by Dehlia Mithcell-Gray
In 2014, Artnet reported that the Fine Art Expert Institute claimed that 50% of art is a fraud. Although this claim was quickly withdrawn, the fact that this claim was briefly seen as plausible and caused a widespread panic throughout the art world. Though the fact turned out to be largely inflated, the entire instance revealed the magnitude of the issue of fraud in today’s art market. Other claims of similar natures have been made recently as well. The Independent has estimated that in the near future, 20% of works held by museums will be discovered as fraud, or misattributed at the very least. At its root, issues of fraud are closely tied to issues with authentication. Authentication is simply a term which describes the process of proving that a piece of art belongs to a specific artist, time period, or movement. Although this sounds fairly simple, the process can actually be very difficult, and often provokes controversy.
Today, there are three main methods to authenticate a piece of art: expert confirmation, provenance, and forensic investigation. Expert confirmation simply means that an expert of some kind has used their experience to confirm the piece of art as genuine. The expert could be a scholar, collector, or buyer who has sufficient experience with the artist or style of art. Provenance is essentially the paper trail tied to the artwork. If this trail can be traced closely enough to the suspected artist, it can also be used to authenticate the work.
Forensics is an emerging field which is becoming more and more important to art authentication. Scientists use technology to analyze material, style, and even fingerprints in order to determine an artwork’s origins. Recently, a painting was confirmed as a Da Vinci when a forensics expert was able to match fingerprints found on the unknown painting and a known Da Vinci.
Although there are many ways to authenticate, experts in each field often disagree with each other. This is especially true when a painting is confirmed forensically, but when art experts continue to disagree on the basis of style and taste. As there is no way to absolutely confirm an artworks authenticity, many end up in gray areas where they are seen as authentic by some but not by others.
As the art market grows, fraud is destined to grow along with it. This is made worse by the fact that buyers, sellers, collectors, and dealers are left without a clear path to authentication, meaning that many are forced to rely on word of mouth and intuition.
However, with the expansion of technology, which has undoubtedly already impacted the art market, artificial intelligence is currently being developed to authenticate artwork for us– by analyzing the brushstrokes of a piece. Since the human error of expert authentication has recently been causing clashes in the practice, maybe it will be the artificial intelligence and its attention to the most minute details of a piece that will ultimately determine whether the painting is real or a fake.