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Authentic art 
or fantastic forgery


November 2004

As I write this column, thereís an item up for sale on a top online auction site whose title reads: "Fabulous auction painting, signed Claude Monet, over 100 years old." The starting bid is $15,000. It isnít until you get to the fine print that the seller suggests that, despite the signature, the work was undoubtedly done by someone other than Monet.

It reminds me of a situation that occurred when I was once at a major, reputable auction house in New York City. There was also a "Matisse" being prepared for auction, but when I looked at the signature, it was quite clear that this wasnít Henri Matisseís work.

I pointed it out to one of the houseís specialists. He agreed the signature was suspicious, but it still went up for auction. Why were they selling it? Auction houses compete with each other. To sell this particular estate, they may have had to agree to sell all of the art, authentic or not.

Art can be acquired through many different means. Forgeries and misrepresentations can and do occur in virtually all venues, but there are steps you can take to protect yourself and your art investment dollars.

I am leery about purchasing art via the Internet. There is too much opportunity for forgeries and misrepresentations. There is no incentive for someone with an authentic work of art, particularly from an artist in high demand, to be selling it off as a great deal. If the work is authentic and valuable, it will be priced accordingly and command the asking price.

Retail collectors can acquire art through auction houses, but it also requires buyers to be quite aware. Before bidding, find out if the auction house guarantees authenticity. Many do not. While anyone can appraise a work of art, not everyone can or will authenticate it.

If you are working with a gallery, ask how it establishes the authenticity of its represented works. Are there experts and researchers on staff who can verify the work through published catalogues and unique characteristics of the artist? At my gallery we guarantee authenticity and have a refund policy in place should a work later be not as represented.

That isnít to say that wonderful, authentic art canít fit into your budget. Art moves in and out of fashion, and the trend is toward contemporary work right now. If you canít live without a well-known artist in your collection, you might just find an original etching from Rembrandt, Toulouse-Lautrec, Whistler or Camille Pissarro surprisingly affordable.

David Barnett is an artist, art dealer and the owner of the oldest Wisconsin art gallery, the David Barnett Gallery in Milwaukee.