Indelible Authenticity: How Artclear is Combating Fakes in the Contemporary Art Market

The Contemporary Art Market and Its Challenges with Art Forgery

The art market is a $65 billion industry with millions of artworks in circulation every year and a global network of businesses and individuals established to buy, sell, celebrate, and protect these works. With such a valuable, prosperous business, it is no surprise that it attracts criminal attention, particularly art forgery.

Former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art Thomas Hoving once estimated that 40 percent of artworks on sale are fake. Artists, collectors, galleries, dealers, museums, and auction houses are all vulnerable to the threats of fakes in the market. When a counterfeit is discovered, its value is instantly nullified with the loss normally falling upon the work’s current owner.

Some of the biggest names in contemporary art are most vulnerable to being faked. Looking at the numbers arising in the press, we wonder just how many more counterfeit works are yet to be discovered.

High Profile Examples of Fake Artworks in the Market: Damian Hirst, Gerhard Richter, Yayoi Kusama

Damian Hirst

The Times reported this month that a print attributed to British artist Damian Hirst had recently been denounced as a fake. The print, a spiral of multi-coloured spots titled Valium, was sold to the current owner through a renowned global auction house in 2004, having been authenticated by both the auction house and Hirst’s own company, Science Ltd. It is unclear as to what new information about the work has been discovered that would negate these previous attestations, but regardless, the owner has been left with a worthless print that originally cost them £4,940 and, if genuine, would be worth £23,000 today.

Damian Hirst standing in front of one of his famous spot paintings (c) Andrew Russeth
Damian Hirst, 2012. Courtesy: Andrew Russeth; Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

Gerhard Richter

As the highest selling living artist 2021 and with work selling at auction for over $30million, there is a flourishing market of forgery around the German painter Gerhard Richter. Richter is famous for large abstract canvases, across which he pulls layers of paint with a squeegee. Art historian Hubertus Butin, an expert on Richter, encounters two forgeries a month.

A high profile example occurred in 2020 when Berlin art dealer Michael Schultz was accused of forgery after a Gerhard Richter painting that he had sold to a collector went to auction with an upper estimate of €1,000,000. The work was credited to be Richter’s 1989 Abstract Image 705-2. As standard practice, the Gerhard Richter Archive were contacted by the auction house to authenticate the work and were in this instance able to quickly identify that the painting was a copy as it was not particularly good.

Art critic Jerry Saltz commissioned his own faux Richter painting in 2012. A fun backstory for an article, Saltz’s venture into artwork mimicry underlines how a good fake can deceive even the keenest critical eye.

Close up of one of Gerhard Richeter's 'Cage' paintings
Close up of one of Gerhard Richter's ‘Cage’ paintings. Courtesy: Tim Regan; Flickr, licensed under CC BY 2.0

Yayoi Kusama

In 2018 Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama took legal action against the organisers of exhibitions in China that presented counterfeited works falsely credited to her. The exhibitions were held across six Chinese cities and included forgeries of her famous polka dot installations. Kusama was named the world’s most popular artist in 2014, so it is not surprising that she would be a target for fakes and forgery.

“This is such a disappointing situation that my creations, which I’ve devoted my entire life to, have been plagiarized and exposed to everyone in an improper form” – Yayoi Kusama

Yayoi Kusama with one of her polka dot installations (c) Susanne Nilsson
Yayoi Kusama, 2015. Courtesy: Susanne Nilsson; Flickr, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Traditional Methods of Examining Art Forgery and Their Limitations

Conventional methods for examining a work that may be a fake can be somewhat hit and miss. They include:

  1. Style comparison – assessing the formal appearance of the artwork in relation to how much it conforms with the style of the credited artist. The success of this approach largely depends on the quality of the fake and judgement of the examiner.
  2. Provenance – clarifying origin and previous ownership of the artwork. This relies on paper documents that can be faked.
  3. Material Examination – using scientific techniques to analyse the materials, brushstrokes, etc. to determine an artwork’s authenticity. This is not available to everybody and can be time consuming and costly.

It should also be noted that changes in scientific art history and research into authenticity create new uncertainties – major auction houses offer only a 5 year warranty on authenticity guarantees. As in the case of the Damian Hirst Valium print, works that are authenticated with using one method, can be reassessed when authentication practices advance leaving buyers out of pocket and sellers like Michael Shultz exposed and embarrassed.

Person standing in front of a Barnett Newman painting

The Artclear Solution: Secure Digital Certificates of Authenticity

Quick, secure, certain.

  1. Attaching secure digital certificates of authenticity and ownership to the artwork from its creation lays the foundation of a solid provenance.
  2. Certificates of authenticity, embedded within a digital token, signed by the artist and issued by the studio or gallery, guarantee the artwork’s origin in perpetuity.
  3. Artclear scanners identify the artwork from its microscopic properties and generate unique fingerprints, taking minutes to scan and assess the work. This content ensures  certificates cannot be faked and indelibly connect the digital authenticity guarantee with the physical artwork.
  4. All the data is registered in a blockchain, making it unimpeachable.
  5. A simple scan can determine if the work is the same with a less than one in a billion chance of a false reading, even in the case of inkjet prints.

The ability to indelibly and immutably guarantee the authenticity of an artwork from the point of its creation will not only make it easier and more certain to identify counterfeit artworks, but will also enhance the value of the original work and more broadly trust in the art market as a whole. 

Visitor in a museum