When Art Is Not What You Think It Is

When Art Is Not What You Think It Is

when Art Is Not What You Think it is art sleeper


Each week I write a new article for members of our three Facebook groups for artists, The Artists Exchange, The Artists Directory, and The Artist Hangout. This week we take a look at why some art isn’t what you think it is and the world of sleepers, fakes, and forgeries!

We’ll also be taking a look at how to spot the sleepers and also how you to spot the fakes and make sure that you don’t become another statistic in buying art that is not what it seems!

What’s it worth?

I often get asked by artist friends “how much should I charge for this artwork” but I can rarely answer the question. If I say a hundred bucks then I know I am doing a disservice to the artist who probably spent months creating it. On the other hand if I say ten thousand bucks I’m also doing a disservice to the artist because it might never sell.

There are so many nuances between artists and their works that to do any justice at all would involve close examination of the artwork (not a low resolution photo in bad light) and a knowledge of the artist’s history and about a million things in between. 

The price of art has bemused artists for hundreds if not thousands of years and it confuses art buyers too, but what is noticeable about the art world is that historic works from the same artist sometimes have huge variations in price, no wonder it’s confusing. There are also works from less famous artists from the exact same period that still bring joy to the viewer but can be picked up for pennies on the dollar compared to the more well-known works. So why are some works worth more than others?

There’s a myth that surrounds artists and that myth is that to be successful as an artist requires you to first starve, secondly experience some life changing moment of wakening, or some sort of life affirming event, and thirdly that you need to be very dead before you make absolutely any money at all. There are a few other things that will get you noticed but they’re either illegal or very painful and best to be avoided.

Of course these are just myths for the most part. Scarcity of new work, provenance and a place in art history make the works of deceased Masters worth the money they are worth, and those who can afford to outbid others drive the price up further.  You’re not only buying art, you’re paying a premium for its history too. 

Sure the dead artists such as Matisse and Van Gogh attract high prices at auction but those artists are not making a cent on the work. Whenever I hear an artist suggest that their work will only be worth more when they have passed, well art history has taught us that this isn’t always the case. Death might bring scarcity to your work but there are no guarantees that anyone will want it.

The way to make your current work more valuable (and it is best to do this while you are alive) is to take the opportunities that come along like attending events and exhibitions and get you and your artwork seen. 

Getting it seen on social media is only a small part of what you need to do to get it in front of an audience and this tactic shouldn’t be relied upon as a foundation to base your entire marketing strategy on. 

You also need to work harder than everyone else. In short, don’t wait around to die before believing your work will be worth anything, go out and do what you need to do to get it noticed and make sure you are giving it your all. A hashtag is not a sales person.

The art produced by those past old Masters benefits only those who now own the works and those who get to view it. For the most part the real winners are the art buyers who picked up an original Matisse in a thrift store for a few pence and who later sell it on for millions. 

Once an artist passes from his or her earthly coil their path to success or non-success is almost predictable. The artists past history while alive will play a part in what their art will be worth when they have gone. For the majority of artists it is unfortunate but the reality is that their art will vanish once they are no longer around and sadly this is what art history has taught us. The only way of changing the odds is to make your work relevant so that it doesn’t get forgotten.

What could happen for some of today’s artists is that the art will fade away until some point in time when it gets rediscovered. It might suddenly resonate with an audience, or the artist will be seen to have been a couple of centuries ahead of their time.

The least likely thing that will happen with the art is that it will become hugely sought after and scarcity of any new work will push up the price of any original. What the artist did when he or she was alive and how that work fits in with art history will play a part in its value though. 

Sure some of today’s artists will be producing work that will one day sell for millions and they will get the benefit of this while they are alive and well, but these artists will be the haystack within the haystack. This might sound depressing for today’s artists but it shouldn’t be, hence my earlier point of going out there and making sure that things happen. 

When I think back to the Renaissance period I always tend to think immediately of maybe a dozen artists who really stand out for me. Yet there were probably thousands upon thousands of artists creating works during this period in the same style. So what happened to all the others? They didn’t make it on to today’s lists, and for the most part their work is forgotten, lost, or has never be known. 

The Dutch who really helped to shape the art world as we know it were writing about survival skills for artists as far back as the 17th Century. Samuel Van Hoogstraten (what a great name), included a chapter called “How an Artist Should Conduct Himself in the Face of Fortunes Blows” in his Introduction to the Academy of Painting in 1678. 

