Art is not a handicraft; it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced.
– Leo Tolstoy
It’s easy to appreciate the reasons behind buying art. Whether the sculptures of the Renaissance, the realism of the 19th century, or the neo-expressionism of the 1980s, people have long since enjoyed owning original pieces for themselves.
However, within the industry of buying art sits the unfortunate risk of picking up a forgery – especially when it comes to paintings.
Many buyers have fallen victim to investing in fake pieces. Take for example the multi-million-pound forgery scandal in 2015: a string of paintings, beginning with Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Venus, seized by the police as fakes. It was estimated that between 4 to 25 paintings sold by the same seller were forgeries – a £179 million scandal which shook the art world to the core.
Art forgery isn’t a modern concept – it has been around practically as long as the buying process. Granted, we have modern tools available to us such as forensic pigment testing and the like, so theoretically it should be easier for us to spot forgeries.
However, that’s a double-edged sword, as forgers also have access to tools which allow them to produce copies of a near perfect standard. This means that fake pieces can often pass hands a number of times before the forgery is spotted, and this in turn means it can be difficult to contain them.
How can you tell if a piece is genuine?
Knowing whether you’re buying the next Mona Lisa can be a tricky task.
If you make a habit of buying artwork – and especially if it’s your first time – it may be worth learning a few basic checks to carry out before you commit to payment.
1. Examine the front and back
A close inspection of the piece itself can tell you a great deal about its authenticity.
Is it an old piece? If so, be aware of aging techniques. Many forgers will attempt to make paintings look older by using teabags or nicotine on the surface of the painting, both of which can give off a certain smell. Likewise, look for signs of aging across the entire piece. Does it look more aged in certain areas?
The back of the piece can also tell you a great deal. Does the back of the canvas look relatively new, despite the piece allegedly being over 100 years old? Or does it have auction stamps and receipts? You should watch out for these clues – they could tell you a lot about the authenticity of your prospective purchase.
2. Watch out for false accreditations
While a painting may be in the style of Rembrandt, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s authentic. With the help of modern tools, faking artistic styles is becoming increasingly easier and this means forgeries can slip through the net.
Before discussing a potential buy, try to make sure the details on the painting match up. There are some forgeries of well-known works which have been marked with the artist’s name, date or location when completed. This may, at a glance, make a piece seem authentic. However, you should always check that these details align.
3. Be sure of who you’re buying from
If you’re happy with your visual checks, you should start to think about the person behind the sale. If you can, do some research into their legitimacy as a seller and try to ask other customers about their experience buying a piece. Many pieces are sold through dealers or online, so you should be aware of who you’re buying from.
4. Ask for the supporting documentation
Most art dealers don’t conduct forensic investigations of valuable artwork. This, inevitably, means that the credibility of the piece relies heavily on the dealer’s word.
This may seem like an unsteady foundation on which to buy expensive art. However, it is illegal for dealers to advertise fake paintings as originals.
Normally, this means that your dealer will provide official documents such as contracts, archival references and a history of receipts for the painting. If your dealer is able to provide these, you can be more certain that you’re investing in the real deal.
You must also be aware that – like the art – this documentation can also be forged. As such, you should be wary of documentation which can’t be backed up by further evidence. For example, if the painting has been displayed solely at galleries you’ve never heard of and are ‘no longer in business’, this should ring alarm bells.
Still not sure? Hand it over to the experts
If you’re still not sure whether your piece is the real deal, you could consider handing it over to the experts – especially if it’s an expensive buy.
Professionals can use infrared lighting techniques, x-rays and a series of tests to analyse the painting in great detail – and hopefully, will be able to give you a certain verdict on the piece’s authenticity.
Buying art should be a joyous experience, and it usually is. But before you hit the gallery, just remember: even if it walks like a Monet and talks like a Monet, it could still be something else entirely.
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