Art of faking art: How forged art is circulated and ways of detection

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Updated: June 16, 2019 12:13:41 AM

With duplication being a rising menace in the art world, Indrani Bose tries to decipher how forged art is circulated, its impact on the market and ways of detection

art of forgery,  art forgery, art, most forged painting, mona lisa, Roman sculpture,  French art, Louis XV, art authentication business, Dhoomimal Art Gallery, cima gallery, Jamini Roy, Rabindranath Tagore, SH Raza, museum of fake art, france, indiaA fake painting of ‘Female Head’ originally by Anjolie Ela Menon once circulated from one gallery to the other in Mumbai

Perhaps the most fascinating form of art crimes is the art of forgery. But forgery is too harsh a term to denounce imitation because not everyone imitates an artist for wealth. Some are mere frustrated artists, struggling hard to make a living by replicating famous people’s famous works. The talent involved in duplication or, if it can be called reproduction, deserves some amount of acclamation as even the most sharp or watchful of all art collectors, who swear by authenticity of a piece of work, are fooled into buying forged art pieces.

History is replete with examples of illustrious painters, who hovered near the limelight by faking original pieces of art. Take the famous Michelangelo for example. Besides all that glory that he has attracted over the ages, and the volumes written about his gifted reflexes, the fact that he was a con artist at one point of time has never been a guarded secret. Before becoming a renowned Renaissance artist, he made money by creating imitations of ancient Roman sculptures.

Hungary’s Elmyr de Hory, (in)famous for his counterfeits, imitated the who’s who of the art world during the 20th century. European artists Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani are also partners in crime and glory. When his act of deceit leapt out in the public domain in the 1950s, de Hory became an instant sensation. And guess what? According to US’ Winterthur Museum curator Linda Eaton, today his fake works, which have become collectables in auction houses, are rampantly faked as well.

Other countries in Europe also have their fair share of fake art. Zoom in on France. In its Terrus museum more than half of the art collection has been found to be fake and, interestingly enough, this is not the first time a French museum has realised that it has been sheltering counterfeit works. According to a New York Times article, in 2016 the French culture ministry issued a statement disclosing that police were examining €2.7 million (around $3 million at the time) worth of furniture, including two Louis XV chairs bought by the Palace of Versailles. Surprisingly, those incarcerated for the crime were not some random, struggling artists, but art historian Bill Pallot and gallery director Laurent Kraemer. This dispels the myth that only talented artists participate in the game of fake art.

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The crime shook the French art world and resulted in the culture ministry improving its acquisition process for museums. According to The Art Newspaper, the ministry has set up research centres to validate items before they enter national collections. But, how does fake art creep into the market? According to Uday Jain, director of Dhoomimal Art Gallery in Delhi, fake art crawls its way into the fair market where people mostly opt for deals or are looking to buy something in cash. In most such cases, buyers do not care to exercise enough diligence on their part while purchasing art works. Often, they avoid not to discuss the matter with specialists.

Renu Rana, director of an art consultancy in Delhi called Art Inc, observes, “The poor demand and supply ratio encourages fake art, offering easy playing field to forgeries. Art dealers have entered the market cleverly, in an underhand manner, introducing a couple of fakes along with some originals. It is easy to fool an inexperienced buyer. And that’s why art authenticators are the need of the hour.”

Impact on the market
Rakhi Sarkar, director of CIMA Art Gallery in Kolkata, shares an interesting revelation about art authenticity becoming a booming business. “The rise of fake art is increasing the demand for art authenticators, who are charging around `20,000-30,000 for a piece. If it’s an art piece by someone renowned like Ravi Verma, they charge in lakhs,” she says.

“You can make as much profit by selling one fake as you would by selling 10-15 original works. But, if we want a single piece of FN Souza or MF Husain or Vasudeo S Gaitonde to sell for `100 crore, we need to eradicate fakes completely or at least their circulation and acceptance,” says Jain. “Fakes especially affect newer buyers. Old buyers are still well aware and do their due diligence. Even if occasionally wronged, they know what steps to take. However, if new buyers are told that they have bought a wrong or doubtful work, they feel discouraged and don’t want to invest in art ever again,” he adds.

