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Art Authenticity and Provenance Disputes in the Digital Age

Disputes regarding the authenticity and provenance of artworks are nothing new. But technology has changed the playing field in this area, with forgers using the internet to their advantage. The art world now requires the use of scientists and IT specialists to protect genuine pieces and at the same time flush out forgeries. Investment in the art world is still big business and collectors are driving up the prices for collected pieces. But forgeries are a major issue with experts still finding it difficult to always determine authenticity. The use of the internet in sales of artwork has added an extra layer of difficulties to this already problematic issue. Here we discuss the problems that arise with online sales together with how technology can help with the fight against forgeries.

Ensuring authenticity and provenance checks

Establishing whether or not a piece of art is genuine has always been very difficult. Documentation proving ownership and checks by experts on provenance and authenticity has been the traditional route of determining if a piece is genuine, but this is not fail-safe since mistakes can be made and any documentation can also be a forgery. Forgeries of artwork can be so accurate that they fool even the experts. Detecting forgeries can be incredibly difficult and determined only by experts with a vast knowledge of the artist and their techniques. One forger was discovered solely due to his use of titanium white, which would not have been available when the artwork was supposed to have been painted. This example shows the intricacies involved in determining forgeries.

The fine art market is a multi-billion-pound business, and a proportion of sales are now completed over the internet. However, online transactions still constitute only around 5-6% of the whole market, since buyers are wary about buying online where there are very few checks to confirm the authenticity and provenance of the pieces being sold. The major auction houses have been cautious about entering the online market after various cases of bad press. This bad press resulted in Sotheby's removing itself from the online market place in 2003. Online sites are trying to follow steps to prevent fraudulent sales via their sites, and certain sites will employ experts to evaluate items that are being sold. However, there have been numerous issues relating to these online sites selling artwork, including experts inaccurately reporting or referencing the work they are assessing or even being prosecuted for fraudulent activities themselves.

Buyers purchasing expensive artwork online are sometimes doing so without ensuring the proper checks have been carried out to guarantee authenticity and provenance. An expert is not necessarily assessing the artwork, and often these purchases are based on a picture sent via email or social media resulting in a sale. Fraudsters can infiltrate genuine online art catalogues to include their fake works to imply credibility. The internet can also be used to create fake careers for artists that don't exist to encourage sales of artwork. Often the fraudsters will use similar names to real artists to trick customers into believing they are buying work created by bona fide artists. Forgeries do not only exist in the online art world, and this is not a new problem. But buyers in traditional markets have been able to view in person the pieces and assess their authenticity themselves before they have paid any money.

How can buyers be protected?

Just as the fraudsters are using technology and advances in science to create forgeries, so the art world is developing techniques to both monitor and protect genuine pieces of art. It is now possible to electronically tag artwork using DNA to label it. This piece of DNA is created in a laboratory and would be unique to the artwork. There is also an electronic ledge system known as blockchain, which is currently used to store cryptocurrencies. The art world is considering whether this could be used to store the relevant information about a piece of art including the details of its ownership history and provenance. This could also detail any expert reports related to a piece.

The science world is also being used to help with detection and understanding surrounding artists and their materials. A deeper understanding of the pigments and materials used in various time frames and by particular artists will help to determine authenticity. Machinery can also be used to do 3D scans that confirm the methods used by an artist in their work as well as their particular styles, patterns and techniques. It can be hard for the human eye to detect these details, but by combining expert knowledge together with scientific advances and technology, the art world is evolving to protect itself against forgeries.

As with the purchase of any artwork, buyers using online sites need to ensure they are obtaining the provenance of the piece that proves its authenticity. Ideally, this will record the dates of ownership of any party as well as how transference was executed and where the work has been stored since its creation. However, this is often not possible and the transfer of ownership is often documented with just a simple invoice containing very few details. Buyers here are in a risky position and need to evaluate their decision to purchase the artwork where provenance cannot be proven. Buyers should also be aware that the provenance for a piece of artwork can be a forgery (even if the artwork itself is genuine). This is generally easier to trace by checking through the galleries, auction houses and signatures listed on the document against relevant information that can be found easily on the internet. Buyers must ensure they do due diligence, including for online purchases, to try to verify provenance and minimise the risk of purchasing a forgery.

Contact our Art Dispute Litigation Lawyers, London

The art disputes solicitors at Selachii are experts in this area of law. We understand how important it is that your most valuable, personal and business assets are protected. Our team provide high-quality advice on the full range of contentious matters involved in art disputes, from ownership to authenticity, and strive to get you the quickest, least disruptive and most affordable solution. We have a wealth of experience representing private collectors, auction houses, dealers, galleries and artists involved in art disputes.

We don’t believe in simply handing out one-size-fits-all solutions to problems. We will focus on your specific circumstances before working out the best and most cost-effective way of helping you achieve your aims.

If you are involved in an art dispute and you need specialist advice, please contact our solicitors today. Call us today on 020 7792 5649 or fill out our online enquiry form.

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