Landscape painter and printmaker Hercules Segers (c. 1589 to 1633) was one such artist who failed to find a pot of gold in the gold rush age. As Van Hoogstraten also said about Segers, “No one wanted to look at his works in his lifetime”.

His works fitted in with Netherland traditions showing an imagination and they were original, and his prints were perhaps more radical than others. No two prints were alike and he developed the sugar-lift etching technique and was the first Western printmaker to use Japanese paper. He did some things differently and offered something new even if it wasn’t appreciated at the time. Ultimately Segers art found success later and it can now be seen in collections around the world.

Other works from days gone by have become famous for the wrong reasons often being misattributed to a particular artist. When a painting is believed to have been created by famous artist X and was really produced by unknown artist Y, it doesn’t change the artwork but it does change the provenance and history and that’s what you are buying. Aesthetically it isn’t any less appealing than it was before artist Y came along and stole the show back but the value might drop dramatically and of course the reverse is also true. What was thought to have been painted by an unknown artist has sometimes turned out to have been painted by a known artist and the value rockets right up. 

Then there are the sleepers, the hidden gems within the art world that have been undervalued or misattributed and where artists have fallen through the cracks despite them being well regarded during their time. With some luck and a keen eye these sleepers are possible to pick up if you know what you are looking for.

For some collectors the search for sleepers is never ending. They scour the auction houses and sales rooms and specifically the smaller and more obscure ones in the hope that a sleeper or misattributed work pops up for sale and it can be bagged for much less than it is really worth.

Most sleepers are found in the most mundane of places. The local garage sale or flea markets where the owners haven’t had access to the resources and knowledge to know what the work really, who produced it, or what it is worth. But they also pop up at times in the large auction houses with some of these establishments being renowned for selling a number of sleepers over the years. 

It is a side industry within the art world and although smaller than it once was there are still many who seek out the sleepers by visiting only the smallest venues or looking online. They will pick out works that have the potential to have been misattributed or are known to be sleepers and then they will bring those works back to the larger art houses for vetting or will flip them to private collectors and dealers. Searching for the sleeper is an art in itself.

With sleepers there are winners and losers. Spot a misattributed Cezanne and the returns could be through the roof but get it wrong and find out that the sleeper isn’t what you thought it was then the money is gone. The search for sleepers isn’t without risk.

When you look for sleepers and misattributions you have to know what you’re looking for and it helps if there is something else that might prove its true provenance included. Usually this would mean some documentation, but mostly the documentation will have been lost so you have to be prepared to carry out a lot of research and get some expert validation.

sleeper art


The Art of Sleepers…

Stumbling across a genuine sleeper is usually a result of luck and being in the right place at the right time but there are a few things that might raise the odds in favour of picking up a sleeper if you know what to keep an eye open for.

Over the years the key indicators that it was created by the hands of a specific artist can be lost as the varnish yellows or the paint starts to crack. Often you also find that previous attempts at restoration have covered the original brush strokes which would usually indicate that a work was produced by a specific pair of hands. An artist leaves traces of his or her artistic DNA in the strokes of the brush or in the way it was signed or unsigned.

Or the work may have been damaged through cleaning with the wrong cleaning process and the introduction of materials not present at the time the work was originally created might be present. Over painting is another issue to look out for and this is done often to add in more detail or change the look of a work entirely which might mean that it barely resembles the original painting that sits underneath at all. In fact a very different painting may sit underneath the top layers.

Looking at the back of an artwork can often tell you more than the picture itself. Most galleries will label the paintings they buy and sell and a gallery label can tell you a number of things which can take much of the art detective work out of proving the works provenance, but sadly not all of the work. Labels can be forged too.

The labels where they are genuine will tell you who purchased the painting and if you are lucky they will also have dates included so that you can build up the timeline of ownership. Having a label from one of the top galleries is a sign that the work is quality and likely to be the real thing and has possibly had its provenance proved already. The labels can add significantly to the value of the work.

Exhibition labels are equally just as important and if a work has been exhibited in a prestigious exhibition it emphasises the importance of the work even more. We can then go back and look at the reviews that had been written at the time of the exhibition and this is another route that will supply more evidence when proving the all-important provenance of the work.

The big art auction houses will also use chalk marks to identify works. Sotheby’s for example have always used yellow chalk and Christie’s have used a range of chalk marks over the years since around the 19th Century.

A chalk mark also tells the story of ownership, and if the work has ever been owned by someone who is well-known or interesting then that too can have a significant impact on the works value. Chalk marks and labels are crucial in determining whether a work is genuine, but as I said earlier as with labels, look out for fakes. 

