Lee Drexler
May 5, 2003

Every year, thousands of people buy paintings they thought were by particular artists and later learned, to their dismay, that they are forgeries. There are ways to protect yourself if you are willing to take the time and effort to do so.

Unless a painting is already listed in a Catalogue Raisonne (a book that lists all the known existing works by a particular artist) that painting needs a certificate, or “cert” as it is called in the trade. A certificate is a guarantee or pedigree that a particular painting is definitely by the artist who it is supposed to be by. If you buy a painting by a living artist, the gallery that represents the artist can give you the certificate. If you do not buy it directly from the artist or artist’s agent (using a secondary source), you should send a picture with dimensions to the artist or agent and ask them to certify the painting before you buy it. This should be done if the painting is worth $5,000 or more.

It is important to know that almost every well known artist has only 2 –5 acknowledged experts in the world who can give a certificate that is accepted. No one will buy that painting without the certificate. So if you are offered a Modigliani at a good price, it needs a certificate from Marc Restelini or Ceroni. Without a certificate from one of them, the painting cannot be sold. What you think is a cheap price, might be a very high price indeed if the Modigliani has no certification. The value of the painting often affects the price of a certification. For example, some experts charge as much as $100,000 for a certification when the painting is over $2 million. Most galleries should have a certificate when you buy a painting. However, if you’re buying a painting and need a certification, you can find these experts by consulting with an art appraiser. For paintings by lesser known, deceased artists, there might not be a specialist to certify the work, but a qualified art appraiser would be able to either tell you if it is right or put you in touch with a specialist who knows the work and could tell you.

A few examples of experts who certify paintings are: Mr. Petrides for Utrillos, Mr. Daniel Wildenstein for Monet’s work, Maurice Tuchina and Esti Dunow for Chaim Soutines’ works, and Maya Picasso for Picasso’s works. All of these specialists charge a fee. You should ask them up front about how much it will cost.

In my experience as a fine art appraiser, I knew an individual who bought a Modigliani painting over 30 years ago for over $100,000. However, it was not certified at the time she bought it. She only had a bill of sale from a well-known gallery, guaranteeing the piece (unfortunately, that gallery is no longer in business). At that time, the painting was in Lantheman’s Catalogue Raisonne stating that the piece was correct. More than 30 years after she bought the painting, art experts decided that Lantheman made many mistakes and the fact that the painting was in Lantheman’s catalogue did not help the value of the painting. The owner of the painting tried to sell it at the value it would have been worth if it was right, which was $2.35 million. Unfortunately, because she cold not get a certificate from Mr. Ceroni or Mr. Restelini, no one would buy it from her. The painting was basically worth nothing and will remain so unless one day one of the top experts decides to give it a certificate and include it in a new Catalogue Raisonne. However, at this moment, because the top experts have been so pressured by owners of Modigliani’s who want certifications, there are no plans for the next many years, if ever, to publish a Modigliani Catalogue Raisonne.

Generally, if a piece appears in a Catalogue Raisonne prepared by an accepted expert, it is reliable. However, recently an expert forger by the name of John Drewe deviously changed the provenance on many well known artists. He took pages out of their Catalogue Raisonnes and substituted them with false information so that the art world would believe forgeries by his employee John Myatt were real. A person buying the forged painting would believe it was genuine because the buyer found and relied upon the fraudulent information in the catalogue. A lot of confusion and damage has been caused by this situation.

The aid of a top appraiser or expert might have prevented a lot of Myatt’s forgeries from being sold as most were of rather noticeably poor quality, although their provenances looked very good. Appraisers can be found through the American Society of Appraisers or/and the Appraisers Association of America. Both of these organizations have stringent requirements and exams before allowing anyone to become an appraiser. Of course, it is best to use an appraiser who has many years of experience. Both of these organizations have web sites and searchable databases that will help you find a specialist that meets your needs.

Even with information in a Catalogue Raisonne, it is a good idea to consult an art appraiser before buying a valuable painting. Even if the certification is reliable, an appraiser can tell you if the price and provenance is fair and whether the condition is good or not. Repairs are often difficult to detect without an expert.

It is amazing how many times I have heard a client say, in response to my questions about a painting in his or her collection, “I just bought it because I like it.” This is a fine approach if the painting is of modest value. But if it is an expensive painting, it seems to me as financially reckless as buying a piece of real estate without a title search and an engineer’s report. Of course, fine art is purchased because collectors love it. But it is also an investment and deserves financial care, the services of an experienced appraiser, information about the work in a Catalogue Raisonne, and where appropriate, a certificate of authenticity from one of the handful of experts qualified for that particular artist.

Lee Drexler, president of Esquire Appraisals (630 1st Ave., NY, NY) for 32 years and former president of the American Society of Appraisers, is a professional appraiser of fine arts, furniture, antiques and jewelry. She can be reached at 212-889-2580 or 914-234-0656.