a physical assessment of a work of art. While many people think of engaging conservators to prevent deterioration or restore damaged artwork, conservators are also crucial allies before an acquisition.

Conservators use training in art and science to analyze and test materials. Tools can range from a simple black light, which can reveal under-paintings, drawings, signatures and marks under the surface layer of pigment, to complex machines which use infrared technology.

Many artists use specific materials; a signature type of canvas, unique paper, or specific oils and acrylics. Conservators can test an artwork’s material to confirm it is consistent with what the artist typically uses. If there is an anomaly, it suggests the work in question may not be authentic. Many forgeries have been revealed in this manner. For example, if the chemicals in a particular pigment are a creation of twentieth century scientific technology, the painting in question simply could not be a nineteenth century painting.

Peggy Holben Ellis, President of the American Institute for Conservation, explains. “Often, a knowledge of the history of materials and techniques can complement sophisticated analysis. For example, when works of art are signed with felt tip markers before their invention, or when alleged pre-1950s papers contain optical brightening agents.”

When a work is hanging on the wall, one cannot see the condition of the canvas and paint covered by the frame, or the reverse side of the canvas adjacent to the wall. That is why collectors can request that a conservator review a work for sale to help verify authenticity and assess the condition before purchasing the work. You can locate a professional conservator near you at The American Institute for Conservation.

Are you smiling yet? Thoughtful questions, art professionals and scientific practices can go a long way in helping collectors detect fraudulent artwork before a purchase. With the fundamentals of becoming a conscientious art buyer under our belt, read Flossing Your Collection Part II, where we will review provenance and the importance of artists’ estates in the due diligence process.


Katja Zigerlig is Vice President, Art Wine + Collectibles Advisory at Berkley One (a Berkley Company).