Conventional wisdom goes that art forgery first emerged in the Renaissance when artists like Michelangelo desperately sought money, fame, and most importantly a place within the art world.[1] During this period, forgers were commended for their flawless imitations as artwork originality was not perceived as a necessity for success. Accordingly, Michelangelo’s attempts to recreate works by other notable sculptors did not end his career, but instead launched it. Known today as one of the most famous artists of the Italian Renaissance, his duplicity was not frowned upon, as it would be today, but revered as a talent, a “technical skill and creative genius to match his forebears”.[2]

According to legend, the now notorious artist created a marble Sleeping Eros, then buried it, artificially ageing the work so that it appeared as an ancient original. Michelangelo handed his carefully forged work to the art dealer Baldassari del Milanese, who knowing of its dubious nature sold it to Cardinal Riario. Upon realising that the work was a fake the Cardinal directed his wrath at Baldassari demanding he return his money, but he praised Michelangelo’s artistic genius and became one of his first patrons.[3]

Michelangelo’s forgeries, at the time, were viewed as a form of flattery. Nowadays art forgery is viewed as plaguing art’s historical landscape, tarnishing the very notion of art and greatly affecting its value. Many contemporary artists have been dragged through court, having to endure expensive trials on baseless grounds, their reputations and legacies temporarily smeared. One such artist is Peter Doig, who was recently accused by an art dealer and former corrections officer of denying he painted a work signed “Peter Doige 76”. The work, potentially worth millions if attributed to Doig, was proven not to be one of his creations in court.[4] However, it shows the prevalence of forgery in the art world that one of the most renowned living figurative painters had to take the stand to prove that a work of art was not his.

The lengths a forger will go to when trying to replicate an artwork are often intricate. Beltracchi, a notable forger, used instant coffee and tea to create stains that mimicked the passage of time. He acquired old furniture at flea markets to obtain masonite, the hardboard used in this furniture was also used by the abstract expressionist artists. This gave the illusion that the canvases he sold were sourced from the right periods.[5] The falsifying did not end with the art itself but also the documentation and background story of an artwork. Beltracchi, who admitted to forging hundreds of paintings, and his wife, Helene, conceived a fable behind their collection. They claimed they had inherited it all from Helene’s grandfather who had hidden it from the Nazis before World War II. Beltracchi even got his wife to pose in a series of staged images where she dressed in her grandmother’s clothing with his forgeries on the walls behind her. Beltracchi estimates he painted around three-hundred forgeries, reaping €16 million. Most of these are still in circulation in today’s art market.[6]

This dedication to the counterfeiting of art is damaging the art market. The value of an artwork rests in its authenticity, and so when dealing with the acquisition and sale of works in the millions and above, legitimacy is key.  This can prove to be rather tricky when dealing with works by deceased artists. In situations where one is handling works by giants of the art world such as Andy Warhol or Jean-Michel Basquiat, one would usually approach their respective authentication committees and request an analysis of the work.[7]

These committees, usually composed of expert conservators, curators and family members, are given the powerful burden of judging the authenticity of an artwork based on their combined expertise on an artist. This burden places the committees in the vulnerable position of having to provide their opinions on the legitimacy of artworks, an opinion that, if deemed wrong by the courts, results in costly litigation. The strain and price of this burden has led to the dissolution of many committees, such as those for Warhol and Basquiat.

The wavering legal guidelines governing on which side the burden of proof rests in art forgery cases remains a problem as a legal precedent has yet to be decided on the steps to be taken following such a discovery. Experts are placed in an incredibly precarious position, as their decision to deem an artwork real or fake will lead to the gain or loss of a potentially huge fortune for the collector. Experts may offer their most sincere explanation and expertise behind the provenance of artwork, nevertheless these decisions cannot always be made in absolute certainty and by providing such opinions they face the threat of liability.

A perfect case study exemplifying the vulnerability of the unregulated art market is the Knoedler scandal. The Knoedler Gallery, founded in 1846, was the oldest commercial art gallery standing in New York, having operated for 165 years.[8] As a reputable and long standing gallery, transactions were fully reliant on trust and reputation. This trust proved to be an unfortunate error in judgement on the buyers’ part, when, in 2011, a series of forgeries of Abstract Expressionists like Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and Rothko were uncovered. The full sum of counterfeited and sold works through Knoedler amounted to a whopping $80 million conspiracy. The collectors were fooled out of millions for works of art they believed were created by true masters. Although many collectors chose to remain anonymous in their legal proceedings, and maintain the discretion that led them to being swindled in the first place, the De Soles, who claimed the gallery had sold them a fake Rothko, took the case to trial.

This case ignited a long overdue conversation regarding the transparency of the art market and the clarity required in such high value exchanges. The jury needed to decide what is expected of each party in art transactions? Which red flags should alert to fraud? What steps should be taken to safeguard this? Should reputable galleries be trusted to do their homework or should collectors do this? At what level of professionality should the gallery or collector be subjected to this burden? The case somehow managed to make it to court – which is almost unheard of in cases of art forgery – but ended in a settlement of undisclosed terms. As such, this was an unfortunate missed opportunity to cultivate conversation about a need for a transparent art market.

As expert advice is progressively harder to find, people are learning to adapt to the current system and innovate new methods of legitimising art. The lack of legal precedent on this issue allows for mishaps to happen without repercussions. Seemingly, the only other conceivable solution is to develop a tool that authenticates artwork from its inception by the artist or at a later date by someone with the legal authority to authenticate the work such as galleries, foundations and estates. Below are a couple of examples of companies that have been working on ways that modern technology can be used to help eradicate fraud from the art market.