If a fake piece of work is found in some renowned auction house like Sotheby’s or Christie’s, it gets really difficult to sweep such embarrassments under the carpet due to their fame. Last year, Bloomberg reported that Sotheby’s had pulled rival auction house Christie’s into a fight over the sale of a $11-million Old Master painting that Sotheby’s claims is fake. Apparently, Sotheby’s had to compensate buyer Richard Hedreen, a US real estate investor. So they are suing Christie’s that originally housed the painting to retrieve their loss.

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There was another fake art case where law had to intervene. A few years ago, there was a settlement among Knoedler & Company, a Manhattan gallery that suddenly closed, and a customer who claimed that the gallery sold him a forged Jackson Pollock for $17 million. The FBI was probing whether that painting, known as Silver Pollock, was part of a larger stock of forgeries. However, no charges could be proved, and the gallery maintained that the work is genuine. So what happened to the $17-million painting that some people considered to be inauthentic? That particular case had attracted a lot of publicity, which implies that a sale anytime soon would be difficult. Nonetheless, criminal law wouldn’t necessarily disallow the owner from selling it as a Pollock today.

In case of undisputed fakes, US law enforcement officials attempt to stop resales by stamping works as fake or, in some cases, they get rid of it. But there is always a chance of destroying an authentic work by mistake. Artist foundations and estates that come across fake works on eBay or at small auction houses can, however, notify a dealer or website. But they are not permitted to grab hold of the work or label it fake. According to experts, counterfeits go underground only to re-emerge later with renewed vigour, this time with an original tag.

How fakes enter markets
The sad truth is that fake art can be produced anywhere. In a market where names rule over creativity, budding artists are bound to feel the pinch of despair, and are eventually drawn to produce sham versions of original pieces as it ensures easy money. Sometimes even the studio assistants play villain — Hamid Shafi’s case is a perfect example. More than a decade ago, a fake painting of Female Head originally by one of India’s leading contemporary artists Anjolie Ela Menon was being circulated from one gallery to another in Mumbai. Menon’s assistant Hamid Shafi was investigated and consequently arrested.

According to Dhoomimal Art Gallery director Uday Jain, today a lot of fakes come from sources who claim that particular artworks belonged to royal families. In Jain’s opinion, colonial or old school works can come from royal families but he doesn’t think Souza’s and Husain’s and post-independence art, in general, were really collected by royals. Even Sarkar of CIMA acknowledges the rising menace of fake art. Sarkar reveals that 90% of Jamini Roy’s works are fake — because the pieces in circulation in his name are ironically more than what he had produced in his lifetime.

According to Sarkar, Calcutta is a big market for fake art. A whole new tribe of artists, fresh graduates from art colleges in Shantiniketan and Kolkata, are producing fake works. In 2011, during an exhibition at the Government College of Art and Craft, Calcutta, 20 paintings attributed to Rabindranath Tagore were described as fake by art historians and critics. Later the former head of the college and a Dhanbad-based art dealer were charged with committing the crime.

The Art Inc director agrees and notifies that there are certain specific places in Kolkata and Jaipur where canvases are treated with chemicals to make them appear old and worn out. Sometimes the paintings are also faithfully duplicated, and the quality is so good that even experts can easily be fooled. But, if galleries and auction houses employ professionals to detect fake art, newer buyers can be found easily, and duplicated work can be kept at bay. But, according to Sarkar, over 90% of galleries in India don’t hire any specialist to check an art’s authenticity.

