Flossing your collection: How provenance, experts and insurance can aid your search for authentic artwork

Part II

Fraudulent artwork is on the rise, but these key resources can help collectors.

How often do you floss your teeth? In Part I of our series on due diligence for collectors, we shared the basics of how asking questions and understanding the science can help collectors avoid buying counterfeit artwork. Just like adding another step to your morning dental routine, the more thorough a collector is in the due diligence process, the more he or she can help defend against potential damage.

In Part II, we discuss how to deepen your due diligence with a discussion about the importance of provenance, the benefits of consulting various art experts and the role of art insurance.


Understanding provenance


Provenance, from the French provenir (to originate), refers to the history of ownership. Knowing the ownership lineage of an older work of art can help prove the artwork’s authenticity, and establish clear title to the current owner. It is an essential step in the due diligence process before acquiring a work of art with previous owners.

As a collector, it is important to ask the gallery, auction house, or dealer from whom you are purchasing a piece whether they can provide information about the provenance of the art object.

However, Dr. Sharon Flescher, Executive Director of the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR) urges caution with any lists. “Don’t accept a provenance simply because someone gives it to you,” she explains. “I like to use a piece of advice from a former U.S. president in a different context: ‘trust, but verify.'”

Dr. Flescher has experience uncovering fraudulent artwork. In 2003, IFAR wrote a report on a purported Jackson Pollock painting that had been submitted to its Authentication Research Service for examination. The work had been purchased through the Knoedler Gallery and later turned out to be one of the fakes sold by the Gallery.

She elaborates on the comprehensive examination her team conducted in connection with that painting. “After considerable research, we determined that we could not accept the work as a Pollock. We had serious concerns about the style, the materials, and the lack of documentation—not just the provenance, but any documentation—linking the work to Jackson Pollock. We attached 16 pages to our written report showing why the provenance that had been provided to the buyer did not hold up.”

Of course, the history of ownership is just one component of the scholarly research necessary to determine the authenticity and legality of ownership of a work of art. The IFAR website provides resources and guidance on questions to ask.


Expert opinions and where to find them


Another complement to provenance and scientific verification is an examination of artwork based on connoisseurship. This method of art history, for which many historical scholars have long advocated, is still used today for many artists and involves using resources to find experts to help with an analysis of artwork.

Art connoisseurs or experts include curators, art dealers, scholars, and directors of artists’ foundations and estates, among others. In fact, even art professionals will often consult the deemed “experts” for a specific artist.

Joseph Stanfield, Director of the Fine Art Department at Hindman Auctions, shares, “We have a robust process for authenticating works before they can be sold at auction. Artists such as Sam Francis and Alexander Calder have foundations we contact, who can help verify authenticity and often provide further provenance and exhibition history. If works are deemed authentic, they are added to the catalogue raisonné or equivalent database and, for certain artists, certificates are provided. While some committees review digital images, others require the works be seen in person and may only meet a few times a year.”

As Stanfield describes, committee members of the artists’ estates can have a significant role in verifying authenticity. Michelle Dubois, a member of the Jacob Lawrence Authentication Committee, states: “When auction houses and prospective buyers reach out to us to verify authenticity, we undertake a rigorous analysis of many factors. We make certain the analysis is identical from painting to painting, and never make an assumption on whether a work is fake or authentic until we follow set protocols. Analysis includes, but is not limited, to such factors as: nature of brushstroke, existence or not of under-drawing; consideration of materials, and correctness of the signature over the course of the artist’s career.”

Collectors and buyers of Lawrence, Calder and Francis have the ability to engage the professionals working at their estates. But not all artists have an estate that can provide authentications. In a widely publicized—and lamented—action, the Andy Warhol Foundation announced a few a years ago that they would no longer offer authentication services, in part due to lawsuits from people unhappy with the Foundation’s decisions.1

Recently, a new challenge has surfaced in an emerging area of art history and the art market. The rise in visibility and prices for African American artists like Jacob Lawrence is having an unexpected negative consequence: an uptick in the number of fakes and forgeries. Dealers attribute this to a unique situation of increasing prices and a lack of institutional expertise in previously overlooked figures, according to The Art Newspaper.2 Many of these twentieth-century artists worked outside the gallery and market infrastructure, and kept few records of what they created and to whom they sold their artworks. Another challenge is that many of the older generation of African American artists are no longer alive, making it even more challenging to locate experts. The lack of documentation and scholarship available to help identify and authenticate works of art provides an unfortunate opportunity for fraudsters, and a challenge for collectors trying to authenticate artwork.


Assistance from your art insurance policy?


One of the most complex situations a collector can encounter is purchasing an artwork, and later having a suspicion that the item may not be what it was represented to be by the seller at the time of purchase.

Most art insurance policies provide coverage for various forms of financial and aesthetic “loss” resulting from physical loss or damage to artwork. However, a fraudulent work of art is typically a considered a deception rather than a physical loss. Therefore, if a collector discovers they may have accidentally acquired a forgery, they usually cannot make a claim on their art insurance policy. This underscores the importance of being proactive and thorough in the due diligence process.

At Berkley One, we provide some coverage to help cover the expenses incurred to determine whether a work of artwork in question is authentic or not as part of our Collectible SuiteTM policy. Just as importantly, we are here to assist with questions you may have before you commit to acquiring a work of art. This is one reason why working with an insurance provider who offers experience and expertise in working with collectors can be a valuable resource throughout your collecting adventure. Like someone who flosses regularly, collectors who practice due-diligence have a reason to smile!


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

2"African-American fakes on the rise.” The Art Newspaper. Vol. XXVIII, No. 308, January 2019.