Based in London, Tagsmart[9] create synthetic DNA tags, containing both visible and invisible security features. Located on these tags is a code which links directly to the physical certificate and digital artwork record when typed into their Tagsmart Certify platform. This three-part approach provides a reliable basis for ensuring artwork authenticity and combating forgery, thus avoiding prolonged disputes like those discussed above. The synthetic DNA, which is contained within the tags, is composed of half a billion particles which have been manufactured by the company to produce their own code to which only they hold the key. This means each tag is totally unique and secure, and functions in much the same way that fingerprints identify human beings. Additionally, the tag is further secured by being rendered ineffective if tampered with.

The advantage of this new technology is its base in both the digital and physical worlds: the physical tag connects the object to a secure online database. This database also holds information on the individual artists and their work, connecting to their social media channels and websites and thus essentially opening a new line of communication amongst artists, buyers and collectors. The artwork record can be emailed and shared across social media channels, driving social virality and increasing awareness of the artist’s work.

 

Blockchain is another method increasingly used by the art market to track artwork as it travels the art market. Here are a couple examples of companies which utilise this distributed ledger, which can be used to provide immutable and censorship-resistant databased of ownership. Verisart[10] have developed a new way to certify and verify artworks and collectables in real time. With the use of the Blockchain distributed ledger technology, they are building a permanent, decentralised and anonymous ledger for the world’s art and collectables. Ascribe[11], a Berlin based startup, allows artists to generate a certificate of ownership alongside a unique cryptographic ID which supplies the full history of the artworks. Blockchain technology is still in its early days and business models are still under development, but it is likely to eventually gain great momentum amongst artists.[12]

As of yet the art world still has a little way to go in accepting the issue of fakes and forgeries as a crucial deterrent to the expansion of this market. However Sotheby’s acquisition of Orion Analytical,[13] a specialist, high-tech scientific research firm with extensive expertise in provenance research and investigating high level forgeries, may be a stepping stone to the acknowledgement of this issue.

Orion Analytical is a macro-niche materials analysis and consulting firm, established in 2000 by James Martin to investigate art, cultural property and collectibles spanning more than 4,000 years. James holds an international reputation having consulted for leading museums, taught at institutions such as The Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute and conducted art fraud investigations for the FBI for over twenty years. James has played a central role in the most significant forgery investigations of recent times.

One such case is the Knoedler case, where James lent his knowledge to the scandal determining with absolute certainty the inauthenticity of one of the Motherwell works within only a few days. During the case the forensic analyst uncovered many anomalies in the paintings including the pigment used had not been invented until long after the supposed dates on the paintings. His insight on the case led to Sotheby’s acquisition of Orion Analytical. With more than 1800 scientific investigations for museums, galleries, insurance companies and private collectors behind him, Martin is known as one of the art world’s top art scientists, conservators and educators.[14] Sotheby’s remain ahead of the trend in ensuring they maintain buyer’s confidence and protect themselves from future hardship.

A courtroom sketch of Domenico De Sole on the witness stand with the fake Rothko painting

The efforts of such companies are starting to show how modern technology can provide a new cutting edge in the enduring struggle to prove the authenticity of artworks. There are many resources at our disposal to fight the prevalence of forgery: there is still a role to be played by art historians or conservators, our ability to analyse the materials used to create art works is getting more precise, and we have developed techniques such as radiography and infrared reflectography to unearth hidden clues within works of art. The problem is that these methods of deduction can prove to be very costly and, unless they are used in a dispute going through litigation, may seem disproportionate. As a response to these issues, companies such as Tagsmart and Orion Analytical aim, from the perspectives both of artists and buyers, to utilise modern technology to unlock the global art market from authentication and provenance concerns that have plagued it for centuries.

[1] Artsy, Leila Amineddoleh, A Brief History of Art Forgery – From Michelangelo to Knoedler & Company (30 January 2016)

[2] Noah Charney, The Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of Forgers (Phaidon Press, 2015)

[3] Hili Perlson,Did Michelangelo Start His Career as an Art Forger?”, artnet news 10th November 2016. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/michelangelo-art-forgery-742172

[4] Dushko Petrovich, “Peter Doig Wins Bizarre Authentication Trial”, artnet news 23rd August 2016. https://news.artnet.com/art-world/peter-doig-trial-verdict-618932

[5] Fiona Macdonald, “How to forge a masterpiece”, BBC Culture 21st October 2014. http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20140423-how-to-forge-a-masterpiece

[6] Catherine Hickley, “Sotheby’s catalogue mistakenly includes work forged by Wolfgang Beltracchi”, The Art Newspaper 24th February 2017. http://theartnewspaper.com/news/sotheby-s-catalogue-mistakenly-includes-work-forged-by-wolfgang-beltracchi/

[7] Georgina Adam, “The High-Stakes Game of Art Authentication”, BBC Culture 21st October 2014. http://www.bbc.co.uk/culture/story/20140325-high-stakes-in-hunt-for-fake-art

[8] Patricia Cohen, “A Gallery That Helped Create the American Art World Closes Shop After 165 Years”, The New York Times 30th November 2011. http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/01/arts/design/knoedler-art-gallery-in-nyc-closes-after-165-years.html

[9] http://www.tagsmart.com/

[10] https://www.verisart.com/about

[11] https://www.ascribe.io

[12] Wassim Bendela, “Blockchain To Change World of Fine Arts As We Know It”, CoinTelegraph.com 8 June 2017.

https://cointelegraph.com/news/blockchain-to-change-world-of-fine-arts-as-we-know-it

[13] http://orionanalytical.com/

[14] Ermanno Rivetti, “Sotheby’s buys Orion Analytical lab in fight against art fraud”, The Art Newspaper 6th December 2016. http://theartnewspaper.com/market/sotheby-s-buys-orion-analytical-lab-in-fight-against-art-fraud-/