Although, following separate forensic and academic investigations, the Lost Orchid was eventually declared an original Tretchikoff and the sale went ahead unaffected, the incident raises questions about the possible existence of other fake paintings.
In fact, says Professor Alex Duffey, who is the chief curator of the University of Pretoria’s Heritage Collections and who was responsible for the academic analysis of the Lost Orchid, there are almost certainly forgeries of the work of well-known SA artists hanging on walls around the world or waiting for unsuspecting collectors’ attention. And, with increased international attention and rising values of work by SA masters in recent years, it is plausible that forgers are busier than ever.
“There have been some horrific copies exposed over the years,” says Duffey. “But, more worryingly, there have also been some superbly convincing pieces produced, particularly copies of Maggie Laubser’s work, which is perceived of as being relatively easy to copy. Pierneef is also a popular choice of fraudsters. Copies of work by artists like Irma Stern are easier to spot because her art is more difficult to reproduce. But, it is when you see good copies that you wonder how much fake ark goes gone undetected.”
So, how do you spot a fake painting? Firstly, you should always check out the reputation of the seller before concluding the deal. If the business or individual has no track record, tread carefully. At this point too, consider the price being asked. If the painting is purportedly an important one, you might wonder why a well-known dealer or auction house is not selling it.
Another obvious clue to authenticity is the signature on the work. If the piece is allegedly painted by a well-known artist, it should not be difficult to check the signature against that on other work by the artist. And, while you are checking out the signature, do as much homework about the artist as possible so that you are better equipped to pick up discrepancies in his or her work.
Examine the painting for phony cracks. Remember, cracks do naturally appear in paintings in random places. If they only appear in the corners or at the edges of the work you are interested in, this could be a sign of a fake. It is also rare that old paintings that have been kept anywhere other than in galleries and museums are in pristine condition. In many cases, they have been hung above a fireplace or in the direct sunlight. If the canvas is in pristine condition, keep asking questions.
You should also ask to see a certificate of authenticity before handing over the money. Have it checked by a lawyer to validate it and the details of the authenticator.
Of course, if – as was the case with the Tretchikoff – the signs are subtler and the supposed value of the work warrants it, you might enlist the expertise of specialists to undertake a forensic and/or academic investigation into the work’s authenticity.
The two forms of analysis are quite different. Forensic analysis involves using various scientific techniques to test things like the age of the paint and canvas. In the case of the Lost Orchid, the fact that there had been no additional paint applied to the work after 1950 – when Tretchikoff’s work became sought after – was vital to the forensic findings.
In many cases of forensic testing, the artwork in question is x-rayed and photographed before a computer program is used to look for statistical patterns in the digital image of the painting. These patterns are based on the pressure, orientation or length of the brush stroke and the evenness of the paint.
Some forensic systems are so sophisticated that they not only identify whether two works of art are by the same artist, but can also tell if an artist used students to help out with the painting. This was the case of Italian painter Pietro Perugino’s Madonna with Child, which was painted in approximately 1500. Until recently, experts speculated that one or two of Perugino’s students, including Raphael, contributed to the painting. In 2004, however, using new computer analysis, investigators were able to confirm that three of the six heads in the painting were the work of one artist, perhaps Perugino, while three different people painted the other heads.
Academic investigation into the authenticity of artwork examines the style and technique of the artist, and compares it to the work under scrutiny.
“We don’t look at the most obvious things in a piece,” explains Duffey. “Instead, we access the archives and study the history and development of the artist closely, and carefully consider his or her idiosyncrasies. These might be small things, like the way an artist draws ribbons or petals. Most forgeries are laboured and not spontaneous like originals. We also access his or her writings and look for references to the work in question. It is all about careful research, observation and comparison.”