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Fake or fortune?

  • Fake art has reared its ugly head in India over the past couple of years
  • One could look out for simple signs such as chalk marks and barcodes on the back of an artwork for identification

Vincent van Gogh’s self-portrait (1889) (Left); A forged version of van Gogh’s self-portrait by an anonymous painter in the early 20th century (Right)
Vincent van Gogh’s self-portrait (1889) (Left); A forged version of van Gogh’s self-portrait by an anonymous painter in the early 20th century (Right)

Since time immemorial, the art world has been rocked by audacious cases of forgery. The case that comes to mind, in recent times, is from 2015, when the painting Venus With A Veil, by German Renaissance master Lucas Cranach the Elder, was taken away by the French police from a gallery in Aix-en-Provence on suspicion of it being a fake. A Guardian article by Samanth Subramanian mentions that the fake had been purchased in 2013 by the prince of Liechtenstein for £6 million (around 55 crore now).

Fake art has reared its ugly head in India too over the past couple of years. In 2009, during an exhibition at Delhi’s Dhoomimal Gallery, S.H. Raza, who had come from Paris to inaugurate the show, “was stupefied and outraged" to find that a large number of his works on display were fakes. The gallery, which maintained that most of the paintings had been sourced from the artist’s nephew, had to cancel the show. Another such case came to light in 2011 during an exhibition at the Government College of Art and Craft, Kolkata, when 20 paintings attributed to Rabindranath Tagore were labelled as fakes by art historians and critics. Later, the Criminal Investigation Department charged the former head of the college and a Dhanbad-based art dealer with duping the government and art enthusiasts by exhibiting fakes. In fact, in a 2014 interview to AFP, Yan Walther, then chief of Fine Arts Experts institute, Switzerland, claimed that 50% of all art circulating in the global market was fake. In such a scenario, what can a collector do to test whether the art they have bought is authentic or not?

Train your eye

Most experts insist that there is no substitute for training the eye. According to Ashvin Rajagopalan, director, Piramal Art Foundation, and founder, Ashvita, an online platform for affordable art and collectibles, the more you visit museums and see works, the more you become familiar with a larger body of work. “See the brush strokes, the thickness of application. Read about an artist to see if the image is typical to the style or is something different. Compare to known works," he says. Also, when purchasing an artwork, look out for obvious parameters such as the pricing: If the price is too good to be true, then so is the artwork. Authentic works, with good provenance, are never sold for cheap. “There must be unbroken provable data. Do not believe stories of ownership, and just because it was owned by someone famous or known doesn’t make the artwork original," says Rajagopalan.

Mallika Sagar looks at a work by M.F. Husain
Mallika Sagar looks at a work by M.F. Husain

One could also look out for simple symbols and signs such as chalk marks and barcodes on the back of an artwork to trace its journey through auction houses. An article on MutualArt, an online art information service, says most amateur forgers only focus on the front—they don’t have access to the archives, so they have no idea what the back looks like. However, according to Mallika Sagar of Pundole’s, these marks and signs need to be verified and checked with the original exhibition or gallery records. Most things today can be fabricated, so one has to be mindful. The same applies to works previously sold at auctions. “Auction houses, by virtue of being in the public domain, are a good way to spot works that are not correct. But, again, they need supplementary research and cross verification," she says.

While having a trail of certifications is good, experts say it’s passé now. According to Noah Charney, an American art historian-novelist based in Slovenia, they used to be key prior to World War II, but so many experts certified works incorrectly, or for profit, that these certifications are not considered of any real value any more. “If the authenticity of an object relies on a certificate alone, then that is reason enough to be suspicious," he says.

One would think that artist signatures would be a good test of authenticity, but that is not so. According to Rajagopalan, forgers keep to what is typical to the artist. “For example, the most number of Manjit Bawa fakes are signed on the reverse as ‘Manjit Bawa ‘98’," he says. Sagar concurs, and believes an artist’s brushstroke and line is his or her true signature, far harder to copy. Hence, it’s best to familiarize oneself with an artist’s style and technique in order to spot a fake.

Art meets technology

A Cadillac advertisement being examined at Ashvita. Courtesy: Ashvita
A Cadillac advertisement being examined at Ashvita. Courtesy: Ashvita

One can also opt for forensic testing. According to Charney, the founding director of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art—an organization with centres in the US and Italy—almost no forgers in history, even the famous ones, have bothered to make forgeries that would stand up to forensic tests.

Moreover, every medium and category, ranging from photographs and maps to Fabergé eggs, has its inherent characteristics, and by extension its own giveaways. For instance, according to a Christie’s collecting guide to Buddhist sculpture, when forgers make replicas of a sculpture, they generally do so using the aid of published references. In such references, you only see the front of a sculpture. The forgers recreate the back and bottom from imagination, which makes for strange—and frequently bizarre—design components. “For example, (specialist Tristan) Bruck says, the drapery of a Buddha’s robe might fold strangely—or the jewellery of a bodhisattva won’t sit properly," it states. Charney, however, says that in the digital age, anyone can go online and check where the original is, and therefore know that a copy is just that—a copy. “Only simplistic and easily caught forgers copy extant objects. They best create new objects that appear to match the description of known lost objects. If a forger copies an extant object, and someone buys it thinking it is the original, then shame on the buyer. They should know better, as it is so easy to check in most cases," says Charney.

However, since each category requires its own specialization, making it impossible for one person to be able to tell a fake at all, it’s important to reach out to the right expert. “The tools used to detect copies in modern Indian art are very different from the methods used to check European porcelain or Chinese ceramics," says Sagar. “For paintings, one looks at several aspects such as strokes, subjects, medium, technique and quality," she says. In ceramics, one observes the quality of the piece, the surface, the age-related craquelure, the quality of painting, the markings. It would be best to take an object for forensic analysis to a museum conservator’s office. “Most common techniques are carbon-14 dating and looking at objects with X-rays, ultraviolet and infrared light," says Charney. Also, new scientific instruments are being developed regularly, such as within the department of scientific research at Sotheby’s. These include a portable spectrometer to discriminate between natural and synthetic materials and portable cameras to see through paint, among other things, as mentioned in an article on the Sotheby’s website.

One must keep such information in mind when looking for a conservator to test a counterfeit: past experience, case studies and innovation. Speak with museums, galleries and collectors about their experience with a specialist. At the end of it, rely on a combination of factors, ranging from provenance, historical references, artistic comparables, exhibition and publication history, and a thorough examination for detecting fakes.

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