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How To Safely Navigate The Art Market: Authenticity

September 28, 2018

image-john_bentham_dinsdale_e1223_the_flag_the_flag_the_precious_flag_bannerOver the next year, we will revisit some of the things we feel are important for people to consider when looking to buy a work of art – condition, size, title, value, price, etc. (topics from many of my very first newsletters).  We will call this feature: How To Safely Navigate The Art Market.

Our first topic (originally discussed back in 2001 and revised in 2008):


In this day and age, authenticity is a very important concern for everyone involved in the art market. One question we hear from time to time is – how do I know that the painting I am considering is real, or by the artist in question?  The plain truth is that unless you are considered a true expert in an artist’s work, or the period of art, you cannot be sure. The general art buyer needs to rely on the advice of a reputable art dealer or gallery… one who has a broad base of knowledge of the period, has done their due diligence on the specific work, will stand behind every work they sell, and guarantee its authenticity on their invoice.

I am sure your next question is – isn’t a gallery’s Certificate of Authenticity (COA) enough?  Well, that all depends.  If the gallery in question represents the artist (or their estate), then their COA is most likely valid and an important document you want for your records.  However, a general COA for historical works is usually not enough, and many times they are not even worth the paper they are printed on.  I cannot tell you how many times people come to us with very official COAs (elaborate documents with signatures and all sorts of stamps and embossed seals) for a painting that is not authentic.  Again, be sure that the gallery’s invoice clearly states that they guarantee the work listed on the invoice to be by the artist they are selling.  Make sure that the artist’s name is clearly spelled out.  For example – if you a buying an Antoine Blanchard or Julien Dupré, make sure the invoice states Antoine Blanchard (1910-1988) or Julien Dupré (1851-1910) and not something like A. Blanchard, J. Dupré or just Dupré – as there were other artists with the same last names.

Remember, just because a work has a signature on it, does not mean it is by that artist.  Over the years we have come across many works by Antoine Blanchard that have an Edouard Cortes signature on them.  I know – how can that be?  During the early 1960s, Blanchard’s style had a striking similarity to Cortes’s work.  In addition, Cortes’ paintings were about twice as expensive.  So, unscrupulous dealers would take the Blanchard signature off and add the Cortes name – allowing them to charge more.  Back then, most people were buying these works as a souvenir of their trip to Paris and gave little thought to any future value.  Now, almost 60 years later, some people are not very happy to learn that their prized Cortes painting is actually an early Blanchard, which now does not even have a signature.

You should also find out if there is a recognized ‘expert’ for an artist (one that everyone in the art world looks to for an opinion) and make sure that the work you are considering has been seen and authenticated by that individual.  There are plenty of people in the art world who claim to be an expert but claiming to be and truly being are two different things.

We see hundreds of ‘fake’ paintings hit the market each year and many of them end up selling.  A majority move through the market in smaller auction rooms, but there are times when even the big boys get scammed.  Even dealers who handle works out of their comfort zone end up getting taken.  Some of these fakes were created to fool a buyer, others were done to satisfy the market’s need (I will touch on this next), and then there are those done by artists who copied a painting to study an artist’s style or technique.  As a buyer, you want to make sure that you are not one of the unlucky collectors who ends up with a bad painting.  This could, and most likely will, be a very costly mistake.

I brought up satisfying the market’s need. A great example of this is the work of Marcel Masson (Antoine Blanchard).  Masson was a French artist who, in the late 1950s, began painting street scenes of Paris and signing them Antoine Blanchard.  It appears that his paintings became so popular that he could not keep up with the demand.  Since demand outstripped supply, some dealers decided that they could fill the void by hiring other artists to paint scenes of Paris and sign them Antoine Blanchard.  We even know of one dealer who represented Marcel Masson, but also sold works by some of the other ‘Antoine Blanchard’ artists. Now you might say that this sounds very deceptive … and looking back, you are probably right.  However, what you need to keep in mind is that Marcel Masson did not own the name Antoine Blanchard (it was a pseudonym) so there was nothing to stop another artist from using the name.  Also, at that time, nobody considered them an investment — people were not concerned with their future value.  They just wanted a memory of their trip to Europe.

Another thing to keep in mind is if a deal seems is too good to be true, there is probably something wrong.  Works of art have a market value and when someone offers you a painting by an artist for $10,000 and his work usually sells for $100,000 – watch out!  I am not to saying that you cannot find a bargain or hidden treasure, but 99 times out of 100 there is a reason why the painting is so cheap.  Let’s face it, if the painting is really worth so much more, why wouldn’t the seller want the extra money?

Like we always say – do your homework. Check out the dealers who are considered experts by their peers and build a relationship with them.  A good, trusting, relationship will go a long way in protecting you, your money and your heirs.

Below is a list of a few things that should raise a red flag (this goes for dealers and auction rooms):

The seller’s invoice does not offer a guarantee.
The invoice does not state the full name along with the birth and, when appropriate, death dates for the artist.
The seller knocks the idea that the opinion of the expert is needed.
The seller claims to be ‘an expert’ (sometimes this is true, but that is very easy to determine).
The seller presents you with their own ‘certificate of authenticity’ (sometimes these are fine, however most of the time they are not).
The seller is offering you a work this is far below its market value.