By Julie Webb

In the age-old battle between experts and forgers, Aston Lark Insurance private client director, Julie Webb, explains the issues and offers advice on sensible precautions for art buyers.

I was once approached by a bank to insure an uncut gemstone for a customer who wanted to use the item against a loan. The paperwork and certificates all seemed in order. However, considering the high value of the item, a viewing by an expert was required.

No comments were made during an inspection in a bank vault, but half an hour later I was called by the expert to be told not to do the transaction—the gemstone was a fake.

There have been occasions when clients have told me that their originals were in the bank and very good copies were hanging on the walls. Sometimes clients have good replica jewellery made, leaving their expensive originals in a bank safe. The problem comes when these fakes are passed off as originals.

For clarification, ‘fake’ essentially means a work which has been fabricated, but fraudulently attributed to another artist, while ‘forged’ generally relates to the signature of an important artist being copied onto a work which was originally unsigned or on which the original signature has been masked.

As a fine art insurance broker and appraiser for more than 30 years, I’ve rarely come across fakes or forgeries, but they have been around for as long as people have been producing works of art, and TV programmes and news headlines have created increased interest in the matter. Not so long ago a small French museum discovered 82 out of 140 paintings were forged.

I read a Hiscox article recently that Shaun Greenhalgh, imprisoned for art forgery in 2007, had been painting and selling for 28 years until staff at the British Museum spotted something not quite right. Greenhalgh said copying an artist’s ‘hand’ was easy but convincingly ‘ageing’ the work was always difficult. Most fakers choose their subject carefully, considering time, materials and cost.

Forgers are getting smarter and are always trying to keep ahead of new techniques and sourcing the right materials, even using wood from old furniture from the required period.

Experts are getting smarter, too. Forensic art science has evolved from the analysis of pigments and materials. Scientists are working more closely with art historians to develop a greater understanding of what makes an artist’s style unique. Some auction houses have their own testing teams.

These techniques are not foolproof but art historians and academics can use art and science together to combat fakes and forgeries.

Experts can make mistakes, however, and we are reading more stories of paintings once attributed to certain artists which have been disproved with scientific testing.  On the flip side, we have seen pictures, which have been attributed to a well-known artist, a new work discovered and, in some cases, a happy owner.

An attribution is an assessment of who was responsible for creating a particular work.  They are made with different certainty, depending on factors such as style, as well as documentary and scientific evidence.

Fakes are sometimes accompanied by a plausible story around a personal connection: ‘It has come through the family as a gift from the artist…’

When buying a house you have a survey carried out, and sometimes a full structural survey for a period or listed house, and the same thought should apply to buying expensive art in an unregulated market.

It should not be an impulse—buy from a reputable dealer or auction house, even if online. The buyer should be concerned with the quality of the work and not the price.

Buying in person is preferable and there is nothing better than looking and handling to learn and have the opportunity to ask lots of questions.

Major works will have extensive provenance (an unbroken chain of ownership) and this is the simplest and most traditional way to verify an artwork’s authenticity. This is difficult to check if they are kept in a private collection and the collector may wish to remain anonymous. However, a reputable seller will know the background, and good auction catalogues will show where the art has been exhibited, its auction history and which dealers have sold it.

Many artists have a catalogue raisonné which is an accepted list of their works, described in such a way that they may be reliably identified by third parties.

When you have bought your artwork, you will need to have it insured. Some high net worth policies provide a time limit to notify insurers of a new acquisition, often 60 or 90 days, as well as a financial limit.

The main reason for insurance is peace of mind that you will be compensated in the event of loss, damage or theft. Some policies include death of an artist, defective title (if you have bought an item which you are subsequently required by law to relinquish, due to discovery of the vendor lacking title), and any charge or encumbrance on the item before your purchase—this is usually limited to £25,000 or five percent of the collection value and only if bought through a recognised body.

High net worth insurers will require a receipt or valuation from a recognised auction house or dealer if over a specified policy limit.

A good valuation will include a description of the item using the ‘Object ID’ categories: type of object; materials and techniques; measurements; inscriptions and markings; distinguishing features; title; subject; date or period; maker; certificates of scientific testing if available (especially needed for gemstones); provenance; sales receipt with full description and details of the qualified valuer.

It is then important to decide whether the valuation should be for insurance or auction value. It is up to the client, but it must be agreed at the time of inception of the policy. You are able to change your mind later, but you will need to substantiate the figure.

Depreciation is usually included and it is important to keep track of the correct value over the years and review it regularly. Retain good images of the work—pictures speak a thousand words.

Finally, keep the documents safe and secure, perhaps with a copy off-site.

It is also vital that the broker and insurer ask for full details of the items from the client to aid with claims settlement. Sometimes a client does not want to release a copy of a valuation document. This is usually acceptable but the ‘onus of proof’ clause is added so that in the event of a claim the valuation document will need to be produced.

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See Also:

Why Are Online Art Auctions Becoming More Popular?

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