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How to Avoid Fakes

Often, after getting duped in precisely this manner and finding themselves in ownership of what turns out to be a stunningly obvious fake, buyers prefer to hide their loss. That’s because getting duped by a forgery—to the extent that it represents a failed effort to signify wealth, taste, and mastery of an insider code—is in some ways the rich person’s ultimate humiliation

Confirming the authenticity of an artwork is crucial before buying.

The reality today is that most art forgers are simply out to trick collectors and institutions into paying top dollar for worthless fakes. Buyers beware — the Fine Arts Experts Institute (FAEI) estimates that well over 50% of all art in the market is fake. Some artists are faked more than others, and some forgers are more sophisticated than their rivals. With so many counterfeits out there, how can you tell if your artwork is fake?

1. Check if the painting you are buying is already part of an important collection

It may seem unbelievably simple, but many forgers will try their luck selling copies of artworks that are actually kept in a famous permanent collection. All it requires is a quick google search. Nowadays the internet is a very easy way to achieve basic due diligence”. Checking the records of a foundation or an archive is always the first port of call — but as we will see, even the archives can be wrong. If you do find that the real work is held elsewhere, contact the owner and give them the details of the fraudulent seller.

2. Ask for as much paperwork as you can — and then check its authenticity

The most important thing in establishing authenticity is provenance. If the seller has an invoice or proof of purchase, this makes it far more likely that the artwork is real. Always go the extra mile. If the seller bought the work from a dealer that’s still in business, get in contact with the dealer and check that the work really did come through them. The more documentation you have, the more likely your artwork is genuine. That said, it is possible that the fraudsters have forged the documentation as well as the artwork…

3. Buy from a reputable source and don't be tempted by bargains

It’s always preferable to buy from a reputable vendor — even if this makes the work more expensive — it heavily reduces the risk of buying a fake. With that in mind, when you’re investing in art, it’s generally safer to pay more. If you find a valuable artwork at a low price, it could be a bargain, but the more likely scenario is it’s a fake. Look for premium pricing, and seek out longstanding and revered dealers. But be aware that even the most respectable galleries aren't always 100% trustworthy...

4. Check the back of the painting 

Look at the back of the painting. If you see labels from auction houses and galleries, that is a good sign.” This indicates previous sales. You can then contact the institutions in question, and confirm that the work did come through them. You can also check the back of your work against the photo kept in the official archives. The more amateur forgers only focus on the front and/or don’t have access to the archives, therefore have no idea how the back looks.

Another sign of a fake is the signature. If the signature is wrong, that is a huge warning flag. That said, the signature is the easiest thing to forge, so an accurate signature isn’t always the sign of a real artwork. It’s also important to remember that some artists paint in very different ways throughout their career, and may use different signatures at different times. For example, the Italian artist Giacomo Balla signed all his paintings Balla, until he began working with the Futurists, at which point he adopted a new signature, Futur Balla. So if a signature seems different, don’t go calling the cops just yet; there may be a reason for it.

5. Consider having paintings chemically tested

Chemical testing is 100% reliable, but it’s not something you can do at home. If after preliminary analysis you think the work might be authentic, take it to an expert. Test the pigment, test the canvas. At MutualArt we were offered a Modigliani, but chemical testing revealed that the painting contained Titanium pigments, which were invented several years after the original painting was produced. If you’re buying an expensive work, it’s always worth running the tests.

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