The fake on the wall

As the value of South African art increases, more works by local artists are starting to be targeted by forgers, a fact that investors need to be aware of in order to avoid being fooled.

Serious collectors also need to insure themselves against buying fake or stolen works of art as reports of these forgeries increase. There have already been a number of cases in South Africa this year where the origin and authenticity of art by local artists has come into question.

In Europe the existence of fraudulent copies of major artworks is a fairly well known and investors there have become cautious. South African investors are now becoming aware that genuine-looking forgeries are starting to appear here as well. In fact it has become a source of humour in art circles that despite having passed away two years ago, Frans Claerhout continues to produce art works! Another high profile local art scandal, although not proven to everyone’s satisfaction, are the serious questions surrounding a few items in Brett Kebble’s collection, questions which are strong enough to cast doubt over the authenticity of some works.

There has been a conscientious move by serious art investors to obtain specialist insurance to protect themselves in cases where they may become a victim of fraud or unwittingly purchase a stolen work.

A ‘great find’ can blind

Even Fred Scott, a serious and greatly respected South African collector, admits to being fooled … but only once. He gave a talk to art enthusiasts at Hollard where he confessed that even with his experience, he purchased a fraudulent work believing it to be genuine.

“This was only because I allowed my enthusiasm and excitement for a bargain and a great find to put my normal caution on hold. Although I was very surprised to see this particular artist on sale in South Africa – and warning bells should have been ringing – I bought it and lost financially. Much later I decided to sell it and Christies told me it was “not by the hand of that artist” – which is their delicate way of saying: ‘Sorry. It’s a fake’. It was only then that I started to examine the work without excitement and emotion clouding my judgement and began to see the truth and telltale signs. You need a fair level of expertise to spot them and why it is important to put your trust in experts who have a proven track record of integrity.”

According to Scott, once a collector has discovered s/he has purchased a fraudulent work at a substantial sum, s/he is faced with a moral dilemma: “Do you sell the painting on and not divulge that it is fraudulent or do you take the financial knock and tell all? One option, of course, is to burn or destroy the work, but it is still a beautiful painting despite all. What I did is I sold the painting declaring it to be ‘in the style of the particular artist’. I still lost a lot of money on that transaction and it is proof positive that if something appears too good to be true it usually is.”

The defensive moves

People are aware that fake diamonds and counterfeit money exits – and that there are ways to identify the real thing; so investors in art should call on experts to verify authenticity in order to protect their investment and themselves.

Investing in good art is becoming an increasingly popular financial practice, surrounded as we are with extreme economic volatility. People who are becoming, or who already are, serious art investors should speak to their broker about obtaining insurance protection from a specialist art insurer in the area of forgeries as well as defective title if a stolen work is unwittingly purchased. Serious investors need to make sure that the right cover is in place to protect their financial assets against these types of unpredictable knocks.

Avoiding owning fakes

So how do we avoid being the proud owner of a beautiful replica? Here are a few tips to help keep you in the clear:

  • Always buy through reputable sources who can stand by the authenticity and provenance of a work;
  • If faced with the bargain of a lifetime by an intermediary without the track record in the industry, chances are the only true bargain will be for the originator and the intermediary;
  • Take your time to explore the work and the body of work produced by the artist;
  • Call on experts regarding that artist and pick their brains;
  • Ask questions and satisfy yourself before committing to an investment.

What if you buy a fake?

Do you have a right of recourse if you end up with a fake? If you can find the perpetrators you may have a right of action. However, whether they are still in possession of your money is questionable. Also, proving that a work of art is a fake can be a long and expensive process involving a significant number of experts. It is also not a definitive science unless you end up with a confession.

However, science has long been used to help authenticate works of art. Technicians can date paint from its chemical composition, for example, or x-ray a canvas to reveal what lies below the surface if it suspected that a work has been painted on ‘old’ canvas. In recent years, however, the artwork itself has come under more scientific scrutiny, especially through the analysis of brushstrokes. The idea is to establish an artist’s ‘handwriting’ through brushstrokes to help verify the origin of a painting.

So there is a range of significant backup and expertise available to investors, as well as insurance protection by specialists. More guidance is available on

The famous fraudsters

Two of the most famous and productive fraudsters of all time are Han van Meegeren who got into deep water for defrauding Adolf Hitler’s closest aide, Hermann Göring, and more recently, John Myatt, an American artist who has earned himself the title of the biggest forger of the 20th century. He sold over 200 fake artworks of artists such as Matisse and Marc Chagall before landing behind bars. The police only recovered 60 of these 200 and his works were confidently sold in London, Paris and New York by leading dealers including Christies and Sotheby’s. The whereabouts of the unrecovered 140 high priced fakes remains a mystery. After his release from a short stay in prison, Myatt created a lucrative career by selling acknowledged fakes.

Ripping off the Reich

In 1945, at the end of the Second World War, Han van Meegeren, who was an artist and part time art dealer, was arrested for collaboration with the enemy – the German Third Reich. He was charged with acting as an agent in the sale of a Vermeer painting to one of Adolph Hitler’s closest aides, Hermann Göring, who had amassed a huge art collection and still sought a Vermeer.

As the penalty for this form of treason was death, Van Meegeren announced that the painting was a forgery. In fact, he revealed, a huge number of Dutch masters emanating from him were forgeries which he had painted. In view of their extraordinary quality of execution, the experts of the day didn’t believe him. They said if the Vermeer in question “was indeed a forgery then the painter must be considered a genius in that particular line”.

Determined to prove his claim (and save his life) Van Meegeren called for the tools to recreate the work in question. The fact that he did stunned the Dutch arts establishment. Ironically, today his works command significant prices because of their historical context and his infamy.

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