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Sunday November 7, 2010

How to buy genuine art

GALLERY owners and artists share advice on how to avoid being duped.

· Check ownership records

In the art world, this is called provenance – tracing the history or chain of ownership back from the current holders to the original artist.

“There must be a trail of how the work has changed hands,” says Lim Wei-Ling of Wei-Ling Gallery.

“People bring art works to place in my gallery (for sale). But if I don’t know how or where they got the work from, I will ask them to take it back to the original gallery which sold it.”

Artist Stephen Menon suggests that potential buyers take a picture of a work being offered for sale and e-mail it to the artist to confirm if it is his.

“If I’m no longer around one day, my wife or other family members will have the records.

“Should the artist say he has sold the piece to a certain collector, call up the latter to verify if he still has it. If he does, then the piece being offered for sale must be a fake.”

All established artists have sale records, Menon adds. “The problem starts when some of the younger emerging artists don’t keep their records properly. They should also remember the need to jaga their collectors’ interests from possible forgery.”

All this is linked to supporting documents and records of the art work.

“Check where and when the work was exhibited and the (relevant) gallery’s websites for records of shows,” Lim advises. “Look at the (exhibition) catalogue or books where the works are featured. And ask for certificates. Every art work from my gallery will have one signed by me and the artist.”

Artist Ivan Lam says that “with all the publications about art works nowadays, it’s even easier to trace who bought what, and when.” If a seller cannot provide you the relevant answers for a piece of work, chances are it’s a fake.”

Sim Hussein, wife of the late Ibrahim Hussein, says people should authenticate an art work first before paying money for it. “Check with the artist,” she advises.

“Some pieces of Ib’s Sports series and figurative abstract works were brought to me for authentication. I told the people who brought them that these were not Ibrahim Hussein originals. I also told them that these paintings, which had Ib’s signature, should be destroyed,” Sim adds.

A visitor examining a forged Botero painting at Geert Jan Jansen’s exhibition in the Netherlands. Self-taught Dutch painter Jansen turned to forgery when he couldn’t make a living selling his own work – but he turned out to be so good that some of the artists he copied claimed his works were their own! – Reuters

· Study the artist

“Don’t just buy blindly,” Menon cautions. “Research the artist you are interested in first. Learn about his art techniques, visit galleries where his works are displayed and look at the painting up close, from all angles.

“Then compare the piece you want to buy with other paintings done by the same artist. Painters usually have certain styles and strokes and this may be difficult to copy.”

· Buy from reputable galleries

These are galleries which will have established a relationship with the artist, Lim explains. “Or the artists themselves will have endorsed the gallery to represent them. Then you know you won’t be getting a fake.”

“Sometimes, galleries could be unwitting accomplices as they themselves are not aware of the forgery,” notes art collector Pakhruddin Sulaiman. “But they have a responsibility to collectors. If they cannot really tell you how or where they bought the art works from, then something is not quite right.”

Liew Chin Chin of Starhill Art Gallery concurs that “it’s very important to go to a reputable gallery which does not just view art just as a business, but as a responsibility.”

· Talk to people

Research alone is not enough. Lim says would-be buyers should also talk to collectors, curators, art consultants and gallery people.

“For example, if anybody walks into my gallery and I am around, I will virtually be giving free art consultations!”

· Canvas and paints

Certain artists are known to use certain canvas, Menon explains. “I know a famous one who uses cheap canvas that costs RM6 per metre! And obviously, canvas from the 1960s will be different from the new China-made ones nowadays.”

As for paints, he notes that Latiff Mohideen was known to use paints from hardware shops in the 1960s.

“After all that time, there will be signs of age. In fact, paintings often need to be restored. A brand new fake will have the smell of fresh paint.”

· Role of institutions

Pakhruddin says that the Malaysian art market still lacks fake-spotting expertise. “Very few have the expertise to decide if a work is fake.”

Hence, Liew adds, institutions have a role to play. “People at the National Art Gallery should have the authority to tell whether a work is fake. Many other national art museums have strong curatorial and research teams for this.”

· The artistic eye

While all the above checks can weed out garden variety fakes, determined, expert forgers have figured out the loopholes.

Art critic and artist Jolly Koh says that with the high-technology available nowadays, even experts in the West have been fooled, citing the case of Dutch artist Han van Meegeren, who was notorious for forging Vermeer paintings.

“The signature is the easiest to fake. Forgers can also create stains on old canvas or put paintings in ovens to simulate paint which has cracked with age.”

As for provenance, he adds, the bill of sale can be forged.

“I can always pay someone a few thousand ringgit to swear that they sold the work to me. Even if the provenance is impeccable, I will still prefer to trust my artistic sensibility and knowledge. But people who don’t have an artistic eye will have to rely on provenance.”

He underlines that the hardest thing to fake is the art work itself.

“The devil is in the details. An expert eye can tell the difference, just as an expert palate can distinguish between first- or second-rate pu-erh (Chinese) tea. It’s easier to fake the labels and packaging than the tea itself.

“You can fake provenance, but the work of art itself stands in silent majesty, or ignominy, for you to discern it’s true worth,” Koh adds.

Do you know the basic principles of art investment, speculation and valuation? Phil Whittaker, director of Sotheby’s Institute of Art Singapore, will give a free talk on ‘Art Valuation and Investment’ on Nov 25, 3pm, at Galeri Petronas, Level 3, Suria KLCC.

Contact Rofiah Sulaiman at 03-2331 1228 or to register.

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