In the World of Forgery, No Work Is Sacred

By Prisant, Barden | Art Business News, October 2000 | Go to article overview

In the World of Forgery, No Work Is Sacred


Prisant, Barden, Art Business News


Though technology and clever crooks have kept the business of forgery thriving, there are ways to spot fakes and avoid being swindled

Art forging is a worldwide and age-old problem. "It plagues the industry" said U.S. memorabilia publisher Ken Thimmel. "We have been pursuing cases for 120 years," stated Nicholas Edgar, director of marketing for the British publisher Rosenstiel's.

When it comes to forgery--from paintings and sculptures to prints and collectibles--nothing is sacred. In the art world, forgery can occur in all of these categories. According to Thimmel, president of All American Collectibles, the FBI estimates that fully 70 percent of the signed memorabilia in circulation is phony. More specifically, Dave Cunningham, the collectibles expert on CollectingChannel.com, asserts that 90 percent of autographed baseballs are fakes. Dr. Sharon Flescher, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research, estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the works they research are not by the artists who supposedly created them. She noted IFAR has received "so many inquiries [for Salvador Dali fakes] that we do not do them anymore." As for Miro, Chagall, and Picasso prints, they are also "very, very heavily faked," she added.

How to Spot Them

The sheer quantity of forged works can be a daunting prospect for publishers, collectible shops and gallery owners who face potential forgeries every day. But according to Edgar, any purchaser can start by using simple common sense. As he puts it, fakes are often bought by buyers "who do not ask the intelligent questions." For example, a logical question to ask a dealer would be: "How can you afford to offer me a popular image for one-quarter its retail price?" Similarly, one could ask: "How can you have 600 supposedly rare Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle baseballs for sale?" As Cunningham puts it, be suspicious when you see "a quantity of material where you would not expect to find it."

How to Stop Them

Once you have a piece, though, the matter of determining its authenticity is far from straightforward. Even a "certificate of authenticity" is no guarantee. Such documents from supposed experts are often themselves fake, and IFAR, perhaps the most respected authentication body in the art world, does not even offer a "certificate." Rather, it provides a detailed report weighing pros and cons which can run to 30 pages. As Thimmel stated, "authentication is not a science," and as Flescher added, "to the naked eye, I can tell you, it is not so easy."

Some preventative steps can be taken to deter forgers, however. According to Jim Rosini, head of the trademark and copyright division of the New York-based law firm Kenyon & Kenyon, today's artists can take a lesson from the map-makers of yore. They added fake cities to their painstakingly drawn maps; in that way, when a forger copied the map, he also copied the tell-tale apocryphal city. Said Rosini, "it would be akin to a (secret) swan in the hair of the `Mona Lisa.'"

All-American Collectibles sells balls, bats, and jerseys with 1) tailor-made holograms, and 2) photos of the athlete actually signing the edition. Similarly, the company's graphics are also impressed with the company logo and that of Major League Baseball. Such security measures allow them to offer a 2-to-1 money back guarantee if any signature is found to be fake.

Rosini also advised that works of art should be registered with the United States Copyright Office. In this case, an artist would be entitled to statutory damages and lawyer's fees up to $100,000 per incident.

Once there is an infringement, Rosini stressed that you "have to make a reputation for zero tolerance. Go after the first, the second, the third, win big, then make it known."

This attitude was echoed by Edgar who said "we take it very seriously--we pursue everything--even when newspapers do not credit the artist properly--we can't be seen as a rollover. …

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