Within the art world one of the jobs that carries the most responsibility and often ends up being the most controversial is art authentication. The process of attributing an artwork to a specific artist, authentication was a task historically assigned to a small group of connoisseurs. By the start of the twentieth century it became the domain of artist foundations, independent experts, scholars, dealers, curators, authors of catalogues raisonnés, and even incorporated technology in the form of art forensics. However, by the turn of the millennium, with the dramatic and unstoppable rise in art prices, litigation came into play and many foundations and experts became too fearful of pricey lawsuits to confidently offer their certification of authenticity. Such hesitation would have far-reaching consequences for the art market.
Recent estimates have claimed that up to a third of artworks circulating on the market are forgeries. As a result, auction houses, art experts, and galleries have to be incredibly careful and there are several recent stories of when forgeries have impacted individuals and institutions at the highest level. In November 2011 one of New York’s oldest and most renowned galleries, The Knoedler & Co. Gallery, was forced to close after it became involved in the sale of over 40 counterfeits by major Abstract Expressionist painters. The works that were supposedly originals by masters such as Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, sold for an estimated $63 million, but were found to be fake, created by an unknown Chinese artist in a garage in Queens.
Similarly, there is the fascinating case of Wolfgang Beltracchi, the world’s most famous art forger. Over a period of three decades Beltracchi created hundreds of paintings in the style of great masters like Paul Gaugin and Édouard Manet and dispersed them all over the world, with many ending up in the collections of renowned institutions such as MoMA. The “Robin Hood of art” was eventually exposed in 2010 however, when he carelessly used a titanium white paint on a work that was supposed to be a piece by Heinrich Campendonk from 1914—titanium paint would not have existed at that time.
Despite these two high-profile instances, frauds mostly enter circulation at the bottom of the food chain, through flea markets or customer-driven sites such as eBay, decreasing the risk for those buying from reputable galleries and online platforms. To help diminish the danger even further, many art experts such as AXA Art’s Vivian L. Ebersman, have published their own tips for good authentication practices, utilizing guidelines from trustworthy sources.
Following the disbandment of prominent artist foundation’s authentication boards, such as the Andy Warhol Authentication Board, The College Art Association published their “Standard and Guidelines for Authentications and Attributions” in 2009. Defining the issues and responsibilities for those professional academics, curators and independent scholars choosing “to engage in the practice of authentication”, the guidelines begin by recognizing the significant differences between various fields of art history. Vivian L. Ebersman uses these guidelines to outline the three central tenets of art authentication: “Art-historical documentation, stylistic connoisseurship and technical or scientific analysis, which complement each other, are the three necessary aspects of best practices for authentication and attribution.”
Art-historical documentation covers the work’s listing in the artist’s catalogue raisonné and good provenance—the ability to trace the work’s history of ownership. Provenance can include a certificate of authenticity from a recognised art expert, a statement either verbal or written from the artist, names of previous owners of the work, newspaper or magazine articles mentioning or illustrating the piece, an original gallery sales receipt or receipt directly from the artist or a mention or illustration of the artwork in a book or exhibit catalogue.
With developments in technology, increasingly forensic technical analysis is being employed in authentication methods. As Ebersman states, on its own forensics cannot provide an attribution but can “demonstrate whether the materials used are consistent with the time period for the proposed attribution.” It was this kind of analysis that was central in certifying the Knoedler Gallery works were frauds. Examined by James Martin of Orion Analytics, “they were found to have been made with paints inconsistent with those used by the artists to whom they were attributed, or even whose signatures were on the works.” This combined with a stylistic analysis from a recognized expert on the artist as well as a lack of documentation as provenance, certified them as forgeries.
If an artwork has been presented at an art fair, then you can be mostly sure that it has undergone rigorous tests of authentication and be fairly confident that it is genuine. One of the organizations with the most thorough vetting process is TEFAF, who are partnered with AXA Art. For their trio of annual art fairs which take place in both New York and Maastricht in the Netherlands, their vetting committee, which is made up of over 189 experts, scrutinize every item using sophisticated technical equipment. Combining infrared x-rays and digital microscopes with the personal expertise and extensive experience of their committee of curators, scholars, and academics, TEFAF prides itself on its accuracy and non-commercial focus.
While art authentication “will never be an exact science,” it is possible to attribute a work to an artist and be secure in purchasing through a coherency of information. Renowned galleries and online platforms are aware of the complexities and will only sell originals and prints with clear historical records. As Ebersman concludes: “In the present day, authentication has become a three-legged stool, which is perfectly balanced only by the combination of inputs from stylistic analysis, forensic investigation and documentation, especially a reliable and complete provenance.” Authenticity is vital in the preservation of artistic legacy and as such must be kept at the core of buying art.
By Jess Harrison