Collecting serious artwork is no mean feat, and thanks to the forgery scandal that surrounded Knoedler & Co, New York’s oldest art gallery, for years before finally reaching a settlement in February, we now know that even the keenest eyes in the art world can be fooled. So what’s an aspiring collector to do? “Do your homework,” advises Allison Liu, managing director of Bergen Art Investment. “In-depth study of a certain area is of course more thorough and helpful, but it may not be realistic for most people. But you can train your eyes with necessary knowledge on brush strokes, painting styles and checking the piece’s provenance and exhibition records.”
Science can be harnessed to check everything from pigmentation to the age of a canvas, but Liu is quick to point out that even scientific methods have limitations. Pigmentation checks are effective with older paintings, since forgeries may include pigments that weren’t supposed to have existed at the time of the original, but artwork in more recent decades will have a much wider range of available pigments. Forgers may also cheat scrutiny by using very old paint, ink or paper, or even forcibly ageing a painting by changing its carbon isotopes.
Something as simple as common sense can also help spot obvious fakes. “Zhang Da Qian usually signs off as ‘Da Qian’, ‘Zhang Yuan’ or just ‘Yuan’, but I’ve once spotted a fake because the sign-off was ‘Mr Zhang Da Qian’,” she recalls. “Even the size of a painting could be one of the criteria that collectors should consider. Artists like Fu Baoshi did not have enough space or money to do large paintings during his Jin Gang Po period, but there was an exhibition that displayed over 40 pieces that were mostly large in size. Some pieces were even at 4m tall height or 9m long. That’s not convincing at all.”
There are, of course, excellent fakes out there and popular targets include Picasso, Jackson Pollock, the Chinese old masters and, if you’re looking for a Southeast Asian representative, local artist Chen Wen Hsi. But Liu doesn’t believe that should deter you from boldly wading into art investment. “It’s challenging to start a collection, but I don’t think it’s right to just stand on the sidelines and watch and wait,” she says.
“Although it may sound subjective, and under certain circumstances with the assistance of lab examination of pigment, paper or fabric etc, people still ultimately rely on eye authentication worldwide. Examining the ageing of the paper, the exact tones of colour used by a very particular artist, and the back stories of these pieces – it’s part of the overall experience.”