Art Forgeries: Ways Art Forgers Fool Collectors
Q: Could you please review some of the methods forgers use to alter works of art? Are signature directories good for spotting problems? I occasionally see art I like for sale online or at small auctions, antique shops and collectives, but am reluctant to buy.
A: You show good judgment by hesitating. Forgers are at least as much of a problem at small auctions and retail shops as they are at the major sales, and they're a substantial problem online. They also tend to make about as much progress at fooling people as forgery detectives do at foiling their efforts; it's a constant battle. Even though fakes represent only a small percentage of all available art, unless you know exactly what you're doing or a seller provides incontrovertible proof of authenticity, you can be taken advantage of.
To complicate matters these days, you also need proof that any art you're interested in buying hasn't been stolen. Once again, the great majority of art is in the possession of its rightful owners, but under certain circumstances, if you get caught with stolen art, you are financially responsible for it's return and not the party who sold it to you. Laws and statutes vary from state to state and country to country. Know what the situation is where you live and do business. Also be aware that IFAR, the International Foundation for Art Research, maintains a stolen art database; you can always check with them if you have suspicions (or just to be on the safe side).
Your best protection against forgeries is knowing what art by the artists you collect looks like, back, front, and sides. People who get fooled are often only familiar with artists' names and not much else. You need to know what an artist's brush strokes look like, what his or her favorite subject matters and compositions are, where their signatures are typically located, and what mediums, materials, sizes and formats they usually work in. Also know what the art looks like from the back, how it's usually framed, mounted, or displayed, how and where it's titled or numbered, and what gallery, manufacturer, or supplier tags or labels it's likely to have. You realize when examining paintings by a given artist in this comprehensive manner that they're pretty much unique-- almost like fingerprints-- and for forgers, there's simply too much for them to duplicate. It's hard to fool someone who knows how to analyze art.
Regarding examination techniques, black light has traditionally been used to detect irregularities on paintings, but recent advances by forgers are making this more and more difficult. Newly added signatures once flouresced and appeared to float above painted surfaces when viewed under black light, but non-flourescing paints are now being used to counter this effect. Masking varnishes that impart overall translucent greenish looks to surfaces are also being used to hide inconsistencies. Black light is still worth using, however. It often shows previous restorations and gives other clues, positive as well as negative, to a painting's past.
A good jeweler's lupe or 60-100 power illuminated pocket microscope (widely available online and at retailers like Radio Shack) can be used to identify locations on a painting where newly added paint has bled into nearby hairline age cracks. For example, if paint from a signature appears to run into the microscopic cracks directly beneath it, that could mean that the original surface paint dried, aged, and cracked long before the signature was added.
Other suspicious details that could indicate doctoring:
* Old frames are sometimes cut down and placed on fake paintings to enhance their original period looks, and fool innocent victims. (Check to see whether joints match the age of the frame or look fresh and recently cut).
* Paper, either new or old, is glued over a painting's back. This is sometimes done to hide inconsistencies, condition problems, or other manipulations. The back of a painting is as important as the front (sometimes even more so). Always inspect a painting from the back before buying-- and learn what to look for when you do.
* Watch out for cleanly cut edges on canvas or artist's board that have no overhanging paint or primer along those edges. This may mean the art has been cut down from its original size, thereby reducing its value and desirability to collectors. A very clean paint line along edges might also mean that some kind of mechanical reproductive process has been used either in full or in part to create the image.
* Old nail or mounting marks on the back of an artist's board or stretcher bars may mean that a painting has been removed, doctored, and then replaced into either its original frame or different one. Professionals can also spot when nails have been pulled, paintings removed from their frames, and then replaced.
* Beware of new stretcher bars on old canvases. Restorers legitimately use new stretcher bars when old ones can no longer support a weak or damaged canvas, but forgers may also use them to help obscure or alter a painting's identity.
* On graphics, watercolors, and other works on paper, watch out for signatures that look fresher, bolder, or otherwise inconsistent with the art itself. Shaky or rigid signatures rather than smooth spontaneous ones are sometimes a giveaway as well.
* Be cautious when you find labels or artist listings that have been recently glued onto the backs of unsigned works of art-- unless you're positive they're as old as the art itself. No matter how good these additions look or how important the artists' names are, remember that the art is still unsigned.
* Watch for signs that a new painting has been recently "aged" to look old. For example, stretcher bars might be sprayed with stains to make the wood look older, old stickers might be added to either the frame backs or stretcher bars, paintings might be surfaced with yellow-toned varnishes to make them look antique, and sometimes even fake "dust" is added by more enterprising criminals.
* Heresay or gossip that an unsigned work is by a particular artist is just that-- heresay. For example, if a seller tells you, "The owner told me that this has been in his family for 100 years and was painted by Vincent Picasso," this means absolutely nothing. You need incontrovertible proof of authenticity.
As for artist signature encyclopedias and directories, they do not necessarily protect you against forgers. First of all, an artist's signature can change throughout the course of his or her career. Secondly, a forger can use the same signature directory to learn how to fake an artist's signature that you're using to identify it. Thirdly, attempting to determine authenticity by examining only the signature while ignoring the rest of the art is one of the easiest ways to get stuck with a fake.
Remember-- consult a professional appraiser or similarly qualified expert whenever you have questions about art you're considering buying. As for improving your ability to detect forgeries, study as many authentic period pieces as possible, get to know what they look like in every respect, learn from experienced professionals how they detect forgeries, see as many fakes as possible and have experts explain why they're fake, and train your eye by regularly inspecting art under professional supervision.
Services for Artists and Collectors
- Art Consulting From Me Helps You >>