Art Forgery: A Misunderstood Business?

By Ruba Asfahani*

Forgeries are made to deceive, and forgers were put on this earth to be scrutinised by experts who have spent their whole careers trying to understand how they have fooled the world with their work. There’s a modern obsession with fakes and forgeries, more so than the incredible talent of those copying and imitating.

With the modern concept of art changing, the artistic and monetary value of art has changed with it and in this article the aim is to briefly introduce the basic ins and outs of the business of art forgery.

To understand the nature of fakes and forgeries, it’s important to first understand the difference in the main terms thrown around this business.

-Fakes: to conceal the defects of or make appear more attractive, interesting, valuable, etc, usually in order to deceive.

-Forgeries: the production of a spurious work that is claimed to be genuine, as a coin, a painting, or the like.

-Copies: an imitation, reproduction, or transcript of an original.

-Imitations: a counterfeit; copy.

As soon as something is of interest in the art world, a fake will no doubt be close behind. If the market doesn’t check the authenticity of a work and decides to offer it to the public, then they are feeding the forgers market. Although the 20th and 21st centuries have changed the face of forgery where they are no longer seen as copies or imitations by skilled artists, forgeries have unfortunately become a common fixture on the market, and a money-making one at that. For example, recently in the news, it has come to light that the auction house Christie’s had not checked the authenticity of numerous works by market-darling Jean-Michel Basquiat and the estate of the artist is now suing the auction house for $1 million.

This case is one in many in which auction houses (or any commercial enterprises) have resolved to not pay for authentication but use in-house experts. This is not necessarily a negative thing, and actually has its benefits; authentication can sometimes a great deal of money and many institutions already have experts working within their businesses. It naturally has its disadvantages in that the validation of a Trust, family member or academic expert has not given a certificate of approval which can lead to lawsuits such as that of Basquiat vs Christie’s.

Scientific vs. Classical

Experts in the field have learned to follow the traits of those who could be deemed the “other experts”, the forgers. In the 21st century, there are two main forms of authentication that are used by experts; those that are scientific and the more classical methods. As well as learning about the technological advances in understanding forgers, there is the psychological factor, the idea that a forger is really just a failed artist, one that has no personal talent, only choosing to learn how to fool the experts.

It’s important to bear in mind that there is always a benefit to the specialists when they authenticate a painting, regardless of whether they work in the academic or commercial world. Not only do they add credit to their placement as an expert in their field, but they also add new work to the public domain. On the matter at hand, Martin Kemp, one of the leading experts in the work of Leonardo Da Vinci, has said “original, authentic paintings are not important, giving it value is more important”.

Forgers & Fakers

Over time, forgers have fooled some of the greatest art historians, but it is important to differentiate between art as imitation and art as forgery. The fakes, forgeries, copies and imitations are works of art in themselves, but viewed as different objects. This idea leads to the definition of a “perfect fake”, one which can fool even the greatest eyes. Should this change our perception of the work? If it is directly from an artist or from a studio artist, is there a difference? It is here that the issues of commercialism come into play; with the market being stronger than ever, it is vital for the forgers and fakers of this world to continue on in their determination to win big with a perfect fake.

It is without doubt that forgery is dangerous, but it should also be argued that the business of art has made it so. Copies are a long tradition and adding such high values to art have changed the nature of forgeries and so now it is more serious than ever before – not as it was during the Renaissance period, when copies were made by students of the major artists such as Peter Paul Rubens who had his own workshop and taught equally renowned artist Anthony Van Dyck.

Applauded or Imprisoned?

Should forgers be applauded or imprisoned? Should they be blamed for pandering to a market created by capitalism and commercialism?  In comparison to other forms of counterfeiting, for example that of money and wine seals, it is art forgery that tends to garner more media attention, made possible due to the increasing value placed on the works of art. Copies used to be made as innocent artistic products, ever since antiquity and it is in fact the definition which is now different and has depreciated the overall value of the artwork now seen as second rate, or worse.

In the current art market, it also tends to be artworks that are registered as “lost” that are easy targets for experienced forgers and opportunistic lawbreakers. For example, in the Middle East, due to years of political upheaval and massive amounts of destruction, the looting of museums has led to opportunists faking as many paintings as possible and selling them on as “found missing objects”.

The experts will never underestimate art forgers, as they are able to adapt and trick the battery of tests that is available to experts in modern days. One example of this are mechanical drawings, such as those by Michelangelo or Da Vinci, which are much harder to pass as fakes due to the change in material since the Renaissance period. These mediums which were common in the 14th – 17th centuries are no longer available today. This allows experts to run tests on the products used to establish the period in which they were created. The development of science has changed everything in an art forgers business meaning that forgers have had to increase their capabilities as much as experts have had to in modifying their ways of authenticating and verifying an artwork.

As a collector or even a one-off buyer of art, the likeliness is that you will not be affected by the work of the forgers, if the commercial institutions do the right thing by making sure artworks are authenticated correctly. Nevertheless, where there is a demand for high-value art, there is a supplier not far behind. And this is where the forger finds his ultimate role fulfilled.


*Ruba Asfahani is a specialist in Contemporary Arab and Iranian art. Having started her career at Sotheby’s, becoming a deputy director in the Contemporary Arab/Iranian department; she then went on to become a Gallery Director at Artspace London. She currently works as Communications Manager for the charitable organisation The Arab British Centre.