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Learn what to look out for when buying artwork to avoid purchasing a fake. Form research to science, there are a whole host of tips you can utilise to make your buying art more pleasurable and less risky.
4 Mins

How to spot a fake: Piece of art

Luke Davies
Luke Davies

Art can be a fantastic way to invest your money and visually pleasing at the same time. Sure popping your dosh in an ISA is excellent and watching the balance grow, pleasurable, but, a piece of art that evokes emotion in you whilst multiplying the pound notes is pretty exciting.

What does, however, leave a sour taste is when your investment turns out to be something it is not. As long as there has been art, there's been forgeries, and a lot are indiscernible from the real deal. Using the same techniques as the masters, these expert forgers create artworks that resemble the original in almost every way. They may use more modern paint, canvas or board, but the technique is near on identical. There has long been an argument that, if it is a perfect imitation, is it not just as good?

The short answer is, no, authenticity matters. To study imitation artwork is to hinder our understanding of the artist and the evolution of the art.

So, what can you do to avoid purchasing fake artwork? Well, there are basic tips that can get you started. After that, we delve into the realms of technical science.

One rule you will be familiar with if you have followed our how to spot a fake series is do your research! Learn about the artist's work in which you are interested. The materials and colours they used. The way they signed their name. Become familiar so seeing one of there works is like spotting a friend in a crowd.

Patina is a remarkable identifying feature of any works origin and age. Examine the patina of the piece itself, look for dirt and dust of the ages. What is the texture, the brightness of colours, or lack thereof?
Pay close attention to the canvas, do a thread count to see if it is modern or old? There can be other out of place things, if the canvas is stapled on an 1800's piece of art, something is wrong.

These are all methods you can employ yourself, but when you are investing, sometimes large sums of money you want to be sure. For that, you are going to need a professional art sleuth. Techniques used by such experts are closer to CSI than your average art enthusiast.

The first thing to be interrogated is the provenance of the piece. Provenance is the chain of ownership back to the artist's creation of the work. What is the story of the artwork, and can its history trace back to its production?

The experts will also try to find a match for the artwork. A lot of these works are documented in printed materials so the task can be time-consuming and require significant knowledge of where to look. Finding a match of the artwork in a publication is a good start for its journey to authentication.

The next step is visual analysis. The authenticator will look for things which are uncharacteristic of the artist and their works. They will look for false patina on the painting to identify whether it has falsely aged. Forgers may dab tea bags on to work or spray with nicotine make the work appear older than it is. These methods of ageing a piece often don't match with the age of the canvas.

After these tests, things start to get in-depth. Photography and light techniques are employed to look deeper into the painting. Using a camera and ultraviolet light, experts can ascertain whether the canvas is re-used or has any identifying marks that may not fit with the claimed origin. Such as underdrawings and repairs.

Then straight out of a sci-fi movie comes the fluorescence spectrometer. Used to excite the electrons in the pigments of the paint, it identifies the composition of the materials used. Using this method, they can date the paints used to create a piece of work. If they find material, not in use or made after that period, there is a good chance it is an imitation.
Further paint identification is performed using microscopy and laser techniques. These techniques give them additional information about what paint is used and greater insight into its legitimacy by utilising their knowledge of the artist's works.

To summarise, buying art can be complex, and there are many things to account for. If you are looking to invest, take proper precautions and do your research. There is nothing more satisfying than owning a stunning piece of art that you can enjoy whilst having a sound investment at the same time, so it is worth the effort. All in all, if you fall in love with a piece and the price is right for you then buy it and enjoy the pleasure it brings.