Tips to Avoid Forgery When Buying Art

Studio of the infamous Berlin forgers. Photo: Widewalls
Studio of the infamous Berlin forgers. Photo: Widewalls

Hundreds of billions of dollars are spent on art every year but a good chunk of that goes to illegal activity and fake art. Many international high-profile cases of art forgery have been reported for years which is why auction houses are taking additional steps to make sure artworks they are selling are genuine.

Art forgeries in 2020

Unfortunately, art forgeries are very much real even in the twenty-first century because of the enormous amounts paid by unwitting buyers. Serious collectors will intuitively know what to look for when buying a piece of art. By reviewing the painting’s history of ownership, for example, known as the provenance. 

When art forgeries made the news, it’s usually because various other elements that could prove the art as fake have not been verified. Below are a few tips to help you identify a potential fake before you end up spending thousands on an art piece that is not worth much.

As a collector, you should not feel you are being rude to ask too many questions. It is your right to know as much about your dealer and the art piece you wish to buy. Do not let excitement or the fear of missing out lead you to buy a forgery.


Knowing where the art piece came from is crucial. A good forger will probably know more about provenance that anybody else, so checking the documents against the artist’s catalogue raisonné is important. These will have all the official records of the artist’s works. Even authentication documents can be forged, which happened in a few cases, including the Las Vegas warehouse, where names of experts appear on documents that they have never signed.

Art provenance documents. Photo: Kunsthalle zu Kiel

Doing some investigation on your own will help too but make sure you are assisted by an experienced researcher or appraiser. An authenticator who works closely with the artist is even better. If you are going with an appraiser, you should do a quick check on him too, usually being certified by a professional association is a good sign.

Another thing to watch out for when checking for provenance is the change of the work’s title at some point. This will be mentioned in the paperwork somewhere. In most obvious forgeries, there will be a fair amount of suspicious or missing documents.

Good forgers are cunning researchers, good artists, and savvy businessmen. They know the gaps to dive into, copying works of artists with incomplete catalogues raisonnés. It’s always good to try and get ahead of them in your research.


Do your research before you acquire any art piece and stop yourself from buying on impulse. Research both the dealer and the work you are interested in. As stated above, make sure your dealer is reputable but looking up online. Any suspicious signs such as negative press should be a warning. You can look for your dealer on How’s My Dealing, which provides reviews of dealers by artists.

Once you feel comfortable about the info you have, ask the dealer all your questions. About the artwork’s previous owners, how was it acquired and conserved? Ask to see its paperwork. Any sign of hesitation in answering your questions or providing documents should tell you to back off. 

Important documents to check include (brand new artworks will not have some of these documents):

  • Documentation of ownership history, the provenance
  • All signed authentications
  • Records of exhibition
  • Records of conservation

Every artwork that is not brand new should have the documents above, if not, it’s a bad sign. If you are going to buy new artworks, you can always contact the artist to get more information about the art piece you are interested in buying.

Radiocarbon dating

For old canvas, radiocarbon dating is the best method to determine their exact age. This process is also used to check the age of ivory carvings, manuscripts, and textiles among others. According to experts, it is easier to date contemporary art using this method rather than art from the pre-fifties period. This is because of the rise and fall of radiocarbon in the atmosphere over time which has been mostly affected by nuclear weapon testing in the 1950s. 

Modern times verification

AI can spot art forgeries. Photo: futurism

Thankfully in our times, there are various methods available to check for forgeries. With the help of AI, new forgeries are uncovered every day. Fortunately for collectors, forgers are unable to get around these new forms of analytical methods. 

Usually, all the methods above might not be necessary as we now have access to the internet. You can do a fair part of the research yourself. With all the information online, it is easier to catch forgeries. Just do not let yourself be rushed into a sale by your dealer. 

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