As a collector, you definitely want to be sure that the work of art you’re buying is in fact authentic.
by Jeffrey Grunthaner
While all kinds of Certificates of Authenticity (COAs) exist, the difficulty lies in determining which are valid and legally binding, and which deceptively authenticating the genuine artwork. Apart from galleries, websites (like eBay), artists, and auction houses all claim to use and authorize some kind of guarantee for the works they sell. And while often the terms of these agreements are perfectly valid, the authenticity of a work is only ensured if the Certificate is viewed prior to actually purchasing a work. As a collector, you definitely want to be sure that the work of art you’re buying is in fact authentic. Luckily, we have for you a series of guidelines to help you navigate the process.
Collectors can’t authenticate a painting retroactively. As the website ArtBusiness.com states, “unless a certificate of authenticity originates from and is signed by either the artist who created the art, the publisher of the art (in the case of limited editions), a confirmed established dealer or agent of the artist (not a casual third party or reseller), or an acknowledged expert on the artist, that certificate is pretty much meaningless.”
A bonafide COA should include a description of the artwork. If you were to purchase, for example, Fariba Baghi‘s 2018 work Ceremony, the COA would take account of the medium (mixed media on canvas), the artist’s name, the provenance of the work, and, if applicable, additional sources that discuss, comment upon, or otherwise verify the authenticity of this painting. Again, according to ArtBusiness.com, “Images of the art in question are also good. The title and qualifications of the individual or entity who authored and signed the certificate should also be included, as well as their contact information, and both contact information and qualifications must be verifiable.”
Qualified authorities provide another way in which works can be validated. The qualifications of the authority generally hinge on a person’s resume. “Qualified authorities,” writes Alan Bamberger, “are people who have extensively studied the artists in question, published scholarly papers about them, curated museum or major gallery shows about them, teach courses about them, buy or sell at least dozens or preferably hundreds of works of art by them, write books or articles or exhibition catalogues or essays about them, and so on.” Of course, a qualified authority could simply be the artist himself, which is especially true when buying a work from the artist herself. As Bamberger points out, “when collecting works from artists who have passed away, then living relatives or spouses of artists, employees of artists, direct descendants of artists, heirs of artists, or people who have legal, formal, or estate-granted entitlements or permission to pass judgment on works of art by certain artists all qualify as authorities.”
All of which is to say that formal certificates of authenticity are not always necessary to validate the authenticity of a work. In the words of Alan Bamberger, “any valid receipt, bill of sale or proof of purchase either directly from the artist or from a confirmed and established dealer, reseller, publisher, representative or agent of the artist will do. An appraisal from a recognized authority or expert on the artist which includes a statement or guarantee of authenticity is also acceptable. Whenever authenticity is at issue, only conclusive statements of authorship from a RECOGNIZED or QUALIFIED expert on the art or artist in question are acceptable, not informal statements, opinions or offhand price estimates from anyone who happens to buy or sell or appraise or otherwise transact in occasional works by the artist in question.”
With paintings, the importance of authentication is perhaps redoubled, as many record-breaking auction sales have involved paintings. A work from Picasso’s “Rose” period like Fillette a la corbeille fleurie recently sold for an incredible $115 million. Of course, with an artist like Picasso, all the machinery is in play to ensure these record-breaking sales. Not only does his estate have institutional backing of the highest order (which was true even during Picasso’s lifetime), but the meticulousness with which his work has been documented, and the often historic provenance of his works, lets collectors know exactly what they’re getting when they purchase one of his paintings. Without this assurance in the authenticity of a work, a painting, however masterfully executed, will sell for much less.
Yet the value of authentication does not reduce itself to sales figures alone. Scholars and art appreciators alike need to be assured that the works they’re contemplating are the real deal. Not only for the sake of history but for the kind of understanding that art as a form of communication calls for. Fakes and forgeries, however well done in themselves, can give us a skewed idea of what an artist intended to say, and can alter our sense of an artist’s biographical development. Nonetheless, there remains today a burgeoning market for forgeries, a public secret at the margins of established art world hierarchy.
Many artists have turned to making forgeries with the best intentions. Dutch artist Han van Meegeren (1889 – 1947), for example, came to make his highly skilled copies of Vermeer simply out of admiration for the works of the celebrated artist. Perhaps due to financial constraints or the allure of making vast sums of money quickly, van Meegeren came to sell his copies to some of the wealthiest collectors and institutions of his time — among them, the government of the Netherlands. In the end, van Meegeren was charged with treason when he refused to provide authentication for a painting he sold to Nazi official Hermann Göring during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. In the wake of World War II, van Meegeren became something of a hero for duping a Nazi official.
Similarly, the Hungarian-born painter Elmyr de Hory made quite a career for himself by selling fake Modiglianis, Picassos, Matisses and Monets to some of the most respected institutions of his time. Considering himself “famously infamous,” in the countercultural climate of the 1960s Hory was regarded as something of a hero, undermining the art world establishment by outsmarting it at its own game. Today, Hory’s forgeries are sometimes themselves forged, as a market has developed for his fakes. At auction, his forgeries of Modigliani and Monet have sold for upwards of $20,000.
But producing and selling forgeries is still illegal. In the early 2000s, the artist Alfredo Martinez was sentenced to prison for forging Basquiat paintings. With his conviction came with a certain amount of celebrity — in part due to what his forgery practice revealed about the fiscal habits of the art world. Several years after his incarceration, Martinez told an interviewer why he eventually got caught for producing Basquiat forgeries:
“I refused to sell any more artwork to Leo Malca, because he was a slow payer. You ever have a slow payer? He got really annoyed because I started selling to other people, instead of him. I remember he said, ‘Alfredo, just give me whatever you have; I can get a ham sandwich authenticated.’ From what I construed, he would basically give [Basquiat’s father] an envelope of 10% of what he hoped the final price would be. And he would authenticate it for him…. The big catch-22 for the authentication committees is legally they don’t have any standing unless they have members of the estate, which means family, on the board. But they are the least reliable in terms of authenticating things.”
One can never be too careful. All certificates of authenticity can be called into question. To circumvent this, the best way to verify the authenticity of an artwork is to have a clearly documented provenance for it. This ideally traces the history of ownership of an artwork from the time it left the artist’s studio to the time it entered the collection where it’s being sold. Also, keep in mind that a well-established place, like an art gallery, will always offer you all the necessary documentation so your purchase is safe and guaranteed.
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Jeffrey Grunthaner is a writer based in New York. You can find his work in BOMB, artnet News, The Clauduis App, Archinect, Imperial Matters, Folder, or Hyperallergic. He curates a reading series on contemporary poetics at Hauser & Wirth, West 22nd Street.