The Fine Art of Acquiring Authentic Artworks.

AuthorBroughall, Gemma

In the decade and a half that I was with the Metropolitan Museum of Art I must have examined fifty thousand works in all fields. Fully 40 percent were either phonies or so hypocritically restored or so misattributed that they were just the same as forgeries. Since then I am sure that that percentage has risen. (1) The above comment was made by the late Thomas Hoving, Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1967 to 1977 and is food for thought. Following its biggest recession for ten years, the global art market rebounded strongly to reach sales of $67.8 billion in 2022. (2) If Mr Hoving's appraisal is anything to go by, that equates potentially to a lot of unwisely spent money.

Of course, fakes and forgeries (3) in the art world are not new. Indeed, imitation, as the saying goes, is the sincerest form of flattery. The art of forgery, for instance, has been around since ancient times when Roman sculptors used to produce copies of their Ancient Greek predecessors' sculptures. However, unlike today's art buyers, the Romans would have likely known that they were not buying genuine works of art.

The art world has been described as one of the largest unregulated markets in the world, a place where privacy reigns and confidentiality is king. In view of this and given the rapid expansion of the art market in recent years, not least in terms of the volume and value of transactions, now, more than ever, collectors need to be vigilant and discerning when it comes to doing their due diligence on art acquisitions.

So how does a buyer contemplating an acquisition of an artwork know that they are getting what they thought they were paying for?

In this article we will examine the various investigative steps that can be taken pre-purchase to minimise the chances of buying a fake or forgery. We also give some practical guidance to buyers as to how to protect themselves upon acquisition, and, lastly, we discuss possible routes to resolution for buyers who believe they may not have acquired the real deal.


The esoteric world of art depends on opinion, scholarship and highly specialised expertise. Yet, deals in the art world are still often done on a handshake and a promise, without much due diligence and expert input. It appears that many view such prosaic concerns as spoiling the romance of the art purchase. However, in reality, thorough due diligence and expert advice can be key to a long-lasting relationship with a work of art. In this section we discuss three ways to minimise your risk when buying an artwork--seeking advice on authenticity, condition and valuation. The extent of due diligence will, of course, need to be balanced against the value of the artwork, but for the most valuable pieces all three areas of research should be considered.


How does a buyer know they are purchasing the genuine article? How do you distinguish a Vermeer from a van Meegeren? A Monet from a Myatt? A Braque from a Beltracchi?

Walter Benjamin, the German philosopher and art critic, in his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (1936), (4) uses the word 'authentic' to refer to an original work of art as having a unique existence in the place and time it happens to be in. Most importantly, a work of art's unique aesthetic authority is intrinsic to its value.

Buyers should be aware of the varying terminology used to describe the attribution of artworks for sale. To the uninitiated this terminology can appear confusing given the plethora of terms commonly used. Helpfully, auction houses, such as Sotheby's and Christie's, have collated a glossary of such terms to explain the nuances and prospective buyers are advised to carefully review the descriptions of artworks alongside these terms to be clear on exactly what they are purchasing. (5) We set out some examples below:

* "By": the work is made by the hand of the artist (and the price will reflect that).

* "Attributed to": the painting is probably by the artist.

* "Studio of"/"Workshop of": a work executed in the studio or workshop of the artist, possibly under his supervision.

* "Follower of': a work executed in the artist's style but not necessarily by a pupil, or anyone who worked directly with the artist.

* "Circle of': by someone from the same period of the artist and shows his or her influence.

* "Manner of': a work done in the style of the artist but at a later date.

* "After": a copy of a work by the artist.

* "School of': a work by a pupil or follower of the artist.

Establishing authenticity is both an art and a science. It involves a thorough investigative exercise on the part of the buyer (much like when buying a house) particularly in circumstances where the artist has been dead for centuries.

There are broadly three ways to authenticate a work of art. Depending on the value of the artwork, a combination of all three may be used.