Those who forge art well will know about chalk marks and labels but those who don’t have this sort of knowledge might not. There are many forgeries that have been created without including the small details and it makes it easier to spot a fake when you know something is missing. 

Some of the works I have seen over the years that have turned out to be fakes have been missing tiny details which have been omitted by the forger and in one work I looked at a number of years ago a “Made in China” label was visible on the back of the work when it was taken out of its frame. The ‘tell’ that really gave it away was the canvas looked a little too modern and a shade or two too white but the gallery labels were convincing but those too had been copied on aged paper.

The problem is that not all art will have been through galleries or auction houses and it becomes increasingly difficult to establish provenance and to determine whether or not a work is genuine.

Some works which have turned out to be genuine have also turned out to be incomplete. At some point in time the owner may have cropped the canvas to make it fit in a particular frame and there are times when a painting is so well preserved that it is dismissed as a modern copy. If you stumble across one of these then luck could very well be on your side but you will have to work even harder to prove the works provenance. You might be certain that a work is the real thing but the real issue here and especially if it looks too good to be true is proving it to everyone else.

Back to over painted works for a moment there is also something else that is not always obvious and that is that there may be another painting behind a painting. There have been many instances when a work has been reframed and an often much older and more significant work sits behind it, possibly unseen by human eyes in hundreds of years.

Over painting was common during certain periods of art history. The artist who was perhaps the original and authentic starving artist might not have been able to afford a new canvas or maybe didn’t like the original work and decided to paint a new work over the top of it. 

Thankfully there have been huge advances in imaging technology and it is this technology which now allows experts to see through the top layers of a work and find the unseen work underneath. 

For those taking a walk through a flea market of course this type of thing would be almost impossible to spot and especially to the untrained eye. There will be some tells that might indicate either over painting or a secondary work but often there will be no tells at all unless some advanced imaging equipment is used. The most obvious things to look out for are things like runs of nails or nails placed in a random pattern, or nails with very different patinas and head shapes pinned into the frame. 

Sometimes the works will also be stamped in a similar way to how silver and gold are assayed, with the panel maker’s stamp from a guild of which they belonged to. Again this is something that might get missed by the casual forger but if the stamp is genuine it could make a difference to the price and go some way to proving provenance.

Signs of restoration…

Sometimes a work may have been lined as a result of preservation or restoration. If a painting has had another canvas attached to the back of it, it can be a sign that the work has been lined and therefore an indication of whether a work has been restored. 

Restoration can be a good thing but it can also be a bad thing depending on how the restoration was carried out. Sympathetic restoration which does not detract from the work and preserves it is a sign that care has been taken. Some works though have been restored by their owners who have little idea about restoration processes and this could cause irreversible damage to the work and will significantly devalue the piece.

In short, any restoration has to be carried out by a professional who is an expert in the particular style and medium of the artwork and who is familiar with the artist and period and the materials that would have been available and used.


the Art of forged art


Don’t believe everything you read… The art of the fake!

When it comes to provenance there are as many fake documents as there are fake art works and probably more. In the world of art forgery there is yet another world of forging documentation and provenance and some quite elaborate schemes have been used over the years to provide a false history of the work. If there is something that convinces you that the moon is really made from cheese you’re more likely to start believing it because as humans that’s what we want to do.

Fakes and forgeries have blighted the art market for as long as anyone has collected art and there are some subtle differences between both fakes and forgeries. A forgery is created with intent to fool others into believing that something is something that it is not, and often forgeries will be created as newly discovered works or sold as original works. 

Fakes on the other hand are when the art is misrepresented or misidentified as something, this includes counterfeits and forgeries but often includes work that has been innocently misidentified. This can result a more innocent misattribution but one that could certainly adjust the value of a work. 

The forgers will use convincers and build up elaborate back stories but there are signs that can verify that what they are telling you is the whole truth. Knowing a little about the materials used at the time of the paintings creation could be the key to determining that something is either good or bad. Perhaps you get offered a painting from the 1700’s painted with acrylic in the USA on plywood?  This would be bad news because acrylic paint didn’t arrive until 1934 and plywood wasn’t available in the US until 1865. 

Some of histories finest artists started out creating forged works too. Michelangelo started his career forging ancient Roman sculptures. Once created it is said that he would then break them up and bury them in his garden and then declare them as an ancient find. A Cardinal who had purchased one of these sculptures became suspicious and demanded his money back from the dealer who had sold it to him and the dealer gladly obliged. By this time Michelangelo’s works had suddenly become the must haves in the art world and the fake created by Michelangelo had shot up in value.

