Authenticating Artwork: Buyer Beware

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Forging fine art is very lucrative for scam artists, if they can get away with it. Just ask Ely Sakhai, owner of both Art Collection, Inc. and ExclusiveArtGalleries. He bought well known artwork at public auction, commissioned forgeries of the works, including paintings by Chagall and Renoir, and sold the forgeries for millions, asserting their authenticity. Later, Sakhai returned to public auction and resold the original artwork.

If you're wondering how well this scam worked, consider how Sakhai was punished. When a gallery in Zurich discovered the Chagall they were selling was a forgery, Sakhai was sentenced to almost three and a half years in prison and $12.5 million in restitution.

If you want to be sure you're buying artwork by a fine artist and not a scam artist, the key lies in its authentication. Fine art can be a wise investment; you want to be absolutely positive you're buying an original, actual work of art. The numerous and successful scams are a testament to how tricky and complicated authenticating artwork can be.

To make sure a painting is authentic, most buyers rely on the advice of art experts. In New York, an auction house or art gallery is obligated to certify the work it sells as authentic - a certification normally based upon a consensus of experts in the specific field. How does someone become an art expert? Sometimes, it's up to the government; in France, for example, heirs or representatives of an artist are designated as legal authenticators due to their knowledge of an artist's work. Academics with degrees from well-reputed schools that have published in the field are generally regarded as experts, as well as persons employed by art auction houses.

Art experts use specific tools to authenticate a work of art, the most important being: provenance. Provenance, or the documented ownership history, includes a detailed history of the artist's style or aesthetic, comparison of numerous works by the artist, testimony of owners and agents and historical analysis of the period in which the artist created his or her work.

Provenance may be proven through a variety of methods. Usually, it is shown with a combination of more than one of the following: a signed certificate or statement of authenticity by an expert, an exhibition or gallery sticker, the original sales receipt, and a film or recording of the artist speaking about the work. Additionally, appraisal from a recognized authority, a list of previous owners of the work, letters or papers from experts concerning the art, newspaper or magazine articles which discuss history of the work, a mention or picture of the work in a book or exhibition catalogue and finally, verbal history from a person familiar with the artist establishes provenance.

If provenance is firmly established, additional analysis is not needed. You can rest assured that you're buying an original. Where provenance is lacking, however, you'll need the help of science. A conservation and technology assessment, done by scientists, attempts to determine authenticity through detailed, scientific analysis. Ultraviolet fluorescence determines the presence of overpaints and color saturation; chemical analysis determines the type of pigments used and weight of canvas and dimension of stretcher; infra-red reflectography determines amount of frames and minute details.

A conservation and technology report determines the present condition of the art work, the history of any intervention concerning the condition, and what alterations have been made. To make sure a magnum opus is really a magnum opus, the report also investigates preservation issues, the physical characteristics of any components added to the artwork, assesses the artist's technique and unique characteristics, determines the "rheology" (crack structure) and what, if any, other technical analyses must be made in order to authenticate the work.

Recently, researchers at DartmouthCollege have developed a computer system that captures data about the pen or pencil stroke patterns representing an artist's distinct style and signature. The computer scientists tested their system on a painting by Perugino believed to have been created by multiple artists. By capturing through digital imagery the subtleties of the artist, the scientists were able to determine that at least four artists had painted the work.

If you've gone through all of your paces and have every proof that you are buying the real thing, but find out you've spent millions on a fake, in some cases you can sue. A buyer who feels he or she has been duped may sue the expert who has given the opinion as to authenticity. However, you may not have this recourse. In a recent case in Britain, where a Texas native sued a British art dealer for selling him a fake Van Dyck painting, the courts ruled in favor of the dealer. The courts found no intent to deceive the buyer on the part of the dealer, who truly believed the painting to be authentic. Contact an art law expert to find out the common causes and your rights to legal action.

It is important for a buyer to consider both a scientific and academic approach to authenticating a work of art. A certificate of authenticity can be meaningless unless there is documentation to back it up. Buyers should take careful precautions not to buy art work until they have seen the provenance or scientific evidence of authenticity of the work. While art is truly in the eye of the beholder, its authenticity is not - caveat emptor.