At Meural, we're driven by art democratization and transparency—and so we've developed a series at the intersection of art and commerce. Each installment provides an objective, accessible debriefing of a financial aspect of the art industry. Read more about the series' objective and what's to come.

by Elinor Case-Pethica

Earlier this December, Sotheby’s announced that James Martin of Orion Analytics would be joining their team to develop a new department specializing in detecting forgeries. This addition may be in reaction to news that emerged in October, that the auction house had unknowingly sold a Frans Hals forgery, “Portrait of a Man” to a private buyer for about $10 million. In a market becoming ever more peppered with art fraud scandals, Sotheby’s move to protect itself from forgeries and fakes is a wise one. 

The forged "Portrait of a Man", courtesy of Weiss Gallery

A fake artwork is one that has been incorrectly attributed to the wrong artist. Forgeries, on the other hand, are pieces deliberately created to be passed off as something they are not. 

The most concrete method of authentication is chemical analysis of materials. In the case of the Frans Hals, this process was relatively simple—the painting contained anachronistic pigments for its alleged 17th century date of origin. But what about more modern forgeries? Forensically speaking there is much less for experts to work with when trying to authenticate a recently-made piece.

Hugh Griffith's character in 1966 film "How To Steal a Million" explains his careful use of old materials for his Van Gogh forgery

One of the tools for identifying whether or not a work is authentic or not is the provenance. Provenance is the record of a piece’s ownership, which ideally stretches all the way back to the artist. An unidentified forgery begins to accumulate its own provenance the longer it goes unspotted, making it increasingly difficult to recognize as time passes. The illusion of a provenance can also be created, in the form of fraudulent documents and staged photographs.

Provenance is the story of how an artwork has changed hands over time

In most cases, buyers rely on the reputation of the seller for reassurance that their purchases are authentic. It is traditional for auction houses to conduct examinations of the pieces they offer up for sale, but pieces being consigned in are not viewed suspiciously and are rarely subjected to chemical tests.

It is difficult to speculate how much fake or forged artwork exists—we can only guess at how many inauthentic pieces are never spotted. The Fine Art Experts Institute in Geneva states that between 70%-90% of the pieces brought to them for examination are inauthentic, and guesstimates that the trend extends to as much as 50% of artwork currently in circulation. 

Despite this worrisome estimate, it is increasingly difficult to obtain definitive proof of authenticity. Scientific examination of a work can cost as much as $19,000, yet rarely leads to a explicit stamp of approval. Authentication on stylistic grounds is even harder to come by. This may largely be due to the liability involved in signing off on an artwork’s validity. If the work is later proved to be a forgery or fake, the prior examiner is vulnerable to litigation.

While wishy-washy answers may protect examiners from future legal problems, they have decidedly negative outcomes in the big picture. Unauthenticated work cannot be recognized in an artist’s catalogue raisonné, and therefore will not be available as reference to scholars and experts in the future. Thus, indeterminate answers in authentication leads to a loss of knowledge, incomplete legacies for artists, and less material for future scholarship.

A forged Rothko painting, sold by Knoedler & Co Gallery to Sotheby's chairman Domenico De Sole for $8.3 million in 2011, courtesy of artnet

Forgery and fake are dirty words in the art world. This is in part because of the uncomfortable fact that there are likely many more of them than we are aware of, but also because they call into question the true values at play when purchasing a piece. If aesthetics is the end game, why is a Rothko by Rothko worth millions, but one by forger Pei-Shen Qian worthless? If owning the history and a name-brand is the goal, does the work itself become irrelevant? As the art world cracks down harder on fakes and forgeries, and more cases rise to the surface, questions such as these will surely arise with them.