Tom Ripley is involved in an artwork forgery scheme in several of Patricia Highsmith's crime novels, most notably Ripley Under Ground (1970), in which he is confronted by a collector who correctly suspects that the paintings sold by Tom are forgeries. The novel was adapted to film in 2005, and the 1977 film The American Friend is also partially based on the novel.
* FIRST AND FOREMOST: NEVER BID ON OR BUY ART WITHOUT SEEING THE PROVENANCE FIRST. Sellers may say they have provenance, but will only show or give it to winning bidders or buyers after they purchase the art. Other common excuses for not showing provenance include protecting the privacy of the previous owners, keeping bidders from contacting previous owners, or keeping it private. In most cases, the real reason for not showing the provenance is that it's questionable in nature or worse yet, it doesn't even exist. If the seller won't let you see it up front, don't bid and don't buy. Period.
One of the more-complicated examples is that of the Getty kouros, an allegedly 6th-century-bce male sculpted figure owned by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles that has long been suspected of being a modern forgery. The Getty paid a very high price for what it believed may have been the last remaining such figure on the art market only to find that the sculpture had stylistic irregularities that suggested that it could not be authentic. At the same time, scientific tests have not demonstrated that it is of modern origin, and some scholars have argued that stylistic anomalies do not prove that it is a fake. The Getty Villa exhibited the work in its galleries with a label that read: “about 530 bc or modern forgery.” However, the kouros was removed from view when the museum completed a yearlong renovation in 2018, with the director stating that the sculpture was fake.
At any point in a work of art's history, its authenticity can come into question. Often, art is accompanied by documentation, commonly known as provenance, that confirms its authenticity mainly through ownership history. Good provenance (ownership history) leaves no doubt that a work of art is genuine and by the artist who it is stated to be by or whose signature it bears. Unfortunately, numerous forged or otherwise misrepresented works of art are offered for sale with fake or questionable provenance at online auctions, at fixed-price art websites, and at bricks-and-mortar establishments. But nowhere is the proliferation of art with problematic provenance more pervasive than at online auctions.
While pretty much all art could be scandalized, some are more susceptible to scheming than others. Digital artist Daniel Temkin points out that digital art, which doesn’t need to be shipped or stored because it has no physical manifestation, is particularly ripe for your risky business. To make it easy for you, Temkin has created an "online auction house, offering net art by internationally renowned artists and their impersonators" called NetVVorth. The art experiment/tongue-in-cheek criminal resource hosts a series of counterfeit works created by legitimate net artists. “The collection is offered to expose net art as a viable investment to serious collectors by establishing a shadow market, proving its ability to hide illicit profits and transfer them easily around the globe. All works are supplied with provenance papers. All sales are in Bitcoin. The true counterfeiter is identified only to the owner of the piece.” The collection includes roughly 35 works. Pick your favorite. (And if you hate digital art, like most collectors, you can always hire an art consultant who can help you pick out some “reeeeeal” art.)
The commonest motivation for fraudulence is monetary gain. Fraudulence is most likely to occur when the demand for a certain kind of work coincides with scarcity and thus raises the market prices. Unprincipled dealers have encouraged technically skilled artists to create forgeries, occasionally guiding them to supply the precise demands of collectors or museums. This is by no means a modern phenomenon: in the 1st and 2nd centuries ad, sculptors working in Rome made replicas of Grecian works to satisfy the demands for the greatly admired Grecian sculpture of the preceding five centuries. These copies or adaptations apparently were not offered as contemporary work but as booty from Greece at the extraordinarily high prices paid for such works in imperial Rome. Similar circumstances may account for the “discovery” of a manuscript or autograph by a dead author or composer, although many such finds are quite legitimate and have been authenticated.
The copying of famous works of art dates to the origins of the history of art collecting and therefore to the beginning of the history of art. In the ancient world, replicas of famous works were made in order to satisfy demand by collectors for such works. The bronze Spear Bearer (c. 450–440 bce) by Greek sculptor Polyclitus, for example, achieved great renown for its perfect proportions and beauty. As a result, it was often copied in marble for Roman collectors in subsequent centuries. The copies, which are all that survived into the 21st century, made no pretense of being the original or having been made by Polyclitus.