What Is The Difference Between A Fake And A Forgery In Art?


In the art world, the words fake and forgery are often used interchangeably. However, there are subtle differences between the two, depending on who you speak to and depending on which jurisdiction you are in (i.e. the United States vs the United Kingdom or Europe).

The colloquial definition of a forgery is that it is created with the intent to deceive, oftentimes with a monetary motif. A fake on the other hand is often perceived to refer to a wider category that also includes copies, replicas and items that were misattributed. In other words, in these cases criminal intent is not necessarily present.

Let’s take a closer look at what this means for art collectors. Keep in mind that we are not lawyers, and that what we write in this blog post (and, in fact, on the rest of our blog) is written for informational purposes only and should not be taken as legal advice.

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Misattribution And Copies In Art

In older works such as Old Masters, it’s not always clear whether the work was executed by the artist himself (i.e. Rembrandt), someone in his studio or a later follower of the artist. In the attribution of an artwork, auction house experts and dealers provide a good faith opinion on who created the work.

Understandably, a work attributed to the Master himself will be more valuable than an attribution to a pupil or follower. Take a look at Christie’s online terms & conditions, for example, in which the auction house meticulously explains the different levels of attribution for the works they sell in a number of different categories.

If an auction house expert or dealer makes a genuine mistake in recognizing who created the work, this would be considered a misattribution.

Copies refer to artworks that were created as replicas, and were sold as such. For example, in the 17th and 18th Centuries, when young English aristocrats traveled to the content for a ‘Grand Tour’ of Europe as a part of their education, they often made drawings of Greek, Egyptian and Roman sculptures.

Back home in England, contemporary craftsmen were commissioned to reproduce the sculptures from the travelers' drawings. These copies were not created with the intent to deceive. However, if centuries later they end up on the secondary market, a conman could decide to pass them off as the real thing.

Cases Of Art Forgery

Unfortunately, outright forgery is common in the art world. From Han Van Meegeren to Shaun Greenhalgh, many art forgers outsmarted the experts for years before they got caught. Greenhalgh got busted when the British Museum in London discovered that, among other inconsistencies, he had made a spelling mistake in the hieroglyphs on one of the sculptures he was trying to sell them.

A notorious forgery case in the US involved the well-known Knoedler Gallery in New York City. A Chinese artist in Queens forged a number of Abstract Expressionist Masters (Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Willem De Kooning) which were sold through the gallery over the course of many years, with the help of a middleman. The case was widely covered in the press and you can read the abstract on Artnet here.

Your Take-Away As An Art Collector

Perhaps the artwork you are interested in buying was created as an innocent copy that’s now being passed off as the real thing. Perhaps you are looking at an outright forgery. Whatever the intent of the seller, you, as the buyer, need to protect yourself.

For example, the reporters in the Greenhalgh and Knoedler cases mentioned that the forgeries in question were offered at bargain prices. Being offered a museum-quality artwork for a rock-bottom price is a red flag.

If you ever find yourself in this situation, don't immediately jump to conclusions. It could be that the seller simply needs to liquidate their art fast because they are in debt. However, it's better to be safe than sorry. Before you acquire any artworks, make sure you and your art advisory team do your due diligence. It may also be worth getting the guidance of an experienced art lawyer.