Les Puces de Saint-Ouen, Paris Flea Market, originally uploaded by RollerOutfit Fotos
How to detect counterfeit art
This entire section is really dedicated to examining a piece of artwork in your physical possession - it is not possible to perform some of these tests if the piece is not in your hands - so if you are considering eBay, carefully examine the seller's return policy when making a purchase - and then consider some of this information. Here I must give credit to my framer / restorer Pete Ure of Barry's Frames, in Scotch Plains, NJ. We went over many pieces together, and his assistance and experience was invaluable.
'Intuitive repulsion' - that is the phrase which I think the reigning expert on Childe Hassam was searching for when she told me she couldn't put her thoughts into words about my possible Hassam piece which I purchased on eBay. Coined by Malcolm Gladwell, [in his book 'Blink'] this phrase represents the type of gut reaction a knowledgeable person will have towards the work of a fraud. If you know your artist - you will understand what I mean - something just doesn't look right, even if you cannot say exactly what. In the piece I had, I saw a beautiful bridge - possibly Black friars or Waterloo, crossing the Thames river with St Paul's Cathedral behind, done at night [nocturne], similar to other works by Hassam, and his signature seemed [almost] exact. She was repulsed, but couldn't say why. Much like training for US Treasury agents searching for counterfeit currency, from what I understand, they train by handling genuine currency. I worked at a bank while in College - I remember the strong 'intuitive repulsion' which I felt when a phony $20 appeared in a stack of hundreds of twenties I was in the process of counting. I get this same feeling many times in viewing works listed as 'original' or 'possible,' allegedly done by the hand of an artist whom I admire.
For older pieces, what you will find is that the forger or con artist needs to attempt to age the piece. There are several methods which they will use, including baking the painting in an oven, but there are ways to detect traces of what really amount to their criminal acts. Pay special detail to the sides of the piece - take it out of the frame by all means! See if the paint on the side of the canvas appears too fresh in comparison with the front, or recto.
Stretcher keys - fake stretcher keys don't have any give. I noticed that there are quite a few sellers in China - just from a review of the photo verso, I could tell that the stretcher keys were modern, as was the canvas, and that they had tried to age them. But if you encounter stretcher keys that do not move - the red flag should be raised.
Gallery Labels - if the gallery no longer exists, it's a bit too convenient. It's certainly possible, however, using an old gallery label to provide credibility appears to be a common practice. Old prints also had gallery labels used - so proceed with caution. Often one can find out online that a particular gallery only produced high quality reproductions [eg the New York Graphic Society - N.Y.G.S.].
Provenance - if the provenance cannot be traced easily - this may also raise a flag. Only recently I purchased a piece where the provenance [a letter] led me to a man who passed away only last year. Using zabasearch and other online resources [which included his obit], I was able to raise a close associate of the man who had originally purchased the piece in 1950. His associate verified the fact that the collector indeed was responsible for restoring art stolen by the Third Reich to its rightful owners, following WWII, and did bring pieces he had purchased home to the US afterwards. It looks like it is in fact an original Max Kaus - the German expressionist - from 1950, and how cool is that? I love this piece. A technique involving Indian ink and a wash, with oil paint in certain areas for highlights.
Canvas type / look - certain types of canvas were available at certain periods of time. Linen, for example, was not a type of canvas used in the 1800s. You can examine the closeness of the stitching and the color of the canvas, repairs that have been made, etc., which will provide more information overall about whether or not the piece is genuine. Watch out for sanding as well. There could be information verso which a seller of bogus articles may not want you to have. I will expound upon that in a bit.
Artificial aging - one piece I bought was allegedly from the 19th century. Although I didn't recognize the artist's name, it was a nice looking piece and from the photo, I thought perhaps the painting would reveal more detail in the darker areas once it was cleaned. As it turns out, someone had used stain [which you could detect by smelling the canvas], to create the appearance of an aged canvas and stretcher bars. They also used old antique nails, which had shiny heads since these had recently come into contact with a hammer.
