Forgery, in art, a work of literature, painting, sculpture, or objet d’art that purports to be the work of someone other than its true maker. The range of forgeries extends from misrepresentation of a genuine work of art to the outright counterfeiting of a work or style of an artist. Forgery must be distinguished from copies produced with no intent to deceive.
Recently, some countries in Europe, including Luxembourg and Switzerland, have passed laws to clamp down on money laundering in the art market. Starting in 2016, Switzerland will cap cash transactions at 100,000 Swiss francs ($135,000). Payments above that cash limit will have to be made by credit card, creating a paper trail, or the seller will have to carry out due diligence to ensure the legal origins of the funds.

Conservation issues of Pompeii and Herculaneum Conservation-restoration of Ecce Homo by Elías García Martínez Conservation-restoration of The Gross Clinic by Thomas Eakins Conservation-restoration of Leonardo da Vinci's The Last Supper Conservation-restoration of the Shroud of Turin Conservation-restoration of the Sistine Chapel frescoes Conservation-restoration of the Statue of Liberty Conservation-restoration of the H.L. Hunley Modern and Contemporary Art Research Initiative


Every work of art carries with it not only the history of its creator, but of its owners as well. Provenance—the record of ownership for a work of art—provides important documentation explaining who, at various points in history, owned the painting, sculpture or artifact at hand. This is an especially important issue for museums, who pay careful attention to provenance to confirm the authenticity of a work of art and its rightful ownership.
The copy is the easiest forgery to make and is usually the easiest to detect. When a duplicate has appeared the problem is merely to determine which is the original and which is the copy. At least a dozen excellent replicas of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa exist, many of them by his students. Various owners of these copies have at various times claimed that they possess the original. The Louvre is satisfied that it owns the painting by Leonardo because close examination reveals slight changes in the composition underneath the outermost layer of paint, and because this painting has an unbroken record of ownership from the time that the artist painted it.
Recently, some countries in Europe, including Luxembourg and Switzerland, have passed laws to clamp down on money laundering in the art market. Starting in 2016, Switzerland will cap cash transactions at 100,000 Swiss francs ($135,000). Payments above that cash limit will have to be made by credit card, creating a paper trail, or the seller will have to carry out due diligence to ensure the legal origins of the funds.
Forgeries may be detected by the methods of examination formulated by Jean Mabillon, in his great work De re diplomatica (1681), for determining the authenticity of a document by the writing and the style of the terminology. These techniques have developed during three centuries into the modern sciences of paleography and diplomatics, by which various scripts and formulas can be assigned to particular ages and localities, and effective comparison can be made between two examples of handwriting purporting to come from the same pen. Thus it is possible to state that a particular document could not have been written at the date that it bears. In dealing with printed texts, analogous methods are employed.
In this context, the provenance can occasionally be the detailed history of where an object has been since its creation,[26] as in art history contexts – not just since its modern finding. In some cases, such as where there is an inscription on the object, or an account of it in written materials from the same era, an object of study in archaeology or cultural anthropology may have an early provenance – a known history that predates modern research – then a provenience from its modern finding, and finally a continued provenance relating to its handling and storage or display after the modern acquisition.
The copy is the easiest forgery to make and is usually the easiest to detect. When a duplicate has appeared the problem is merely to determine which is the original and which is the copy. At least a dozen excellent replicas of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa exist, many of them by his students. Various owners of these copies have at various times claimed that they possess the original. The Louvre is satisfied that it owns the painting by Leonardo because close examination reveals slight changes in the composition underneath the outermost layer of paint, and because this painting has an unbroken record of ownership from the time that the artist painted it.
These pesky forgers don’t limit their scams to painting, and are capable of turning their hands to many types of fakery. In the case of this set of six Louis XIV chairs—sold by highly-respected Parisian antiques dealer Kraemer Gallery to the Palace of Versailles itself—it emerged after the sale was made public that there just were not as many chairs in the court of Versailles as there are currently in circulation. The natural conclusion would be that some of the presumed authentic chairs must indeed be fakes.
A common narrative used by art scammers is to say their wife has been looking at your work and really enjoys it. Or, they have a new home and are looking for pieces to decorate it. At first glance, it may seem like a plausible story, but something about it seems abrupt or stunted. If they don’t use your name or any details about the works they are looking at, it is probably not legitimate.
It plainly makes sense for sellers and buyers to get ahead of the curve and finally reach a clear understanding about what is at stake when provenance or related information such as exhibition history is provided. Is the provenance really intended to be a complete chain of title and possession, given that there is no title registry for personal property such as works of art? Is that even possible, given the penchant for anonymity among many wealthy collectors, not to mention the confidentiality of private sales? Further complicating research into ownership is the fact that many art transactions are documented with simple invoices, rather than detailed contracts; often it is unclear from the face of the documents, particularly in multi-party back to back transactions, whether a dealer is acting as a principal or as agent for one of the parties.

