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  • Trish Kennedy-Howe

Fake or Fortune?

Updated: Oct 24, 2023


“Fake or Fortune?” is the title of an amazing television show from Britain. In the program, seasoned experts explore the process of proving whether a work of art is the real thing, painted by a renowned artist, or is an art forgery. The type of paintings ranges from the very old to modern. The way the story unfolds, with various subplots, becomes truly like a murder mystery - without the murder.

Before a painting can be auctioned and sold for a wildly exorbitant sum at one of the great auction houses, such as Sotheby’s or Christie’s, the provenance must be proven. The history of the painting needs to be demonstrated, from the point at which it left the original artist’s studio to the present. Who was it sold to by the artist, be it an individual, or art dealer, or an art gallery, and where did it go from there? It is necessary to show how the party who is bringing it to auction came to possess it.

In some cases, it may be straightforward; it is authentic, documented with all the necessary paperwork, or it is an obvious forgery. In other cases, things are more ambiguous. There may be a work of art that was found in an attic or picked up for almost nothing in an antique shop or thrift store or inherited from a relative who was not aware of its value. Sometimes it has hung on a wall for years in an ancestral home and one day someone has realized the Degas signature at the bottom right just might be the real thing. In one case on the show, a genuine Winslow Homer painting was found by a fisherman in a trash dump and many years later brought to auction.

There are amazing technological tools now which can enable experts to determine the true origin of a painting, no matter how old or obscure. Sometimes they can scrape tiny flecks of paint, without damaging the painting, and ascertain the age, or the chemical composition, which sometimes indicates when or where it might have been painted. Studying the information on the back of the canvas, or on the frame, no matter how faded or obliterated it might be, can yield information about dates, places, and which manufacturers provided materials to the artists. Other times, the history can be traced through old photos or documents, or through x-rays which can reveal more clues. As one researcher said, “We don’t look at paintings; we look through them.”

Every episode is different, and every episode is fascinating. There are five seasons, but I wish there were currently even more episodes. (They are hinting that there will be.) There is not always a good outcome. Instead of someone discovering they have a painting worth millions, they are disappointed to find their artwork is not authentic. Or it may be authentic, but they just cannot prove it. The Wildenstein Gallery in New York City usually has the final say, and they are sometimes arbitrary in their evaluations. In the case of the Winslow Homer in the trash dump, someone else dramatically stepped in at the last minute – actually during the auction – to claim ownership of the painting.

Whatever the outcome - thrills or disappointment - it is all very exciting and makes for a fascinating hour of art sleuthing. The show is from the BBC, and I streamed it on the Tubi channel, but if you can find it there or somewhere else, take a look. It would be well worth your time to watch this very entertaining and informative program.

two art dealers standing in front of paintings

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