Checking fakes
At Dhoomimal Gallery, from the time before Jain took over as the director, there has been a practice to deal with artists directly as much as possible. However, with most of the masters having passed away, the secondary market is very strong, and this is where auctions play an important role. “While buying art works in private, several things have to be checked — if the pieces are published or if the older galleries have some distinct marking or labels that one can identify. Then again, to be certain, it has to go through some scientific tests. Despite this, sometimes the best of us get fooled or confused,” says Jain.

“An incident at Dhoomimal deserves mention. The gallery was to host an exhibition of SH Raza’s early works. The organisers talked to Raza directly before holding the show and came to know that his works were sourced by his nephew,” shares Jain.

“However, when Raza came to inaugurate the show, he claimed all the works to be inauthentic, and Dhoomimal had to pull down the show. But, at least, if any such incident comes up in a reputed gallery, it will surely be dealt with. Chances of anything going wrong and the culprit getting away are slim as the viewership is huge,” he adds.

Detecting forgery
A signature is an important tool to detect fake art. But there’s a catch. Take the case of Italian artist Giacomo Balla. He signed all his paintings Balla, but when he started working with the Futurists, he embraced a new signature — Futur Balla. So signatures alone can’t be relied upon. Mattia Pozzoni, a resident expert at MutualArt, an online art information service, says, “If a signature seems different, don’t go calling the cops just yet; there may be a reason for it.”

Indian painter Jamini Roy also adopted two to three signatures at different phases of his career. Sarkar shares that if someone brings you Roy’s work with a signature not complementing that particular period in his career, it should be red-flagged. She says these counterfeiters are experts at using old paper. So even when a paper is chemically analysed, it will prove to be old and that might mislead you.

Sarkar also highlights the provenance of an artwork. Provenance is the chain of ownership and custody of an artwork, tracing back from the contemporary ownership to its manufacturing. It’s place of origin, the story behind it and any element of history that can be uncovered are to be taken note of. In case of a forgery of documentation, fake art can be easily ferreted out. “Art is forged once and when it has value in the market. Ultimately, it is the responsibility of the artist, and the galleries that he or she works with, to protect the value of the works from forgeries,” says Peter Nagy, founder of contemporary art gallery Nature Morte, based in Delhi.

Nagy stresses on signing and photographing all works before they leave the studio, and highlights the importance of galleries issuing certificates of authenticity for all works sold. Keeping pieces of copy of all that are issued is equally important. “With these safeguards in place, there is little chance of fakes being passed off as real while the artist is alive. The artist will usually be able to tell if the work is genuine or otherwise,” he says.

However, there is a problem when the artist passes away. To ensure that confusion does not arise, the artist should make sure there are duplicate sets of all documentation with the gallery and other family members. Someone (ideally a younger family member ) should be appointed as the ultimate authority on the artist’s works. He or she must be guided by the artist into the specifics — materials and techniques used, etc.

50% of art is fake?
The Fine Arts Experts Institute (FAEI) comes out with a shocking statistics —over 50% of all art in the market is fake. Nagy dismisses the statement as “ridiculous”. Jain concurs with Nagy. He says in the case of reputed auction houses and galleries, one among 1,000 works gets the red flag. If people start eyeing bargains and make deals with private individuals with no background checks whatsoever, they will come across “innumerable fakes, which cannot be counted or assessed, floating around.”

He recommends connecting with the auction houses while buying art. Places like Sotheby’s and Christie’s and galleries like Pundole (Mumbai), Dhoomimal Art Gallery and Vadehra (Delhi) would either stand by the art or take it back if claims about their collections being copied are proved.

Interestingly, Vienna’s Fälschermuseum or the Museum of Art Fakes never had to bear the grunt of a scorned art buyer, probably because its walls are adorned with crimes and criminals. Confused? The museum opened its doors to public in 2005 to salute the bizarre history of forgery, and make people aware of how to put an end to art frauds. The museum is currently home to over 80 works by popular forgers like Han Van Meergen whose replication of Vermeer was regarded as one of the Dutchman’s greatest pieces. The other imitations honoured here have been inspired by artists like Picasso and Matisse, among others.

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