Technical analysis, an objective approach, rests on an arsenal of equipment and tests. The fundamental principle is the comparison of a suspected work with a genuine work of the same artist or period. The suspected piece must show the same pigments or materials used and comparable age deterioration. Inconsistencies automatically cause the piece to be suspect. Oil paintings dry out and develop a crackle, bronzes oxidize, and ancient glass buried in the ground develops iridescent layers. The microscope is the most useful basic tool: a close examination of the physical condition often will show if the aging is genuine or has been artificially induced. The type of tools used by the artist can be detected from an examination of their telltale traces.

James Martin’s expert report shows the signatures from four Knoedler paintings that were purported Jackson Pollocks. The top two signatures are quite similar. The bottom right signature shows signs that the name was first traced onto the canvas using a sharp tool, and is very similar to the signature on the bottom left, which is misspelled “Pollok.” Courtesy of James Martin.
While the detection of the careful forger may require an expert, forged literary autographs can often be detected by anyone taking the trouble to compare them with an authentic example. Many collectors have been deceived by their own credulity, because they wished to believe that they were getting a good bargain and subconsciously suppressed their critical faculty. A classic case is that of the French forger Vrain-Denis Lucas, who sold a collection of forgeries including a letter of St. Mary Magdalene, written in French on paper made in France.
A forgery ring busted in 2011 is still having repercussions across the Alberto Giacometti market. Dutch Giacometti forger Robert Driessen made €8 million ($8.9 million) selling forged sculptures, along with thousands of fake bronzes, before his misdeeds were discovered. In 2015, the case again made headlines when a German dealer was caught trying to sell one of the works still at large to an undercover agent.
The wealthy figured this out in a big way back in the 1980s, giving rise to ‘art stars’ valued in the millions. And with the increasing popularity and geographical scope of biennials and art fairs in the 1990s, rich people all over the world now have access to seas of multi-million dollar investments that can be rolled up and stored just about anywhere.
The potential role of high-end art and antiquities in money laundering schemes has attracted increasing attention over the last several years, particularly as the prices for such objects steadily rise and a tightening global enforcement and regulatory net has rendered other possible avenues for money laundering increasingly less attractive. The effort to subject U.S. dealers in art and antiquities to Anti-Money-Laundering (“AML”) obligations recently has gained new life.  As we blogged, the House Financial Services Committee just released three proposed bills to codify many of the reform ideas that have been swirling around the Bank Secretary Act (“BSA”) and AML and Combating the Financing of Terrorism (“CFT”) laws.  One of the bills — entitled as the “To make reforms to the Federal Bank Secrecy Act and anti-money laundering laws, and for other purposes” —  catalogues various detailed provisions seeking to reform the BSA and AML laws.  Nestled admist all of the other, generally higher-profile proposals (such as the creation of a BSA whistleblower program), one short section of this bill simply expands the list of defined “financial institutions” covered by the BSA to include “dealers in art or antiquities,” and then states that the Secretary of the Treasury shall issue implementing regulations within 180 days of the bill’s enactment.
Art forgery may also be subject to civil sanctions. The Federal Trade Commission, for example, has used the FTC Act to combat an array of unfair trade practices in the art market. An FTC Act case was successfully brought against a purveyor of fake Dalí prints in FTC v. Magui Publishers, Inc., who was permanently enjoined from fraudulent activity and ordered to restore their illegal profits.[28][29] In that case, the defendant had collected millions of dollars from his sale of forged prints.
The primary purpose of tracing the provenance of an object or entity is normally to provide contextual and circumstantial evidence for its original production or discovery, by establishing, as far as practicable, its later history, especially the sequences of its formal ownership, custody and places of storage. The practice has a particular value in helping authenticate objects. Comparative techniques, expert opinions and the results of scientific tests may also be used to these ends, but establishing provenance is essentially a matter of documentation. The term dates to the 1780s in English. Provenance is conceptually comparable to the legal term chain of custody.
At $8.3 million, it was the most expensive painting that the De Soles — the chairman of Tom Ford International and his socialite wife — had ever purchased, but they were getting what one source calls “a pretty sweet deal.” Weeks before the sale closed, a work by Rothko sold for $17,368,000 at Sotheby’s. Knoedler drew up a warranty of “authenticity and good value,” and the De Soles proudly hung Rothko’s “Untitled 1956” inside their luxurious Hilton Head, SC, home.
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