In the past the testing of artwork to see whether or not it was a forgery often involved rubbing alcohol on the paint and giving it a poke with a hot needle. If the paint punctured then the work was fake, if not then it was taken to be original. Older paint couldn’t be punctured whereas new paint could. But that changed as Han Van Meegeren demonstrated when he added Bakelite into his paint to harden it. Today a good forensic examination of artwork will quickly find the presence of certain materials and chemicals making it considerably more difficult to produce a totally authentic looking fake but they’re still being produced. 

New York gallerist Ely Sakhai also turned to forgery. He would buy the legitimate work and a small team of Chinese immigrants would replicate it in a studio above his gallery. The original would then be sold in the West and the fakes would be sold in Asia in the hope that the two would never meet. Except they did. In 2000, both Sotheby’s and Christie’s each had a painting for sale by Gaugin, Vase de Fluers, the exact same painting at the exact same time only one of them being the real deal which was sold by Sotheby’s. Not a great night for the seller of the forged work I guess!

There’s a definite science around deciding what might or might not be fake and frequently gut instincts are involved too. Sometimes a work might be said to be from a particular artist but even if it bears the artists name it doesn’t at all mean that the artist painted it. It could have been a partner or an understudy or a student of the artist or even a family member or anyone else. 

The artists signature doesn’t always tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, and in fact artists from the 16th, 17th, and 18th Centuries rarely signed their works. Knowing who really painted it then becomes even more of a challenge and this is one of the reasons why so many works over the years have been misattributed. 

Signatures in comparison to the artwork are the easiest elements to fake and they’re mostly the elements that have the least time spent on recreating them. Even if a signature looks real or is real it doesn’t always mean that the work is real. 

Couple this to the fact that many artists have been known to change their signature throughout their careers it becomes a bit more of a challenge to work out what’s hot and what’s not. Giacomo Balla originally signed all of his works “Balla” until he started working with the Futurists and then he signed his works “Futur Balla” so it is possible that anyone comparing the original works to the artist’s later works would think that there is something a bit off not knowing that the artist had done this. 

Even today artists play around with signatures and in the past thirty something years I have changed my own signature twice. Currently you will see M.A on my works but on some you will see M.A. Taylor, the latter denotes works that have either been produced for specific events or as commissions!

So the world of sleeper art is complex and of course it opens up a new route for art forgers. A lost work from the likes of Lowry would be an easy target for fakers especially as Lowry’s signature was simple and often written with a biro or a pencil. And it is 20th Century art that is currently in vogue for those who forge artworks because they tend to attract less scrutiny and in the case of Picasso, 1950’s paper is easier to find than a 17th Century canvas.

Some of the Old Masters paintings were signed by the likes of Rembrandt as a sign of recognition of their pupil’s works so that they could be sold with ease which is known as a signature of convenience. Artists have a history of using assistants to create masterpieces but that doesn’t make the works any less valuable. 

Damien Hirst has been in the news recently with his new exhibition within the gilded state rooms of Houghton Hall in Norfolk, England. 45 old masters paintings from the likes of Gainsborough and Reynolds have been replaced with Hirst’s colour space paintings. 

On the subject of Hirst’s “Spots”, assistants were tasked with creating the spots on the canvas. This is where a question of authorship comes into play. If an assistant painted the work following instruction from the artist, whose work is it?

Michelangelo had used assistants to paint the background in the Sistine Chapel while Rembrandt and Rubens also used assistants. More recently Andy Warhol produced silkscreens and lithographs with the help of assistants and Jeff Koons has historically run an around the clock factory-like operation in his studio to meet the demand of his multi-million dollar artworks. 

Other Misconceptions…

There’s often another misconception that some solitary artistic genius has sat in a dark studio with no food under some dim light and struggled in pursuit of creating a masterpiece that would change his or her fortunes forever. Sometimes though the art is produced in a well-lit factory and the artists step out to lunch and sip on Espresso.

Perhaps that’s one of the biggest reasons I love the work of independent living artists so much. It’s often easier to prove provenance and the artist is still around to verify the work, although Picasso refused to do this on a number of occasions saying that he could fake a Picasso just as well as Picasso. 

