Sleight of hand: Wolfgang Beltracchi served years in a German prison for forgeries that duped the luminaries of the art world. Picture: GOOGLE
Sleight of hand: Wolfgang Beltracchi served years in a German prison for forgeries that duped the luminaries of the art world. Picture: GOOGLE

Global art markets continue to grow, affirming that art is an attractive asset class. Private investors and institutions who are wary of investing in "emotional" assets can minimise financial risks with the aid of art advisers.

However, the rising incidence of fakes and forgeries appearing on global art markets is a different risk for investors and makes it essential for buyers to get confirmation of the authenticity of an artwork before the purchase.

While forgers scam unsuspecting buyers into paying top prices for worthless paintings, some artists like to imitate famous artists — either to improve their own painterly skills or to demonstrate that they have masterly talent.

When skillfully executed examples of fakes surface in the market, even experienced collectors and museums are occasionally duped. When art professionals or law enforcement officials doubt the authenticity of an artwork they need to determine a link between the work and the artist.

The New York-based College Art Association recently codified guidelines with three essential elements which should be followed to determine if an artwork is authentic or fake. The two most important elements are an art connoisseur’s opinion and the provenance of the work. The third element, an accurate scientific examination, provides further evidence that can confirm the expert’s view and verify the work’s provenance.

The provenance, or historical documentation of an artwork from the time it leaves a studio up to the present day, is an aspect often overlooked by collectors. The absence of information creates headaches when the authenticity of a work is in doubt.

Chemical analyses and examinations with various light wavelengths are normally conducted in specially equipped laboratories. This hard knowledge about the work’s material composition can assist art conservators, historians and researchers to date a work. The evidence can also establish when a work was created and trace it back to a particular artist’s studio.

Forgers have excellent copying skills, but the most successful are able to interpret the style of an artist. It is almost impossible to revive or reproduce the true style of a top artist and this challenge is often how forgers are caught out.

Their downfall can often be linked to greed when the over-production of fakes leads to mistakes in respect of the artist’s finer stylistic nuances. A connoisseur can distinguish such awkward features.

To avoid being caught, successful art forgers perfect their imitation skills and meticulously research the original pigments, binders, canvasses and paints used by the original artist.

This level of refinement in fake productions make experts and scholars more dependent on scientific evidence to substantiate authentication studies. Several notorious 20th-century art forgers — including Han Van Meegeren, Elmyr de Hory, John Myatt and more recently Robert Driessen and Wolfgang Beltracchi — have gained handsomely from copying the works of important artists.

Driessen produced fake copies of Giacometti’s Walking Man sculpture. He was caught when one of his co-conspirators was arrested following an attempt to sell one of the sculptures for $1.6m to an undercover detective.

Giacometti was also the target of Myatt and his partner in crime, John Drewe, who concocted fake histories for their works by forging certificates of authenticity and invoices. Myatt then smuggled the fake documentation and photographs into the archives of libraries.

Beltracchi, perhaps the most resourceful of the forgers, applied his understanding of artistic styles and technical knowledge to copy the styles of important modernists and expressionists like Max Ernst, Kees van Dongen, Fernand Léger, Heinrich Campendonk and Picasso.

Beltracchi and his wife devised an elaborate scheme involving the existence of a "hidden" art collection supported by a carefully assembled provenance. He then painted the phantom collection of paintings.

While he was able to fool experts at museums and auction houses, he could not outwit scientific methods after an art historian became suspicious about some of his fakes. The forensic analysis picked up titanium white pigment in a Campendonk painting, a material that did not exist when the artist supposedly made the painting.

In court proceedings it emerged that auction houses, museums and the actor Steve Martin were duped for a combined total of $22m. Described as the "forger of the century", it is estimated that hundreds of Beltracchi’s fake paintings are still in circulation.

In another fraud case, an early Fernand Léger painting that belonged to Peggy Guggenheim proved to be a fake when the isotope count analysis of the paint was too high. The elevated levels of isotopes in today’s oil paints is the result of nuclear fallout from 552 global nuclear explosions between 1945 and 1963.

The South African art market is not exempt from fakes as forgers focus their efforts on successful old masters.

Collectors and investors can follow a few tips before committing to buy an art work that does not come with reliable provenance documents.

Any examination of a painting should start with a visual inspection in good white light. Look out for a signature and compare it with other available examples of the artist’s signature. With a portable handheld ultraviolet light, illegible or hidden signatures will be visible, as well as possible areas where restoration and retouching were done. Fraudulent signatures added at a later stage can be differentiated from the brightness emitted by the original paint.

It is advisable to buy works from reputable sources and to be wary of bargains. By inspecting the back of the artwork, labels of auction houses and galleries can assist in tracing the history of ownership and authenticity.

Art conservators are highly skilled practitioners who have many years of training and can guide collectors on scientific methods of uncovering fakes.

• Scott is a partner in Walker Scott, which offers end-to-end art management services.