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Is it Fake?

Posted Jul 30, 2014
Written by Abigail Athanasopoulos
Category General

I recently had the pleasure of reading a fun and informative book by Thomas Hoving, former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, titled False Impressions: The Hunt for Big Time Art Fakes (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996). In the very first chapter of this book, the author presents his readers with a checklist that he created for his curators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art to use when considering potential acquisitions. This list essentially acknowledges the fact that the market for art and antiquities is rife with fakes and forgeries (Hoving states that during his decade and a half at the museum, he would conservatively estimate that 40% of the 50,000 works or so that he examined could be characterized as “phonies” or forgeries) and that it is extremely important, especially when large sums of money as well as the reputation of a museum are at stake, to be aware of potential red flags. Hoving’s checklist consists of 15 steps in its entirety, but he claims that the following 11 are absolutely crucial:
  1. Note and write down your initial impressions of the object/artwork (Hoving attests to the idea that first impressions are almost always spot-on, especially when something just doesn’t appear “right.”)
  2. Make a meticulously detailed description of what you see (a step that underscores the importance of examining every inch of the object).
  3. Describe its condition.
  4. Ask yourself what the object was used for (most artworks were, until recently, utilitarian).
  5. Note whether condition is consistent with intended use.
  6. Describe its style.
  7. Note whether style is consistent with supposed date.
  8. Assemble documentary information (realizing that this paperwork can also be faked).
  9. Assemble published references, exhibition history, provenance, etc.; is the provenance complete and can it be supported?
  10. Have a complete scientific examination done of object/artwork (including as wide a range of methods as possible, such as carbon 14, thermoluminescence, ultraviolet, x-ray, etc.) and then “discount everything you find.”
  11. Consider any rumors in the marketplace about the object’s authenticity/true identity.
The author concludes that if all this data supports the first impressions, it is probably safe to move ahead with acquisition; if not, additional research should be completed pertaining to each and every doubt that has cropped up.

Although originally intended as a checklist for museum curators, this list addresses many of the complexities surrounding fakes and forgeries and could prove useful to anyone working with fine art objects. As an appraiser, it is imperative to be aware of these issues during field inspections. Although we do not authenticate (a topic to be addressed in more detail in a future blog entry), it is important that we are able to notice any red flags that might indicate that an object or artwork is something other than what it is purported to be (and then act accordingly, usually by referring the client to the proper source for authentication); obviously there are limits to what appraiser can do (for example, we will not be conducting carbon 14 tests on site), but this is no excuse for a lack of due diligence. Collectors also need to be aware of these issues, particularly when considering potential purchases. Trust your instinct; ask the important questions; and, if an object/transaction seems too good to be true, it probably is.