Art Fools!


As an artist/teacher, I say, “The most educated collectors and museums have been fooled by smarter crooks. Always, remember, what you are buying if far more important than who sells it to you. You don’t take the seller home, you take the art. Art can fool you if you don’t watch out!”

Gathering the important skills to be a competent art detective can feel daunting and intrude upon your pleasure in purchasing. But what pleasure is there in purchasing a fake, a misrepresented masterpiece? Get proper provenance for both living and deceased artists. Especially when you are involved in deaccessions, you will benefit greatly from the time you took building provenance for your art.


  1. Begin your examination with a magnifying glass under the brightest allowable light, remembering that paintings, for example, are light sensitive.
  2. While the painting that you will take home is the most important focus of your art detective efforts, of course, check out the seller.
  3. Get to know the art’s provenance, the artwork’s documented, authenticity history, including the names and contact information of previous owners. Learn who created it, approximately when it was created, who owned it, and what documents the seller has to accompany the art, such as authenticity certification paperwork, sales receipts and gallery sales history.
  4. Ask if you will be provided with signed certificates, statements of authenticity, appraisals, documentation from recognized authorities on the artist who created the work, media documentation connecting the artist and the work, such as exhibition catalogs, newspaper or magazine articles, photographs, books or films in which the artist or the work appeared.
  5. Watch out for scam sellers who fake provenance. Check out their stories with art historians and other established authorities along with known artist history. Really look at signatures, compare them and question signatures that look newer than the art. (SOURCES: Gale Research Company’s 1976 The Clasified Directory of Artists Signatures, Symbols and Monograms and Who’s Who in American Art)Gale’s directory goes back to artists of the 1400s and Who’s Who covers artists from 1564-1975.
  6. You want original documents. Only accept copies when you can verify that an original really exists. Exhibition catalog pages are easy to fake, for example.
  7. What if a seller cites privacy issues and says you will be provided with provenance information only after purchase of the art? Without the provenance information, you don’t have enough information to discern the fairness of the price being charged. Names and addresses of previous owners do not quality as authenticating provenance. Stand your ground.
  8. What is the trigger for bringing in an appraiser? When your No. 1 examination under the magnifying glass shows parts of the painting where the painting looks good and other parts where the painting looks inferior, chalky or milky. Also, when you do not get solid provenance or most of what you are told is really opinion or hearsay.
  9. Buying over the Internet-estimates say 65 percent sold is misrepresented. Two famous forgers: Elmyr de Hory and Tom Keating sold art to collectors and art museums. Keating, for example, sold thousands of Goya, Degas, Sisley, Modigliani, Picasso and Monet forgeries to collectors and museums.

No buyers need to feel at the mercy of unscrupulous sellers, because there are amazing free resources available in or near their areas of residence. The Albany Institute of History & Art has highly qualified reference librarians and an extensive resource library. Public Libraries are rich in artist resources.

1 Comment
  1. Avatar of Andrew J. Sacks
    Andrew J. Sacks says

    Barbara, thank you for your customary excellent post and for the very helpful reminders!

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