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Featured Article/Paper Number 12

by Dr. J. Darragh M. Elliott, M.Sc., Ph.D.

"A Word About Authentication."


For a proper authentication of a work of art, in this example, is a valuable painting. It may first be necessary to have certain tests performed. These tests, among others, can include the paint pigment analysis, the canvas analysis and the carbon dating of the wood in the stretcher, and an x-ray of the painting etc..

After these tests have been performed, an infra red positive transparency, a black and white negative transparency, a full color and a black and white photograph, both of the dimensions 8.5 X 11 inches could be required.

Then, a qualified authenticator should be contacted.

In choosing the authenticator, it is important to understand that it is not the name of the authenticator that is important, it is WHO accepts or, WHO will accept that person's authentications that is.

A person or persons who holds themselves out to be able to authenticate any work of art ever created, by any artist since time immemorial, in our considered opinion, cannot adequately do so, as they do not, and are not able to possess enough knowledge to be able to be considered as an expert on every work of art ever created by any artist, since time immemorial. The subject of art is just too broad a subject.


There are authenticators who do hold themselves out to be able to authenticate anything. In some cases, these people will take your money for the authentication, and will then always come back stating that the subject work is not an authentic work by the named artist. When pressed, they sometimes may say that the work is not that of the same style or mannerism as of the artist or, that it is not that of the same school as the artist. They of course, do not say what the style, mannerism or school of the artist should be, and why the subject painting does not conform to the style, mannerism or school of the artist. Just that it does not and therefore, the painting is not authentic. In the meantime they have taken your money.

This then, creates a stigmatism for the painting, and if you still feel that it is a legitimate painting by the artist, it is then necessary to go and obtain another person to do the authentication.

These type of authenticators, simply do not ever authenticate anything, and in my opinion, operate a scam.

As a note of caution. One should not expect that a relative of the artist, a public art gallery specializing in the artist's works or a museum, will say that the work is by a specific artist based only on a description and a photograph of the work of art. If such authentication were given on this basis and they were wrong, much of the credibility pertaining to that individual or organization would be lost, which could reflect on their over all business, notwithstanding that their trustees would never permit it. Usually, if such a description and photograph are submitted, the reply will be that the work is not by the artist.

The Masterpiece Syndrome

Some authenticators only want to authenticate paintings which they believe to be a masterpiece work by the artist. Obviously, no artist ever created a masterpiece work for every work ever created. Perhaps only one in a hundred ever became known as a masterpiece, and for the remaining ninety-nine, while still very good works of art, cause certain authenticators not to be interested in authenticating them. Therefore, be certain to check to see that the chosen authenticator will authenticate works that are not masterpieces.


The problem that an authenticator faces in doing authentications, is that if they are wrong, they can be held liable to have to pay the difference between the fake and the original. This can amount to a very large sum of money that can be far in excess of what they were ever paid to do the authentication. Therefore, most authentications will contain an "ESCAPE CLAUSE" of some nature. This can be something as simple as the authentication saying "based upon the information submitted by the client at this time, I believe that this is a work by so and so."

While this sentence seems innocent enough, the two key points to look for are, "information" and "time." Both can change and if they do, then the authenticator will not consider themselves responsible for the authentication. This escape clause can be written more directly or, it is just shown as a subtle reference, but in essence, it is an escape clause, and therefore, the authenticator is not saying that the work has been created by the artist from a definitive and an absolute perspective.

Therefore, in choosing an authenticator, it is best to choose a person who works with art of the country of origin and era of the subject work and of artist. This could be a person, such as a curator of a public art gallery with an international reputation that has a collection of works by the artist, and who works with works of art of the same era and origin as the subject work on a daily basis.

This person would then be considered as being an expert in the subject work of art. This person or curator, would not be able to authenticate the work on behalf of the public art gallery or a museum, as their trustees would never permit it, but they could authenticate the work on their own, and it would indicate in his or her cv, that they are the curator of a named public art gallery, a professor of art fine art, art history of a certain university and so on. This person's authentications should then be able to be accepted world-wide and without dispute.

It would also be prudent to see if they have ever been recognized by a court as an art expert within their areas of expertise.

To have all of the various tests as outlined completed, and to have the person with the proper credentials complete the authentication, can cost many thousands of dollars, and therefore, unless the painting is very valuable, many authentications are cost prohibitive.


Before proceeding to have a work authenticated, it is prudent to check out the authenticator, from the perspective of who has accepted his authentications in the past, and his reputation.

One has to remember, that if the painting were a fake, then it would follow that the authentication is a fake as well. Consequently, some prudent purchasers will insist upon their own person, in whom they have confidence do the authentication.

This could easily be the case, if the association of the authenticator cannot be verified or, when no one has ever heard of the authenticator.

Therefore, the seller could have gone to all of the expense in having all of the tests completed for the authentication, and to have had the work authenticated, only to find that the authenticator or the authentication is not acceptable to the purchaser, Therefore these costs have now turned out to have been a waste of money.

The exception to the foregoing is when the subject work of art is extremely valuable. Then, the owner may have to undertake the costs for an authentication, prior to it being offered for sale as a legitimate work by the artist in order to create a serious interest in the work by potential purchasers of major works of art. This is notwithstanding the fact that the prospective purchaser(s) will also insist upon his or her own authenticator also completing their authentication of the work of art before making an offer to purchase it. However, it really depends upon the appraised value of the work that is being offered for sale.

Some auction houses, while listing a painting in their catalog will say that it is a painting by such and such an artist. But when the print contained within the Conditions of Sale section of the catalog is read, one will see that this is only the opinion of the auctioneer, and it is not an authentication of the work from any sort of a definitive or absolute perspective.

The prospective purchaser, should take the necessary steps to satisfy himself or herself, that the work is a legitimate work before bidding on or, purchasing the work of art. Particularly, if it is a very valuable work of art.

In essence then, the seller offers to sell a work of art on the basis that it is deemed to be authentic, and it is then up to the purchaser to satisfy himself or herself that it is or, is not.

Not all paintings require an authentication. Some contemporary works come with an authentication provided by the artist and/or the art dealer. Others do not, but are not all that valuable to make having an authentication worthwhile completing. Still others, are not valuable enough to be worthwhile faking.

There are of course, paintings and prints out there that are definitely fakes, and for the prospective purchaser, it is crevat emptor or, the buyer beware scenario. Consequently, it pays to check out a painting as thoroughly as possible before its purchase.

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