Fake Or Fortune?: Five tips for art buyers to find the real deal

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As seen in the 2018 Oscar-nominated movie Can You Ever Forgive Me?, even experts can be fooled by a convincing creative forgery. In the film, Melissa McCarthy plays real-life author Lee Israel, who faked a series of letters from literary celebrities, selling them for high prices. With this year’s movie adaptation of Donna Tartt’s novel The Goldfinch, which sees Ansel Elgorth play a young man caught up in the world of art forgery, you’d be forgiven for thinking this is something of a fictional trend. And though it’s easy to believe that such scams are only seen in the movies, they’re all too common in the art world.

The LAPADA Art & Antiques Fair
The LAPADA Art & Antiques Fair takes place every autumn in London

In 2018, for example, it was revealed that over half of the works in the Museé Terrus, a gallery in a small town in the south of France, were fakes. Meanwhile, famous fraudster John Myatt forged over 200 paintings by some of the world’s most famous artists, and served four months of his one-year prison sentence in 1999, before launching a career as a TV art expert. There’s even Fake or Fortune?, a BBC show dedicated to investigating the history and mystery behind notable pieces which frequently discovers that highly-valued paintings are really worth nothing.

Nobody wants to be a victim of such deception, but it’s easy when so many replicas are very convincing. Luckily, there are some signs to watch out for that could help separate the masterpieces from the mock-ups.

Examine the frame

One easy way to see whether an artwork is real is to look beyond the picture itself, as the frame holding the piece can say a lot about its authenticity. Genuine works will be properly framed the majority of the time, and have stayed that way for generations. Of course, this process will have taken place a lot more recently if it’s a fake, and often use low-quality materials. So, if the frame looks modern, cheap or doesn’t fit properly, that’s a good sign that the painting inside of it could be a dud.

Search for the signs

There are many little details on a canvas that may expose a cheap replica. One of the most obvious of these is the brushstrokes. While an original work won’t display any signs of brush bristles, that’s not the case with fraudulent pieces which could have bristles stuck to it. Fakes will also show no depth, and probably be smooth and flat, whereas the real work will display different layers and varying paint thickness. It’s worth trying to find what type of paints have been used to create the image in question too, in order to identify whether an allegedly authentic artwork was made with paints developed centuries later. And watch out for signs of overpainting—repainted areas of a work to improve or restore it—and exposed canvas that could have been caused by shoddy restoration work.

Gauge recent ownership

Alarm bells should start ringing if it’s difficult to acquire any details about who the painting previously belonged to. If the seller is evasive about recent ownership—perhaps claiming it came from a boot sale or house clearance—this could be a sign they’re hiding something. As former forger Shaun Greenhalgh said: “Any reputable dealer welcomes a questioning client.“ He also pointed out that major artworks have provenance, confirming authenticity predominantly through ownership history. “This is usually in the form of proof of exhibition, auction, or dealer records,” he added. “These are sometimes meticulous, going back centuries, but most are fragmentary.”

Don’t trust signatures

It’s very easy to fake a signature, so don’t be easily swayed by paintings allegedly signed by Monet, Picasso or any other big names. These are sometimes purposely obscured to imitate the name without being readable. Paintings will also often have labels on the back to indicate that the artwork was displayed in particular exhibitions or collections. However, again, it’s relatively straightforward to forge these, and fraudsters have a tendency to go overboard with these sorts of markings. If a work is being sold at auction, check the catalogue to see if there is any mention of the artist in question. If not, it pays to be cynical.

Learn more about art

Familiarising oneself with plenty of genuine art will improve your ability to distinguish between real pieces and deceitful replicas. This means paying attention to the specific styles and techniques of particular artists and having an awareness of their history. That way, if a painting by the same artist is for sale, it’s easier to estimate whether or not this matches the rest of their body of work. Forgers may also create works based on pieces that have been illustrated or reproduced elsewhere, so a broad understanding also makes it more likely that familiar-looking pictures will be recognised.