In the World of Forgery, No Work is Sacred

In the World of Forgery, No Work is Sacred – art and collectible forgeries and how to recognize them

Barden Prisant

Though technology and clever crooks have kept the business of forgery thriving, there are ways to spot fakes and avoid being swindled

Art forging is a worldwide and age-old problem. “It plagues the industry” said U.S. memorabilia publisher Ken Thimmel. “We have been pursuing cases for 120 years,” stated Nicholas Edgar, director of marketing for the British publisher Rosenstiel’s.

When it comes to forgery–from paintings and sculptures to prints and collectibles–nothing is sacred. In the art world, forgery can occur in all of these categories. According to Thimmel, president of All American Collectibles, the FBI estimates that fully 70 percent of the signed memorabilia in circulation is phony. More specifically, Dave Cunningham, the collectibles expert on, asserts that 90 percent of autographed baseballs are fakes. Dr. Sharon Flescher, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research, estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the works they research are not by the artists who supposedly created them. She noted IFAR has received “so many inquiries [for Salvador Dali fakes] that we do not do them anymore.” As for Miro, Chagall, and Picasso prints, they are also “very, very heavily faked,” she added.

How to Spot Them

The sheer quantity of forged works can be a daunting prospect for publishers, collectible shops and gallery owners who face potential forgeries every day. But according to Edgar, any purchaser can start by using simple common sense. As he puts it, fakes are often bought by buyers “who do not ask the intelligent questions.” For example, a logical question to ask a dealer would be: “How can you afford to offer me a popular image for one-quarter its retail price?” Similarly, one could ask: “How can you have 600 supposedly rare Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle baseballs for sale?” As Cunningham puts it, be suspicious when you see “a quantity of material where you would not expect to find it.”

How to Stop Them

Once you have a piece, though, the matter of determining its authenticity is far from straightforward. Even a “certificate of authenticity” is no guarantee. Such documents from supposed experts are often themselves fake, and IFAR, perhaps the most respected authentication body in the art world, does not even offer a “certificate.” Rather, it provides a detailed report weighing pros and cons which can run to 30 pages. As Thimmel stated, “authentication is not a science,” and as Flescher added, “to the naked eye, I can tell you, it is not so easy.”

Some preventative steps can be taken to deter forgers, however. According to Jim Rosini, head of the trademark and copyright division of the New York-based law firm Kenyon & Kenyon, today’s artists can take a lesson from the map-makers of yore. They added fake cities to their painstakingly drawn maps; in that way, when a forger copied the map, he also copied the tell-tale apocryphal city. Said Rosini, “it would be akin to a (secret) swan in the hair of the `Mona Lisa.'”

All-American Collectibles sells balls, bats, and jerseys with 1) tailor-made holograms, and 2) photos of the athlete actually signing the edition. Similarly, the company’s graphics are also impressed with the company logo and that of Major League Baseball. Such security measures allow them to offer a 2-to-1 money back guarantee if any signature is found to be fake.

Rosini also advised that works of art should be registered with the United States Copyright Office. In this case, an artist would be entitled to statutory damages and lawyer’s fees up to $100,000 per incident.

Once there is an infringement, Rosini stressed that you “have to make a reputation for zero tolerance. Go after the first, the second, the third, win big, then make it known.”

This attitude was echoed by Edgar who said “we take it very seriously–we pursue everything–even when newspapers do not credit the artist properly–we can’t be seen as a rollover.” Sculptor Richard MacDonald sees this as a rallying cry for the industry. “Anybody in the business of art, we all have to hang together to pursue anyone. It is nothing short of theft.”

What is Forged?

It seems that items that are valuable but still available in significant quantities are particularly prime targets for forgers. As Cunningham noted, they will “add 100 fakes to an existing supply of 1,000–the less individually identifiable the object, the better.” What, then, would be a better image to copy than one which is published at a rate exceeding 10,000 per month? This would explain why Rosenstiel’s has been seizing illegal copies of its best-selling print, “We Three Kings” by Susan Crawford.

MacDonald knows of “a half dozen of his works that have been forged.” One, “Nureyev,” even showed up in a brochure by another sculptor. MacDonald conjectured that such forgers “are either neophytes or semi-professionals who want a jump on their career–they are insecure in their own abilities to create unique art.” He quickly added, though, “also, they do it for the bucks.”

In the collectibles realm, according to Thimmel, “people in the industry suspect who is selling the bad autographs.” In fact, he said the FBI recently closed down 40 different dealers, one of whom was even an ex-police officer. Worse yet, even entire governments have proven untrustworthy. According to Cunningham, the Allies flooded Germany with forged bills in an attempt to wreak economic chaos.

Some fakes are born thousands of miles from these shores. According to Kenyon & Kenyon’s Rosini, “it is easier to manufacture [them] outside the United States, then get them in. Other countries have lighter laws and far less interdiction.”

Once here, “fakes enter the market through one or more knowing dealers,” said Cunningham. Unscrupulous dealers have even been known to make direct partnerships with the forgers. Similarly, MacDonald knows of a gallery which is offering originals and copies of the same pieces side-by-side. Thimmel does add, however, that “many are selling fakes but don’t know it.”

And the Internet?

The Web is indeed a modern-day breeding ground for unscrupulous forgers. In the world of collectibles, “a lot of fake material is sold online; you have a reasonable chance of being taken,” cautioned Cunningham. In fact, according to Thimmel, “eBay is contemplating stopping the sale of signed memorabilia altogether. This will cause a major shift.”

In the fine art realm, Flescher observed “we are getting a lot of inquiries from people who are relatively new to acquiring art regarding Internet purchases.” Needless to say, she added, “it is very difficult to determine authenticity on a computer screen.” She even knows of one instance where a seller on the Web showed a scan of initials purportedly on the front of the painting, while ignoring the fact that another artist’s name was written on its back.

Rosini acknowledged that the Internet has “opened up an entire can of worms.” Yet, he noted, it can also be used to prevent fraud. “It is a great tool for looking up copycats.” As MacDonald noted, “You can’t find fault with the Internet just because it offers someone an opportunity to steal–it also makes them easier to find.”

What does the future hold? One can only hope that artists and publishers will be able to stay a step ahead of the forgers. If counterfeiters invent new replication technologies, the “Forces of Good” will have to develop even better detection regimens. In the interim, though, what can you do to protect yourself? Do not be afraid to ask vendors pointed questions, and always, always keep your eyes peeled for the ex-police officer selling 50,000 smoke-damaged Dali’s on the Internet.

COPYRIGHT 2000 Pfingsten Publishing, LLC

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group