Avoiding Fakes in the Art Market: A Buyer’s Guide

For art collectors, there is no fear greater than discovering that a once-prized work is merely a worthless forgery; a nightmare that has become all too common in the art world.  Instances of art forgery now comprise a major portion of the market – with estimates that at least 50% of all works sold are forged.

Yet, novice buyers aren’t the only victims of buying fake art. Forgeries have proven to fool even the most seasoned professionals and have infiltrated galleries, auction houses, and even museums. When authentication presents such a challenge for art professionals, it’s not surprising that collectors would have trouble determining legitimacy.

With the art market considered to be the largest unregulated market, collectors must be diligent about protecting their investments. Just as home buyers request inspections prior to purchasing a house, the same due diligence should be taken for art purchases, especially when you are going to spend upwards of thousands of dollars.

So what should buyers do to ensure the authenticity of artwork? First and foremost, familiarize yourself with the artist you’re interested in: their style, use of color, materials and signature.

Secondly, try to buy from reputable auction houses, galleries, dealers or vetted art fairs, which are required to certify the works they sell as authentic.

Another crucial step is to confirm the artwork’s provenance. Provenance is the documentation that certifies authenticity. Ideally, provenance should document the history of the piece from the time of creation by the artist until the present day. Details can include a record of owners’ names; dates of ownership; and means of transfer (if inherited or purchased via a dealer or auction).

Provenance can be established through a variety of sources, including:

  • An exhibition or gallery sticker attached to the art
  • An original gallery sales receipt or receipt from the artist
  • An appraisal from a recognized authority on the artist

Also, inquire as to a Certificate of Authenticity (COA). The COA should be signed by either the artist who created the art, the publisher (for limited editions), an established dealer or artist agent, or a recognized expert on the artist.  A legitimate COA should contain specific details including the name of the artist or publisher, the work’s title, the medium (i.e. oil painting, digital print, etc.), dimensions, edition size (for limited editions), and the and contact information of the individual or company that issued the certificate.

Keep in mind that a complete provenance history, especially for older pieces, can be rare. Oftentimes, collectors wish to remain anonymous and sales are done privately, which result in gaps in provenance. Nevertheless, purchasing a piece with incomplete provenance is risky.

In the absence of provenance, other methods may be required to prove a work’s authenticity. These include technological and scientific analyses, but are typically reserved for old masterpieces since the services are quite costly.

In conclusion, it’s a far wiser decision to purchase artwork from a reputable seller that is accompanied by complete provenance.

Are you an art collector? How does lack of provenance influence your decision to buy art? Let us know in the comments below.

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