There’s Nothing Like the Real Thing: How to Authenticate your Art

Feb 07, 2017

By Rayah Levy, Art Market Expert, CEO: ArtéQuesta and AOHFA

In January, Sotheby’s found that a painting called “St Jerome,” attributed to the 16th century Italian artist Parmigianino and consigned by collector Lionel de Saint Donat-Pourrières, was a fake. Paint samples taken from the oil painting were found to contain pigments not invented until the 20th century. Sotheby’s is refunding the buyer and is seeking damages of $672,000, according to The New York Times.

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“St. Jerome,” attributed to the circle of the 16th-century Italian artist Parmigianino, has been determined to be a modern fake, according to a complaint filed by Sotheby’s auction house in United States District Court in New York on Tuesday. Image credit: Sotheby's

This comes shortly after Sotheby’s found that another painting, attributed to 17th century painter Frans Hals and sold for about $10 million, also contained 20th century pigments. Both imposter paintings have been traced to a European art collector named Giuliano Ruffini.

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Sotheby’s declared “Portrait of a Man,” previously attributed to Frans Hals, a “modern forgery.” Image credit: Sotheby's

These recent incidences of unmasked masterpieces are shining a spotlight on the growing problem of art forgeries. In fact, as many as 40% of works today may be forgeries. All that is needed is a talented copyist and savvy forgers who do a little historical detective work, such as finding canvas or paper that match the time period of the masterpiece or staining the canvas and using a blow dryer to make pieces look older. Documents of authentication can be faked as well, with signatures of experts forged, or cut and pasted, as needed.

Given this climate, how can you confidently buy art? And if you own a fake, how can you avoid the complications of selling fraudulent works?

The answer lies in a rigorous authentication process, the most important being provenance, or the documented ownership history. Provenance can be established with a combination of the following elements.


  • A statement of authenticity or appraisal from a respected authority, or a statement by the artist him/herself.
  • A gallery or exhibition label attached to the art, or an original gallery sales receipt
  • A full history of previous owners of the work
  • Letters from recognized experts discussing the artwork
  • Media articles mentioning or illustrating the art, or a mention in a book or exhibit catalog
  • A registered catalogue number called a Catalogue Raisonné (meant to serve as a comprehensive inventory of everything an artist produced during their lifetime). For Picasso’s Catalogue Raisonné is called Zervos; Monet, Wildenstein; Modigliani, Ceroni

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Top: The original edition of “Zervos,” which lists more than 16,000 artworks and fetches as much as $200,000 at auction. It was last updated in 1978. Bottom: The new edition, a near-facsimile of the original. TOP ©CHRISTIE’S IMAGES LTD. BOTTOM: ©EDITIONS CAHIERS D’ART.

If provenance can’t be established with a trail of documents, there are technological methods which determine the present condition of the work and a history of any interventions made over time.

The increase in scientific authentication methods has meant that art experts are now more reluctant to offer their opinions on the origin of a work of art. If they are found to be mistaken, they leave themselves open to lawsuits.

But, these technological methods are also bringing new clarity to art owners, who can now embark on a more rigorous authentication process. Bob Haboldt, a dealer in old masters’ art, called the recent Sotheby’s shake-up “a wake-up call…. it’ll make people look at what they have on the wall or what’s on consignment or what’s been purchased in the recent past more closely.”

As art collectors begin this reassessment, it is crucial they realize that while there are countless dealers who claim to have information on artworks, few have the expertise to authenticate works. Locating a reliable art expert is the first step to gaining confidence as a collector.

It is an exciting time to be collecting and investing in great masterpieces, but for the benefit of both buyer and seller, taking the proper steps to ensure the artwork is authentic helps to protect the art world and art history.

To learn more about ArtéQuesta , a San Francisco area art investment company, check out their listing on The Clarion List or visit their website