Stretcher bars - all sorts of information can be found by examining a stretcher bar. Sometimes the artist will provide additional information on a stretcher bar - an additional signature, a date, whom the painting was originally done for or of, the title, etc. But one needs to be cautious if the piece is only signed on the stretcher bar - or verso on the canvas. But more importantly - if you peel back the canvas from the stretcher, the area under the canvas should be lighter. The canvas is actually protecting the wood from aging, since it is not exposed to the air - if the color is uniform - you may have someone trying to create the appearance of an aged piece artificially.
Relining - if a piece has significant issues - bulging, creasing, a tear or hole, bubbling or a major repair - relining may be the only recourse. This process involves removing the original canvas from it's stretcher, adding a fresh piece of canvas at the reverse, and other techniques - usually beeswax. The reduction in value to a relined piece is the equivalent of the drop in price one sees when buying a new car and driving off the lot. HOWEVER - I have seen at least one case where someone used an older piece and added a canvas on top - the appearance of relining is the same - the canvas will appear doubly thick - but the idea is to mislead the buyer into thinking that the piece is genuine - when in reality, the work of some minor artist was used specifically for the appearance verso. Was this piece below an older work of art which had a 2nd canvas laid on top in imitation of a famous artist? Not clear.
"The addition of a new canvas to the back of an existing one that has deteriorated, in order to extend the life of the ageing support and possibly repair and renovate the paint and ground layers. There are three basic methods of relining. Relining with glue, probably dating from the 17th century, uses a paste of vegetable starch made from wheat or rye flour and animal glue, with various additions. The advantages of this method are that it has little or no effect on the quality and appearance of the paint and ground layers, acts partially to rejuvenate them and is fully reversible. Possible disadvantages are that the substantial presence of moisture during the process makes skill and experience essential, as the canvas may contract and the paint and ground layers may be loosened, and glue relining also needs to be redone periodically. The second method, the use of wax combined with resin, often with minor additions, may have originated in the 18th century and has been in common use since the 19th century. In this method beeswax and dammar resin (and, in the late 20th century, microcrystalline wax and various synthetic resins) are made to penetrate and adhere by means of heat. The advantages of this method are the absence of moisture and any risk of mould growth, and the stability of the wax medium and the permanence of its bonding. Although this method overcomes defects in the paint layer, it only arrests the ageing process and does not restore the original physical qualities of the painting. It is not suitable for works in lean media, such as egg tempera or glue size, as it may alter their appearance; there is a slight risk even with oil paintings, as the optical properties of the ground may be altered once penetrated by wax. While it is easy to repeat a wax-based relining treatment, the process is not fully reversible, nor can all trace of the adhesive be removed." answers.com
Bizarre auction numbering verso - if a piece was ever auctioned in the past, it may have a specific catalog number associated - but beware of bogus pieces where strange numbers are added at random to give the appearance of a past auction - which never existed.
Frame - why would anyone put a Eugene von Blaas in a cheap oak frame? They wouldn't. If the frame isn't original to the piece, another red flag should be raised. It's entirely possible that the frame was damaged over time, and that a piece required re-framing - however, a cheap frame is typically not a good sign. If the work is unframed, that carries another set of questions with it - but not as many as a cheap frame does. A damaged gilt frame can be repaired - even broken gesso can be recreated - very old pieces will many times have issues with the frame - that is actually fairly common.
Craquelure - expect to see crazing or fine cracks in older pieces - this can be a combination of an old varnish, impact of linseed oil in the paint used, differences in temperature over time, etc. Apparently craquelure can be faked through the use of an oven - but you can also examine craquelure to detect fire damage. Too great a separation of paint from a canvas may be impossible to repair without repainting an entire section - or in one case I saw, the entire piece. Exposure to high heat will kill an oil painting.
"In art, craquelure is the fine pattern of cracks formed on old paintings. It is sometimes used to detect forged art, as craquelure is a hard-to-forge signature of authenticity.
