How do I figure out if art I have or want to buy is real?

Location. Location. The first location mentioned below is certainly a source for real work. The second location mentioned below is certainly a source for fakes:

1. If you buy work from the artist in their studio after you watched the artist make the work, and sign their own name to it, it’s real.

2. Never buy art on a cruise. Art you buy on a ship is fake, especially if it’s “signed by” Salvador Dali. At the end of his life, Dali needed money, so he signed thousands of blank pieces of paper. Now you can buy “an original work of art” “signed by Salvador Dali” but Dali just signed the paper. He did not make the art.

The authenticity of art bought in places other than the artist’s studio (it’s probably real) or on a cruise (it’s probably fake) is debatable. That being said, the art world often recognizes that certain people are experts in an artist’s work. A recognized scholar or expert, with a letter, can bestow the aura of authenticity. Few experts are willing to write those letters, because so many have been sued. Even Foundations devoted to the artist’s work are now refusing to authenticate. Top auction houses, such as Christie’s and Sotheby’s, will take back work you bought at auction (within a specific time period) if you determine the work is fake, and they claimed it wasn’t. Check the fine print in the auction catalog for how much time you have to return it. The artist can often look at a work and remember if s/he made it. The artist may even have records, photographic or otherwise, regarding the initial sale of the work. If so, politely ask the artist for a note verifying that s/he made the work, and any other related data. Keep notes in your file about your interactions with the artist and date those notes. Artists sometimes don’t know. Of course, they should know, but oh well.

What about buying art online?

The web is useful for searching for the kinds of things you might enjoy, but please, see artwork in person before handing over your hard-earned money.

Buying art online is risky for so many reasons, including authenticity and condition. Purchasing art after viewing an enhanced worked-over photograph on a website differs vastly different from seeing a work in person. (Read Fake: Forgery, Lies and Ebay by Kenneth Walton for more information on this. It’s a highly engaging story by an art crook about his crookedness.)

Caveat Emptor. That’s Latin for “Buyer Beware.”

Auction houses use sneaky misleading terms to indicate a work is not by the artist. In an auction catalog, phrases like “School of…” “Circle of …. “ “After…..”, and many other similar terms next to the artist’s name, are legal ways to let the wary know the work was not made by the artist. They don’t just write, “fake” because they can sell work for more money when it’s attached to a famous name, however tenuously.

Many dealers knowingly sell fake work. If you suspect you have been cheated, contact your lawyer.

What is the best and quickest way to tell if it’s a fake work by a famous artist?

The former director of the Metropolitan Museum, Thomas Hoving estimated that 40% of the work in the art market is fake.

So, as they say about dating in Alaska, “The odds are good but the goods are odd.”

That being said….

* If it seems like it’s a steal (the price is very low), it’s a fake.

* If the seller will not allow you to have a recognized expert on that artist examine the work prior to purchase, it’s a fake.

* If they’re rushing you, it’s a fake.

* If the art is made out of things or depicts things that were not yet invented when the work was supposedly made, it’s a fake. For example, if the seller claims to be selling an antique portrait, and the person depicted in the picture is wearing a digital wristwatch, it’s a fake. Likewise, if the seller claims a painting is an antique, and the canvas is stapled to the frame, it’s probably a fake. Staples are a relatively new invention. In the old days, artists used handmade nails to attach a canvas to the frame. There are many clues like these.

What is the definition of fake?

* If it’s made by the artist, and signed with the artist’s name it’s real. If it’s done by the artist and not signed, it’s still real.

* If it’s done by someone who signed another artist’s name, that’s fake.

* If an expert says it’s real, and it’s not, it’s still fake.

There are what are called “non-pernicious” fakes, that is, work done by students to learn from master painters. These imitate the master’s work.

If the art is identified as a student’s work, that’s just a copy. Artists have long learned by trying to replicate works and techniques of other artists.

Replicas of famous works can give real pleasure. They usually neither have a great deal of value nor do they increase in value.

But it has a “Certificate of Authenticity”!

