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This is a forum for sharing knowledge, gaining insights and shaping opinions. We will not sit on the fence here or play favorites. The language of art has changed in a blink of a year– today there are market makers, power brokers, savvy investors, flippers, fakes and fund managers. Collectors are nearly extinct. Why? Because collectors can see and COLLECTORS MIND. So together, let’s take a small step to make today’s buyers into tomorrow’s collectors. The future of art depends on it!

Friday, August 11, 2006

Caveat Emptor: How to avoid being saddled by a fake

Prices for Indian art have been increasing at a fantastic rate and unfortunately so have the proportion of fakes floating in the market. Passing off fake paintings for original is not a new phenomenon but the menace has gotten out of control over the past few years.

This is especially the case for some of the Bengal masters like Jamini Roy, the Tagore brothers as well as some of the progressives such as Ara, Bendre and a host of other pre independence artists who are dead and gone making it that much more difficult to authenticate their works. There is a also a thriving fake market for live artists - like Husain & Raza amongst others whose seemingly simple brush strokes are easily copied and go undetected by the novice buyer and can sometimes also fool the trained eye.

The problem is that there are no public or private archives to speak of nor are their any records with the artists surviving family members that can serve as a means to authenticate the works. This is further exasperated by some unscrupulous dealers and on rare occasion’s even artists themselves who may be in the know of such fakes but prefer to ignore or dismiss the whole issue. Sometimes family members of artists try and make ends meet by cashing in on the artists fame by letting out fakes in the market. Jamini Roy’s son was allegedly involved in such nefarious activities.

  • Provenance: This is essentially the ownership chain or lineage of the work going back to the hand of the artist and is probably the MOST critical element in authentication. However, works often pass though multiple owners before coming to the market making an iron-clad provenance almost impossible. However this is the FIRST thing you should ask the seller about.
  • Credible Source: It is best to buy from a trusted source such as an established gallery/dealer that has a good standing in the market and is willing to offer authenticity guarantee. Buying thru the gallery network at primary exhibition where artists are usually present and the exhibit is accompanied by a catalogue is a fool proof way to ensure the work is original.
  • Signature: Look for the artist’s signature on the front and/or the back of the painting. However, it is not uncommon for artists to leave some works unsigned so the lack of signature by itself is not an indication that the work is a fake. Always ask the seller why the work is unsigned and make sure you get a satisfactory answer. Is it a trait of that particular artist? Have other work in the similar period also been left unsigned by the same artist?
  • Documentation: Ask if the work in question has been documented and published anywhere. This could be as simple as an exhibition catalogue, a book or journal or even a newspaper article. Keep any such record as supporting proof of authenticity
  • Price: Do not get drawn in by unreasonable discounts and commission waiver offers. If the price is too good to be true it usually is! Artists and galleries like to maintain a stable price for the artists they represent and large discounts are unheard of in the industry. Beware of fly by night dealers trying to offer you a bargain
  • Research: Try and find out about the artist body of work especially around the same period as the work in question. It was common for artists to continue a particular theme or style for an extended period of time so the work will look familiar. E.g. Souza’s unmistakable heads from the 50’s
  • Expert: When in doubt always consult an art expert who will be able to guide you in the right direction. This ‘expert’ could be a gallerist of repute, an art historian, art conservator/restorers or even a senior collector who is familiar with the oeuvre of the artist and can provide rare insight by doing an aesthetic analysis of the work in question

Remember, sometimes copies are simply too good to be detected by applying any one of the above criteria so always go thru the entire checklist in your mind. Remember, provenance is your most important safety net followed by a credible source of supply. Documentation, price and research will give additional clues.

There are of course scientific methods such as X-radiography, optical microscopy, and ultraviolet fluorescence that have been used for decades to examine works of art. There are also many micro sampling techniques that produce analyses of pigments, fibers and other materials but that is not the scope of this article nor is it something that a buyer can do without bearing considerable pains and expenses.