Artwork Forgery and Fakes: The Challenge for Art Historians to Ascertain Authenticity of Artwork

Artwork Forgery and Fakes: The Challenge for Art Historians to Ascertain Authenticity of Artwork

In the world of art, the collectors are considered as integral part of creation of the art value. Their collection can be used as a form of their expression and prestigious adventure to belong it. Their collection may also become their distinctive obsession as a medium that realizes all of their ambition and resources into it when competing with one another to acquire it. For some collectors, to collect and preserve artwork will gain knowledge about it that delivers a glorious direction for their life and surroundings. In a specific case, some collectors also establish their collection to become a sacred object.

Artwork Forgery and Fakes: The Challenge for Art Historians to Ascertain Authenticity of Artwork
Artwork Forgery and Fakes: The Challenge for Art Historians to Ascertain Authenticity of Artwork

However, along with a high escalation in demand for artworks, it is encouraging an industry in fakes of forgeries. Although being supported by some art and antique dealers interested only in their personal profit, much of artworks are frequently questionable on their authenticity. Since the beginning of existence of artwork fakes and forgery, collecting artwork has been a riskily endeavor for collectors or art institutions. Art forgery issues date back more than two thousand years. The well-known art lawyer, Joshua Kauffman, notes that in ancient Rome history, the forgeries of artwork have been recorded since its ancient periods. In its history of forgery, many Romans often sought classical Greek artworks and sculptures, but they frequently purchased the counterfeit Classic Greek artwork created or copied by Roman artists.1)

Fakes and forgery term in an art world should be distinguished. John E. Conklin affirms that “Fakes are works of art made to resemble existing ones; Forgeries are pieces that are passed off as original works by known artists.”2) For example, Fakes: someone claims that his Chinese porcelain vase is a genuine Ming dynasty object that is similar to that of archaeological object found or the reputable museums, in fact, it is a counterfeit (copy of pre-existing artworks). While Forgeries: someone creates or alter a false design or mark of a genuine Ming dynasty object, with intent to defraud. In Asian artwork, for example, it is estimated that approximately sixty percent of the artwork on the market are either “half-forgeries”, which the genuinely ancient works have been modelled to suit a more valuable style. This case may happen when the broken artifacts found in the archaeological ruin sites are remodified and refashioned by adding the modern materials or other elements in some ways to become genuinely antique look.

Throughout art history, collectors purchasing the artwork wish that their acquisitions of artworks are worth what they pay. If they purchase the artwork that is later detected as a worthless fake, it will lead them to bereave confidence in the art market and make them vigilant of purchasing artwork in the future. Forgery or fake is also adverse for society because it has a negative inclination to provide spurious information about an artist’s body of work, sometimes tentatively revamp our perception of art history. Fakers and forgers make a hard effort deliberately to deceive society and the art industry. They may modify, diminish or add a written signature, mark or other elements, complete a half-done work, and misconceive the work of an amateur as a master’s work. They may create an original composition similarly in model, color, design, technique and style to that of a well-known artist or ancient object, or copy an existing original work. They may blend paint pigments or colors to resemble ingredients applied by the original artist, use old canvas, ancient ceramic or other mediums to paint or decorate on, and artificially age the work by fissuring the surface varnish of oil paintings through chemical handling, or by burying artwork made of metal or earthenware for the certain years to designate as if the ancient artwork.

Today, the art historians are challenged by forgers and fakers to determine whether the certain artwork is original, fake or forge. Some art historians claim that a provenance is the powerful means of supporting an authenticity claim. Provenance is a term of technical art world meaning documentation of origin or history of ownership. It is not exactly interchangeable with legal title, but if properly determined, should reveal the “Four Ws).” One commentator has presented this as a fraction that contains:

  1. Who owned the artwork
  2. What exhibitions has displayed the artwork
  3. What catalogues have appeared the artwork
  4. Where the artwork has been, with one crucial denominator: When the artwork owned.3)