Presence of Genuine Documentation (Provenance)

Provenance comes from the French word provenir meaning 'to originate', which, in turn, is derived from the Latin provenire. The provenance of an artwork refers to both its historical ownership and chain of custody. Provenance is critical to determining both the authenticity and value of an artwork.

Buyers should never purchase an artwork without examining the provenance first and there are many resources to assist with this. Ideally, the seller should volunteer all the necessary information and documentation before purchase but if they do not, buyers should ask questions. Buyers should also be wary of sellers who are reluctant to show evidence of provenance, for example, citing confidentiality or privacy of previous owners, since this may be evidence of questionable (or at worst, complete lack of) provenance. If buyers have any concerns as to an artwork's provenance it would be prudent to contact an independent expert, consultant or dealer before buying.

Unfortunately, authenticity cannot be demonstrated by one single, official, globally recognised document and therefore an authenticity dossier can end up being quite voluminous.

A good starting point to research the provenance of a prospective purchase is the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), (6) which includes links to important archives, image databases, dealer and sales records and other references. IFAR's provenance guide (7) contains links to important resources such as INTERPOL'S database of stolen artworks and the Art Loss Register. Notably, the guide also contains links to databases administered by the German Lost Art Foundation, which lists works of art looted by the Nazi regime during the Second World War. A cautionary tale on provenance is the US case of Brooks v. Sotheby's, (8) in which Mr Brooks sued Sotheby's for failing to disclose that the painting he had bought had once been in the possession of Hermann Goring, which effectively rendered it worthless. (9)

Buyers should also be alert to the fact that forgery of provenance information has become a crucial aspect of art forgery, as was the case with Subhash Kapoor, an Indian-American antiquities dealer who was convicted in 2022 of trafficking $145m in antiquities. (10) Mr Kapoor used false and fabricated provenances to create the illusion of authenticity before selling the artefacts through his art gallery ('Art of the Past') to museums, galleries and private collectors. (11)

Another critical resource for buyers to consult is the catalogue raisonne, a descriptive catalogue listing all of the known artworks by an artist (either in a particular medium or all media) with explanations and scholarly comments. Again, many are accessible digitally through, for example, IFAR's website.

Buyers should always request to see a certificate of authenticity before purchase. Certificates of authenticity are formal documents accompanying a work of art, which attest to the authenticity of the work. They can be signed by the artists themselves (if living or recently deceased) or by a recognised authority or expert on the artist.

There is debate within the art world as to whether certificates of authenticity are actually worth the paper they are written on given they are of little actual worth on their own. For example, they do not carry any particular legal status in the UK since there is no legislation that specifically determines which subjects are entitled to issue the certificate of authenticity (unlike in, say, Italy (12)).

Certificates can also be open to challenge on grounds either of the authenticity of the certificate itself or the underlying opinion expressed within the certificate. Therefore, buyers should scrutinise a certificate to ensure: (i) it is original, (ii) it is issued by a widely respected and recognised authority or expert on the artist, (iii) it relates to the artwork in question and (iv) the opinion is not expressed in unqualified terms. (13)

Other pieces of information/documentation that will assist a buyer to establish provenance include:

  1. An original invoice or bill of sale as proof of purchase/evidence that the seller is the legal owner of the item being sold.

  2. An appraisal from a recognised authority or expert on the artist (see further below).

  3. An exhibition or gallery sticker attached to the art.

  4. Letters from recognised experts or authorities discussing the art.

  5. Newspaper, journal or magazine articles mentioning or illustrating the art, or a mention or illustration of the art in a book or exhibit catalogue.

  6. A signed receipt, statement or certificate directly from the artist that specifically describes the work.

  7. A film or recording or photograph of the artist talking about the art or pictured with the art.

  8. Documented materials or information about the art related by someone familiar with the art or who personally knows the artist and who is qualified to speak authoritatively about the art.

Collectors should make sure to keep all documents associated with the...

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT