The internet has brought greater transparency to the art market, but at the same time the opportunity for forgeries has increased significantly—so how do you know that you are buying a bona fide original?
The anonymity of many sellers on such auction-based sites like eBay make the appearance of fakes a matter of course, but there are a rising number of fixed-price portals who are also willing to be less than scrupulous with the works they have on offer. Obviously a lot of this comes down to common sense. If you think you are getting a real bargain because one of Warhol's limited Edition Campbell’s Soup Cans on sale for $1,000, you should not be surprised to unwrap a poster worth less the price of one of Campbell's actual soups—probably their Turkey flavor.
Statisticians at the George Washington University in 2013 estimated that 91 percent of Henry Moore drawings available on eBay at that time were fake. Quite simply forgers are exploiting people's delight in thinking that have uncovered a real find. Such stories have contributed to the online editions market getting a bad press, but if you follow our guidelines as laid out below, and are not afraid to pursue the truth, then there are some incredible deals to find and some beautiful works to discover.
To help guide us through this tricky subject we chat with Sarah Dudley and Ulrich Kühle the masterprinters from Keystone Editions. Both completed the highly prestigious second year at the Tamarind Institute of Lithography in New Mexico where only two candidates are selected. Now based in Berlin they work with the likes of Jim Dine and Arturo Herrera, producing fine art prints of the highest quality.
Trawling through the various platforms that are springing up it is impossible not to feel bewildered by the sheer abundance of companies specializing in multiples and editions. But which websites can I use and how can I know for sure that they are not trying to scam me? A good idea is to look at the companies supporting these platforms. You can be sure that a company who is open about its backers and is honest and upfront about the founders and team behind it is a safer bet than a website where all the names are hidden. Also, it goes without saying that if you are buying from private sellers using an online auction site then you are at the mercy of the fraudsters. eBay does not take any responsibility for fakers "because it was nothing more than a marketplace that links buyers and sellers." Only use the companies that have the self-confidence to put itself and its team in the spotlight.
Partner Galleries and Printshops
Another real clue are the galleries, publishers and printmakers who are aligned with that online platform. Big-named and reputable galleries are so protective over their reputation that they would only work with online companies they totally trust. The highly-regarded Schellmann Art, for instance, only works with a select few online editions specialists. This works both ways because the online company then must trust that a printmaker will follow good practice, such as graining off the printing stones so that no further impressions can be added to the edition total at a later date.
You must always check the provenance of the work on offer—a Certificate of Authenticity (COA) should be signed by both the artist or, in the case of an artist’s death, an acknowledge expert on the artist. A proper COA will always contain specific details about its production, such as whether it is a silkscreen print, its edition number, the artist’s name and publisher, the work's title, dimensions, and the contact details of the entity issuing the certificate. Sarah from Keystone Editions explains: "We find the information detailing to what extent the artist was physically involved in the creation of the work to be just as important as something like the edition number. Most of that info is already noted on the print itself, with the signature. But the key is to show that the artist really did come to the workshop and draw on the stones or plates that were used for printing."
You should also remember that it is easy to fabricate a provenance, Sarah has come across a few "pretty slim" COAs in her time, "anyone can buy a stationery and stamp it, a rubber stamp means nothing!" If you are not convinced by the website’s partners, then try and trace the provenance back. Phone up the printshop where it was made and if a publisher like Gemini G.E.L. can testify to its originality then you can't really go wrong!
Nowadays nearly all limited edition paper works will be signed by the artist. Of course, it is simple enough to fake a signature but there are one or two areas where you should pay particular attention. Posters that have been excised and removed from a catalog raisonne and sold separately as prints will often not have margins, whereas the vast majority of original prints will be signed, numbered and dated in the margins. Sometimes a fake print will have been signed after the artist’s death! And, as the ArtBusiness website acerbically notes, if you have a signed print made after the artist is dead, it is "extremely valuable and proof of life after death."
The Printer's Mark
All good printshops have their own Chop Mark which is often embossed on the bottom left corner of a paper-based limited edition. Sarah Dudley elaborates: "On some images, an embossed chop mark could be disruptive as a visual element so we stamp it with pale grey ink on the back." The Chop Mark is the printers most valued symbol and with it their credibility is on the line. A lot of printmakers—perhaps fallen on hard times—may consider making reproductions of an artist’s drawings or photographs, but this could jeopardize their respectability. Reputable printers and publishers of original images refuse to work with reproductions and only work with artists' images made specifically for an edition—and anyway doing reproductions according to Sarah is "boring work!"
The Telltale Signs Of Deception—The Photo Dot Pattern Or Brush Strokes
Try and get a close up look at the work you are buying—a good online platform will allow you to zoom into the image so you can see the details up close. One telltale sign of forgery is the detection of a photo dot pattern, signaling that the original print has been photographed and reprinted. Ulrich Kühle recounts a memorable story about just such a case. When visiting a gallery in Salzburg, he and Sarah saw a Picasso print on sale and overheard the dealer saying that it was an original when in fact it was a poster. Ulrich, with all his experience, immediately spotted the telltale photo dot pattern on the print as well as some brush strokes—"it was as far from being an original print as it's possible to be!" A Picasso painting had been photographed and printed using an offset printer and was then being passed off as an original rather than as reproduction. Both Ulrich and Sarah accosted the dealer who aggressively asked them the leave his shop denying all accusations. However, the problem in much of Europe is that no law stipulates what you can declare as being original, while in America the laws are strictly controlled under the New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law, article 15. There was nothing stopping this Austrian dealer from calling the Picasso poster an "original lithograph" although it was in fact a poster reproduction of a painting!
Poster and Prints—what's the difference?
This is almost the most important point, learning the difference between a poster and print. A poster is mass-produced, generally with offset and digital printers, and is usually unsigned and unnumbered. It also makes use of cheap paper and inks that will quickly deteriorate in quality over time. Fundamentally posters are reproductions and offer the artwork at a fraction of the cost of the original work. Prints, on the other hand, are made to last. The process of collaboration for just one work with a masterprinter can take months and a meticulous selection of archival-quality paper, inks, colors, techniques, and textures can see anything up to five different proofs being made before the actual editioning takes place. Unlike posters which can have an unlimited edition, prints are strictly controlled and numbered and, to put it succinctly, are beautiful works of fine art.
A Murky World
For those of you who don’t have access to a couple of masterprinters for advice(!) your best bet is making sure you always use trusted online platforms. Follow our guidelines above and if you still have doubts then call the company as well as chasing up any leads to get to the bottom of it all.
You can visit Keystone Editions' website here