Sleepers, fakes and forgeries are all something that they are not but a forged piece of art only becomes known as a forged work once the deception has been discovered. The sleeper on the other hand becomes known only when its creatorship is discovered. Forgeries will become despised and sleepers will go on to be held in the highest esteem but the process to identify both sleepers and forgeries can be almost identical. 

Whatever you think of fakes and forgeries and knowing that they do damage the art market, I have found them fascinating over the years. Some of the work I have seen knowing it to be forged has stood up at first glance even when side by side with the original. 

It’s a murky world and full of misdirected talent at times. That talent has often only made the mistake of using a modern pigment or adding in their own creative flare for it to be found out and countless millions of dollars have been lost over the years to these works. The stakes are high but the rewards can be higher. 

There’s no romance in crimes involving art but there is a fascination and to an extent some deeper level of respect to an artist who manages to fool the art world through their outstanding ability to replicate something so closely. If only they did their own thing but I guess there’s no money or rather no fun for them in doing that. 

Perhaps the biggest issue for the art world is the occasional “would rather not know” kind of attitude that has meant that fakes and forgeries get allowed to enter the arena. The big players are using forensics to validate works and they’re carrying out research which means that there’s a lot less risk in knowing if something is real or not. But those who buy art blindly which then turns out to be bad are the ones that the fraudsters want to target and sometimes those people are the ones that do have the resources to find out if the work is genuine first. 

Other times it’s just not worth the outlay of forensic examination especially if the work is less expensive than the cost of finding out and the result is that it creates a market of unchecked art. 

The losses through misattribution can mean losing as much money as discovering that an artwork is fake. There are a million ways to lose money in the art world and provenance and examination aside, there’s never any doubt that the forgers will always try to be one step ahead.

How do you make sure you’re not buying a fake?

Firstly take heed of the areas I have identified in this article but despite the technology and the knowledge available today fakes still get produced and sold and still continue to enter the market after going unchecked and in some cases even after being checked. 

You can never be 100% unless you sat with the artist whilst it was painted but you can mitigate the risk. Buying from a reputable dealer or gallery or the artists official sales channel is the best way to go, although galleries have seen their fair share of fakes in the past so whilst unlikely, even these are not without some risk.

A Catalogue RaisonnĂ© is a useful annotated listing of all of the known works of an artist but this is also useful to forgers in determining exactly what to fake. How you determine what is and what isn’t depends on the resources and often money that you have available. The use of optical imaging, X-Rays, Infrared and UV light investigations are non-invasive to the artwork but applying these tests will cost some money.

Radio carbon dating is a technology that evolved out of the 2000 or so nuclear bomb tests between 1945 and the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1963 which prohibited the testing of nuclear weapons. When the bombs exploded during testing, small radioactive isotopes were pushed into the air and covered the earth. These isotopes are found in flax and linseed oil so anything painted after the tests had concluded would include trace elements of these isotopes.

PMF or Peptide Mass Fingerprinting analyses animal proteins at the molecular level and many art materials especially those used in historic works used animal tissue as binders and coatings. The PMF identifies and creates a fingerprint of the organic matter which is then compared to animal tissues to find matches. 

So there is absolutely some real science behind the investigation of forged works but as I said earlier, the fakers are going to always try to be a step or two in front. It’s often a game of cat and mouse or occasionally maybe cat and muse!

If you do come across a sleeper then you might have to be prepared to spend money for careful and sympathetic restoration to take place but equally an expert in the artist and style might advise you not to do this at all. Whenever there is any doubt it is always best to consult with someone who knows the artist and their art first. 

Never rely on due diligence carried out by the seller and if you are using an independent source to carry out any research my cynical and been around the block mind always tells me to carry out your own due diligence on those undertaking your independent due diligence because you never really know if they have been compromised. 

And know that you should be asking questions. A reputable dealer, gallery or artist won’t mind answering awkward questions around a works provenance in fact it will be encouraged by the best ones. They want to be assured that you aren’t scamming them as much as you need to be assured that they aren’t scamming you. 

Stories such as it belonged to a friend of a friend of the artists cleaner or it belonged to my great, great, great, grandparents and it was handed down to them by their great, great, grandparents should raise the warning flag until the story can be proven. 

My mantra has always been;

If it feels right, it might be but check anyway. If it feels wrong then run away as fast as you can!


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About Mark…

I am an artist and blogger who specialises in abstracts, landscapes, and seascapes. My work is sold in more than 150 retail locations across the USA and Canada including The Great Frame Up, Framing and Art Centre, and Deck the Walls and you can also buy from Fine Art America or my Pixels site here.  

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