Remember, this too can be faked! A so-called “Certificate of Authority” can be produced on a copy machine. Many people do this. To make paper look old, they dip it in a cup of strong tea.

If you have a personal letter from the artist to you verifying authenticity of the work, that is good.

If you have a letter from a widely respected expert on that artist verifying the authenticity of the work, that’s good.

If the work comes with documentation showing it has been exhibited in shows by respected museums, and documentation that shows who has owned it before you, all the way back to the artist, that’s good (that’s called “provenance”).

But all of the above also can be faked.

Um, I already bought it.

If you can return it, great. If not, chalk it up to a painful “learning experience.” We’ve all done it. Please don’t do it again.

I know someone who bought a fake on a cruise ship and picketed the ship owner’s home until his money was refunded.

Where do I find a recognized expert?

1. The best thing to do is ask the artist directly about authenticity. If the artist has a website, contact them.

2. The magazine Art in America publishes an annual issue every summer devoted to what galleries show what artists.

If you call the gallery or galleries that represent that artist, ask for the contact information of the leading expert in that artist’s work.

If the artist is not alive, you can still use the Art in America guide to find a dealer.

3. You can also find out if anyone has written a book about the artist’s work. If that person has a website, ask them for data about who the recognized experts are. (If they name no one but themselves, beware.) Experts are often affiliated with a museum or a university. They can be good sources for information about the authenticity and the history of the work.

I sent snapshots of the art to a recognized expert. We spoke on the phone. Things were going well until I asked about the value of the work. The expert abruptly ended the conversation and stopped returning my calls. What did I do wrong?

Do not ask a museum staff person or a college professor about pricing. Unlike in other financial asset classes where experts do the pricing, in the art world, museum experts and scholars often distance themselves from data about financial value and may get offended if you ask them about it. Prices of comparable works can be found at galleries, auction houses, and auction sales results websites. See under “What is it worth?” for more data.

The first step is finding out if it is what you think it is. Once you know it’s authentic, then you can find out value.

I really want a Picasso.

You can get a really good fake off the internet, painted at a factory in China. There are many sites for this on the web.

This will not have value, but you may enjoy it a great deal.

Many artists produce work for all price points. If you want a genuine Picasso, and you’re a person of ordinary means, you should look for limited-edition prints or ceramics, not a painting. However, most “Picasso” prints and ceramics on the market are fake. He was prolific, but not that prolific.

What’s the difference between a limited-edition print and a painting?

A painting is usually one-of-a-kind. It is often painted with a paintbrush on a canvas or a board.

A limited-edition print is usually one of many of the same print made. Much of the time, it is printed on paper. The number made can vary from less than ten prints to 1,000 or more. Artists sometimes create limited-edition prints to allow people who can’t afford one-of-a-kind art pieces to enjoy their work. Limited-edition prints are usually much less expensive than paintings. Artists also make prints because the process is interesting to them. For people who are starting to collect, limited-edition prints are often a good way to begin. Often the prints are numbered in pencil on the lower left. It looks like a fraction. So, if on the lower left it says 5/35, that means this is the fifth print of thirty-five printed. The first print is no more valuable than the tenth or twentieth. Sometimes the pencil mark says A.P. which is short for Artist’s Proof, which means this is a copy the artist made for herself or himself. An Artists Proof is no more or less valuable usually than a numbered work. It is customary for contemporary artists to sign the work on the lower right in pencil. However, that can vary.

Prints attributed to the most famous artists are often forgeries. Copy machines are extremely sophisticated and can make convincing forgeries. (There are now machines that can even print in thick ink and imitate the brush strokes of original paintings.) With regard to limited-edition prints, forgers often write A.P. on the forgeries so they don’t claim a number in the real edition that can be traced to a real existing print. A work that is neither numbered nor signed may well be a poster. A work that is “signed in the plate” means the print itself has a copy of the artist’s signature in it. That’s different from an artist actually signing the print after it is made.

Use a magnifying glass to look at any print you are considering buying. If the image is made up of tiny dots of red, green and blue, it is a poster, not a lithograph that was carved on a stone and then printed from that stone.