Craquelure can furnish a record of the environmental conditions the painting has experienced during its lifetime, and also can reveal details about the painting's history of handling, transportation, and restoration." Wikipedia
Black light - buy a simple backlight bulb from a novelty store or online. Examine the piece carefully. The backlight will show up areas of in-painting - which devalue a piece - but more importantly, a bogus signature. Make this simple assumption: Once the artist in question was satisfied that the piece was finished, their signature was added to the art as the last brushstrokes. Not only should these paints have a similar age in overall appearance, but more than likely with an oil painting, the signature is being applied wet, and there could be mixing with the paint beneath. What I have found on more than one occasion was an instance where a seller passed along a piece done by a minor artist, or an unknown artist. By adding a bit of paint similar in color to other parts of the work in question, they could then counterfeit the signature, with the appearance of this mixing of color - say a black signature intermixed with a purple underneath. When I viewed this piece with a backlight, the entire section 'floated' above the canvas. It was clear that the signature and paint beneath it had been added after-the-fact. Criminal, but also ingenious.
Magnification and Prints - you wouldn't believe how many pieces of artwork are floating around the market today which are nothing more than high quality prints. 100 years ago the process for creating prints was much different than today - but the quality was the same, if not better. Use of a magnifying glass is required - to check for 'dots' but also to search for variation in color. Additionally, too much uniformity in color is not characteristic for oil painting. Spots of white could be a clear indication of paint separating from paper - not canvas. It was a common practice by large department stores to sell these handsomely framed prints as affordable works of art - and even include gallery labels.
Giclees, prints and other copies - a giclee or other copy of an artist's work is perfectly acceptable and can have significant value. 'Giclee' is the standard term today, but the overall concept also applies to lithographs, serigraphs, prints, or other authorized copies of an artists work. For a copy of an original to have value, it must first have been authorized by the artist or the artist's foundation. There should be information readily available with respect to which edition the copy was from, what number copy it was out of a total number of copies, and a signature. The signature can be 'in the plate' as was common with lithographs - the value of the litho can be greatly improved if the actual artists signature accompanies an in-plate signature. Many times an artist will produce a giclee version of one of their originals and enhance it by adding touches of paint here and there on the canvas - personalizing it and making it unique. This is quite acceptable - and again, high quality and authorized reproductions of an artist's work can be worth many, many thousands of dollars - depending upon how that artist has risen in stature and renown over time, the scarcity of the reproduction, etc. - HOWEVER, the common practice as outlined earlier, of simply reproducing an artist's work - without authorization, signature, a registration and numbering process - is illegal. And the result has no more value than that of a poster decorating a college dorm room.
"Giclée (pronounced /ʒiːˈkleɪ/ "zhee-clay" or /dʒiːˈkleɪ, from French [ʒiˈkle]) is an invented name (i.e. a neologism) for the process of making fine art prints from a digital source using ink-jet printing. The word "giclée" is derived from the French language word "le gicleur" meaning "nozzle", or more specifically "gicler" meaning "to squirt, spurt, or spray". It was coined in 1991 by Jack Duganne, a printmaker working in the field, to represent any inkjet-based digital print used as fine art. The intent of that name was to distinguish commonly known industrial "Iris proofs" from the type of fine art prints artists were producing on those same types of printers. The name was originally applied to fine art prints created on Iris printers in a process invented in the early 1990s but has since come to mean any high quality ink-jet print and is often used in galleries and print shops to denote such prints." Wikipedia
Colors - many of the old masters had to create their own paints - grinding up minerals and mixing them to get the perfect color. Some colors were only prevalent at certain times - so it's important, for example, to know the 'aqua phase' of the 1970s. An old print will quickly lose its' red color - they fade from the work. An oil painting is not going to lose its red the way a print will.
Brush strokes - you wouldn't even consider this important, however, in the case detailed above - department stores sold very high quality prints of significant pieces of art - and added the illusion of brushstrokes with a hand painted coat of varnish which travelled in the same direction as the paint would have been applied originally! You would again need to use magnification and a careful study to see this deception - but it was prevalent, and I was once fooled by it. With some painters, brushstrokes are hardly visible - so this can be a challenge. Utrillo, for example, used melted down crayons in some of his work - detecting a brushstroke is going to be difficult - but Utrillo is also one of the most copied / counterfeited artists after Picasso.
Research - online, at the library, buy books, pick up the phone. If it has provenance, you should be able to run it down. If it was ever listed or exhibited, then it should appear in print somewhere. Do your homework