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It's estimated that up to 50% of all artwork in circulation is fake. In this guide, you'll learn tips you can use to avoid buying fake artworks at auction.
7 Mins

Art Forgery: How to Spot a Fake Artwork

Lewis Findley
Lewis Findley

Fake Art Dominates Half the Art Market

In 2014, a startling revelation by the Fine Art Expert Institute (FAEI) in Switzerland claimed up to 50% of art circulating the market is fake.

Home to roughly 1 million artworks, they estimated that 70-90% of them have been misattributed.

Costing up to €15,000, they examine paintings utilising an array of methods which range from extensive research to carbon dating.

Despite the tools available today, fake artworks have managed to end up in museums and auctions.

Fake Paintings in Museums

Fake artworks are not unique to collectors and buyers. Museums and art galleries have fallen victim to this problem with some cases being on an epic scale.

For instance, the Étienne Terrus Museum discovered that 82 pieces of art were fake! The museum held a dedicated showing for Étienne Terrus with 140 pieces of his art up for viewing. It was unveiled that almost 60% were fake. The mayor of Elne described it as a catastrophe.

“On one painting, the ink signature was wiped away when I passed my white glove over it.” - Eric Forcada, art historian.

Artwork Seized From Gallery by Police

Police seize £6m Venus painting over art forgery

Image Via - Antiques Trade Gazette

In 2015, an anonymous tip off to police led to the seizure of £6m painting 'Venus' thought to be from German Renaissance master, Lucas Cranach.

Giving credence to the term 'modern fake', its quality sent shockwaves through the art world.

These shockwaves were not only caused by the quality but the money involved.

The amount of money spent on art has increased dramatically compared to previous decades In 2017, artworks sold in auction alone accounted for over $850m in sales.

In this guide, you learn ways to scrutinise artworks you see in galleries, museums, auctions and more.

Top Tips for Identifying Fake Art

Take a look at these top tips which you can use to identify fake art and also enable you to buy or bid with more confidence. 

Identifying fakes can be difficult without training and sometimes, it can catch out the experts.

1) Does it match the style of the painter?

Do you remember the time researchers uncovered a new painting "Sunset at Montmajour” thought to be from Van Gogh?

Sunset at Montmajour authenticated as a Van Gogh painting

Image Via - Evening Standard

The style of a painter is unique to them. It can range from the way they stroke their brush all the way to the canvas they use. These aspects are factored into the tests used by researchers to authenticate artworks.

Through their analyses, they performed an X-ray on the canvas. The aim was to establish a connection with the canvases Van Gogh used at the time. In addition, they performed a chemical test to verify the paint used.

The painting passed these stringent tests and was authenticated as an artwork by Van Gogh.

2) Is the signature consistent?

A painter will often employ a subtle sign it's their work. Signing a particular part of the artwork or, in the case of Picasso, signing in pencil.

fake art tips - is signature consistent? Picasso signature example

The reason for this is because it can difficult to reproduce. In addition, the letters in his name are angled and spaced out proportionately which also adds to the difficulties in reproducing his signature.

You'll be surprised to hear that a gallery from New York sold forged art after the artwork in question had misspelt the surname of the author, Jackson Pollock. The signature was spelt Jackson 'Pollok' and was sold for $280,000!

3) Were the materials used, available at the time?

Artwork discovered to contain materials not available at the time

This may be hard to believe but there are art mediums and materials which were only available at certain times in history.

For example, the £8.5m fake thought to be from the Dutch artist Frans Hals. It was mistakenly sold as original but it was analysed by Sotheby's and was found to contain modern-day materials not available in the 17th century.

Fortunately for the buyer, when Sotheby’s sells an artwork, it comes with a five-year guarantee.

To combat the threat of fake artworks appearing in their auction, they acquired Orion Analytical. With this acquisition, they have their own in-house conservation and analysis department. 

4) Does it show signs of age?

fake art tip - does it show signs of age?

It's no secret that paintings and even their canvasses patina over time.