Moreover, a German Jewish philosopher, cultural critic and essayist, Walter Bendix Schönflies Benjamin (1892 – 1940) claims that to ascertain the authenticity of artwork is to capture its aura because the original artwork has an aura that is emanated due to its uniqueness. Aura defines the relationship between the artwork and tradition as one of “uniqueness and eternity.” At same time, the aura of artwork defines a sense of the inviolable distance between the art object and its audience such that the audience is compelled to see the art object in terms of its affirmation of cultic tradition and, by extension, all unliberated tradition. Thus, aura represent the authenticity of artwork that has not been reproduced or replaced.4)

However, the author suggests that provenance solely does not represent the authenticity of artwork. Provenance could be easily embellished and forged by someone else deliberately to improve the value of artwork. It is difficult to assess authenticity of artworks, specifically, antique objects. Antique objects have the long spanning of periods, probably hundreds even thousands of years ago, and the object exchanged hands several times. In addition, the claim of ‘aura’ concept in ascertaining the authenticity of artwork is questionable by art historians and connoisseurs. The quality of aura will depend on the quality of feeling, thinking and opinion of respective viewer or audience to an artwork. Each audience is different individual with different uniqueness of character or personality, feeling, thinking and opinion that generate different ascertainment of a unique artwork. In a certain case, this concept is acceptable, but in another certain case is not absolutely suitable.

Consequently, art historians believe that true appreciation of an antique depends on its historical ethnographical context and what makes it significant. Its authenticity document is neither a subjective, discursive construction nor a bias storytelling about the antique. Provenance should be the whole and objectively chronology of the ownership based on historiographic and ethnographic approach, not an imaginative or theatrical story. In historiography approach, the researcher should take artifactual evidences found or unearthed from the historic or archaeological sites to construct and illuminate the correlation between the artifacts found and the artwork evaluated that makes its history important and correlative. Meanwhile, in ethnography approach, the researcher should take symbolic evidences found or unearthed from the historic or archaeological sites to construct a narrative that thematizing an objectively storytelling of artwork evaluated. The storytelling appears in a variety of contexts, including aesthetic, political, social, and cultural life of the past correlating with the artwork evaluated. For example, the specific model and design or certain style of an ancient Chinese ceramic found in Southeast Asia countries can be traced by correlating its history and supporting symbolic evidences. The history and symbolic evidences should cover the social, political, and trade relation aspects between China and Southeast Asia countries for several centuries ago that explore the artwork. Thus, Historic and Ethnographic research should be reinforced by the legitimate historical documents about the concerned artwork, including the resources of information from archaeological sites and the similar artifacts found, archives, manuscripts, scholarly printed books or papers and science about the related artwork.

Another element of authenticity of artwork will also depend on expertise of art historians in analyzing stylistic elements. Although the expertise of the respective researcher is different quality, but the least, he or she is able to elaborate the precisely elements linkages of the artwork evaluated. These elements include such as colors used, and the techniques to paint or design that is executed, where the certain brushstrokes, designs, styles and techniques can be attributed to certain artists or periods. The use of light and other laboratory equipment to examine the motifs, and the significant features and subject or focal point on artwork should be also studied. Although the forgers or faker acclaim being able to duplicate the original artwork, but their work is not actually a creation of the style or technique representing the historical period of original artwork. Fortunately, the true art historian and connoisseurs recognize this challenge. Therefore, there are a lot of artworks displayed in the exhibitions today are constantly being eliminated, replaced and re-evaluated in order to preserve the integrity of art history.


  1. Joshua Kauffman, “Putting the Legal Squeeze on Stolen Art” Art Business News, p. 36.

  2. John E. Conklin, Art Crime, Praeger Publishers, London, 1994, p. 48.

  3. Kelly Diane Walton Baker & Botts, L.L.P, Leave No St e No Stone Unturned: The Sear one Unturned: The Search for Ar ch for Art Stolen by the Nazis y the Nazis and the Legal Rules Governing Restitution of Stolen Art, The Fordham Intellectual Property, Media and Entertainment Law Journal, Volume IX Book 2, 1999, pp. 551 – 552.

  4. Jon Thompson, Fiction, Crime, and Empire: Clues to Modernity and Postmodernism, The Board of Trustees of The University of Illinois, USA, 1993, pp. 16 – 17.

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