Authentication in the field of art is not an exact science!


Most of the fakes go to the market at the very bottom of the food chain: flea markets, thrift stores and online websites such as eBay.

An expert verifies the authenticity of the exhibits at the TEFAF Old Art Fair in Maastricht. Photo: Loraine Bowdewes / Tefaf

Jane Kallir. Curator, art historian, author of the rationality of Egon Schiele

The procedure for establishing the authenticity of works of art has recently been attacked from all sides. Fake scandals flare up one after another. Just a few months after the German court convicted Wolfgang Beltrakki of counterfeiting the works of Heinrich Kampendonk, Max Pechstein and Max Ernst, one of America’s oldest galleries, Knoedler, closed in the US, accused of selling fake works of art attributed to leading representatives abstract expressionism. In the summer of 2017, the exhibition Amedeo Modigliani at the Doge’s Palace in Genoa closed ahead of time after it became clear that almost all of its exhibits are fakes. (A year ago, another scandal began around the dubious Russian avant-garde, presented at the Ghent Museum of Fine Arts, while far from complete. In recent years, fearing legal proceedings, funds representing the legacy of artists such as Jean-Michel Basquiat, Alexander Calder, Lee Krasner, Roy Lichtenstein, Jackson Pollock, Andy Warhol and Keith Haring dismissed their expert commissions, when they are most needed, experts begin to be overly cautious.

Nevertheless, the scale of the attribution crisis is not at all as large as it may seem, judging by the above-mentioned high-profile cases. Most of the fakes go to the market at the very bottom of the food chain: flea markets, thrift stores, and online sites like eBay. Such cheap fakes, as a rule, are revealed even before they manage to penetrate the upper segment of the art market. Very few manufacturers of fakes have enough talent for creating original compositions that are close stylistically to the works of eminent artists in order to mislead a relatively knowledgeable person, not to mention experts.

However, as the cases of Beltrak and Knoedler show, if the fake manufacturer still manages to break through the defense of the artistic community, we can talk about huge stakes. Restorer and scientist James Martin, who was able to expose the fake Knoedler, proving that the creation of paintings was used are not characteristic of artists anachronistic materials, likes to compare attribution with a stool, standing on three legs: fame, technical analysis, and provenance. Systematic study and cataloging help to identify the individual stylistic features of each artist and streamline knowledge about who and when belonged to his work.

Despite the fact that provenance is a useful addition to the material evidence that can be obtained by analyzing the materials from which the work of art is made, it is not enough to establish authorship. The history of origin is easy to falsify, and the fakes have penetrated into the collections of many prominent collectors. Similarly, the discovery of pigments unknown during the artist’s life may serve as proof of a fake, but the presence of substances corresponding to historical realities does not necessarily prove authenticity. For all the importance of technical analysis and provenance, a key role in attribution is played by knowledge.

Establishing the authenticity of works of art is not and, apparently, will never become an exact science. This does not mean that specialists working in this field are incompetent or inconsistent. Nevertheless, we live in a world of “alternative facts”, where all opinions are considered equally weighty and where everyone can find an “authoritative person” who will express the judgment he needs. At the heart of the current attribution, the crisis is a combination of populist discontent with the very phenomenon of expertise, the inevitable subjectivity of the attribution procedure and dizzying prices for art.