A patina is a process where natural signs of age appear. 

Typical tell-tale signs can be how the paint has cracked over time. For example, French canvasses from the 18th century appear like spider webs. 

This could be down to various factors such as the natural environment e.g. climate, exposure to chemicals and more.

A popular method for creating an artificial patina are tea bags and even varnish.

 5) Provenance - Are there any previous owners?

fake art tip - is there a recorded provenance?

Before you decide to bid on or buy a painting, it's necessary to understand its provenance. Questions which you need to focus on are any gaps in its record of ownership. 

There have been questions raised about the authenticity of the "Salvator Mundi" which sold at auction in 2017 for £450m. There are 200 years of ownership which isn't documented. You can read more about the artwork here: Missing Salvator Mundi Found on a Yacht.

If there are any gaps in the provenance of the artwork then ask.

These gaps can inspire a wide variety of questions as to how it started somewhere and ended up somewhere else.

6) Brush bristles

Do original artworks contain brush bristles? No.

A cheap replica will speak for itself just take a closer look at the painting under magnification.

What you can find are brush bristles stuck on to it. This is one of the most common ways to check on the authenticity of the painting.

An original piece of art will not contain any traces of brush bristles.

7) Printed vs Originals

Fake art tip - how to identify a printed artwork

A magnifying glass should come handy here. A printed piece of art has its own characteristics.

To expose a printed artwork, you can hold the painting against the light and look at it from the back.

If it is a real painting, you should be able to see light coming through the back of the canvas. But if it is a printed copy, this isn't the case.

Artists use varying degrees of impasto (heaviness of paint in certain areas) which alerts the viewer to brushstrokes which vary in size and texture. Perfection can only be achieved if it's a print.

8) Featured in their catalogue raisonné?

fake art tip - is the artwork in their catalogue raisonné?

Artists have what's called a catalogue raisonné. 

This details all of their known artworks. Sometimes, it can be presented by media such as oil, water and pastel.

Other times, all of their known works appear on the same list. If a painting cannot be found in their catalogue raisonné, it could have been misattributed, fake or undiscovered.

9) Provenance adding techniques

how do art forgers fake documents and papers?

Art forgers have gone to great lengths to make their artwork look as original as possible.

Examples include taking pictures of modern people in period clothes holding the artwork, forged documents, papers, fabricated stories about provenance and more.

Wolfgang Beltracchi, a well-known art forger, is said to have faked over 50 artists.

To create a fake provenance, he invented stories about his grandparents being collectors.

His scheme netted over €100m!

10) Opinion Over Truth?

why opinions in art matter more than truth

From the research conducted to create this article, we've learnt that the art market is incredibly unique.

Despite the tools available today, those of notable regard can negate any early concerns about forged artworks through their opinion.

It's true that artists possess unique traits that instantly give themselves away but how is that up to 50% of artworks in circulation are said to be fake?

Is it cheaper to hire an expert than to go through the process of in-depth analysis by companies like Orion or even the Fine Art Expert Institute (FAEI)?

Bonus Tip - Too good to be true? It usually is!

fake art tip - if it sounds too good to be true then it usually is!

Image Via - Liberator

The previous 10 tips tackle objective ways in which you can use to identify fakes but there is still an overriding opinion which can tip the scales - your own.

How many times have you done the research, asked people and looked at in a million different ways with no compelling evidence to buy the item but you still bought it anyway?

Even if you think you're on course for the deal of the century, it's necessary to look for the signs. 

Trivia - If you don't have access to an x-ray or carbon dating machine then something you can bring is a colour chart.

Final Words

What was your favourite tip? Or perhaps story? Hit the comments and let us know!

Art is a fascinating world which lets you immerse yourself in feelings and emotions which are unforgettable. Check out our guide to explain how you can use art and more to change your home: Art, Antiques & Collectables in Auction.

However, the charm can be taken away upon the discovery that it's fake or a print. When you buy original art online, be sure to use these tips to avoid being caught out.

Explore our online art auctions and find that something new which adds a story to your home.