By Debra Friedmann
The Knoedler case recently settled out of court, and we may never know what actually transpired between the Knoedler Gallery and its customers. We do know however that art buyers worldwide had an eye-opening realization. Even when purchasing art from highly respected institutions, it is essential to do your due diligence and look out for red flags. What exactly is due diligence?
Due diligence, in its simplest form, means doing the product research. When buying a new house, the general practice is to have it inspected by a professional. The buyer may even request a second opinion as a precautionary measure and invest in homeowner’s insurance. No one wants to make such a significant investment only to find out later that the value of the house is significantly lower than what you paid, or that in order to keep its value, the house would require an expensive remodeling. Purchasing artwork, in that respect, is actually not so different. Although no method is foolproof, whether buying a house or an artwork, there are several ways buyers can protect themselves from fraudulent transactions.
Market Value: Assume for a moment that you are absolutely certain that the painting you are buying is an authentic work by the artist, but even so, the price seems a little high. Your gut says the piece is worth lower than the asking price, but the art professional tells you otherwise. In an instance like this, it may seem that the seller would assuredly be more knowledgeable and better equipped to know the price. However, you too can look at how works by that artist have been valued on the market both in previous years and currently. If the price of the artwork is significantly higher or lower than what the market shows, this is a red flag. The price difference does not necessarily mean that the seller is being dishonest, but that you should ask questions in order to ensure you don’t overpay.
Provenance and Authenticity: The provenance of a work of art is the history of its ownership. In an ideal situation, there would be a clear list including the dates the each buyer owned the piece without any gaps or overlaps in between. In actuality that is almost never the case. Finding records of ownership can be especially difficult, as they often do not exist. Even experts in provenance research cannot always be sure that they have traced every document related to the ownership history of the work. Therefore, it is not surprising to find gaps in the ownership timeline but it is a step in the right direction to recognize that the gap exists and start asking more questions. For example, ask for a certificate of authenticity and contact the authenticating organization or individual to learn more about why the piece was authenticated and what research they found. Another option can be to consult a provenance research expert or an art expert who specializes in the era of the artist.
Forensic Evidence: Wolfgang Beltracchi, one of the most successful forgers to date, was only recently caught after 35 years of selling forged paintings. His success, with the help of his wife, was in part due to his meticulous research into materials used by the artists in works he claimed they painted. Beltracchi was finally caught after forensic lab tests found that he used titanium white in a piece attributed to Heinrich Campendonk. Titanium white pigment did not exist when Heinrich Campendonk painted (early to mid-20th Century). In recent years, non-invasive forensic methods have been used as a tool to authenticate works of art. The tests might include looking at the materials in a piece, or what may have gotten mixed in the materials, that could signify where and when the piece was made. Forensic research is really asking questions on your behalf. But as you can see from these examples, due diligence is of paramount importance when buying artworks. As always: caveat emptor.