Art Forgery- How to Spot Fake Signatures

This quick course in art forgery, fake signatures in particular, is part of a continuing instructional series on how to dissect and analyze ways that works of art are placed up for sale online, particularly at auction sites where dealers, auction houses and private sellers can offer their art directly to buyers. Multi-seller sites like eBay, liveauctioneers, invaluable and Barnebys, for example, do not actively police individual sellers or auction items, but rather depend on emails from dealers, collectors, experienced bidders and related professionals to notify them of potential problems or questionable descriptions that may include possible misrepresentations, fakes, forgeries and similar issues relating to particular works of art. Even then, getting them to take the appropriate action can be challenging.

As things stand currently, any seller can describe any work of art in pretty much any manner they choose and make whatever claims, statements or representations they deem appropriate with little concern about oversight. As long as no one complains, the art sells to the highest bidder. As a result, a number of online auction sites have become risky places to buy art, especially for uninformed or inexperienced bidders looking for bargains. Forgeries and misdescribed or misrepresented art can be found for sale pretty much anywhere these days, so you'd better know what you're doing especially if you like to beat the bushes for bargains, buy from private sellers you don't personally know, bid on art at smaller local or regional auctions, or shop anywhere else outside of major national or international auction houses, established galleries or regularly vetted art websites.

The following tips have to do with how inspect, assess and analyze the actual signatures and online images of signatures on paintings, drawings, prints and other types of original art you might find for sale online, at auctions or anywhere else. Many novice buyers believe that as long as the artist's name is on the art and the website looks safe, all's well and the work is authentic. But jumping to conclusions like that can be a costly mistake... and a forger's good fortune. Amateurs often also believe that all they have to do is study and compare a signature on art for sale to known documented examples by that artist (usually online), and assume that if they see enough similarities, it's genuine. Unless you're a pro, watch out. With enough practice, pretty much anyone can become skilled at faking signatures.

Quick visual inspections, believing everything sellers say, and jumping to premature conclusions are not nearly enough to determine authenticity these days; in fact, they're not even a start. For one thing, forgers often practice signing fake signatures by using the exact same online examples that buyers use for comparison purposes. These days, practically anyone-- including forgers-- can find multiple examples of just about any artist's signature online, so watch out. No matter how good you think you are at comparing signatures, unless you're an experienced bidder, buyer, dealer, collector or related fine art professional who does signature inspections on a regular basis, you take significant risks when relying on your untrained eye alone. This is especially true if all you're paying attention to is the signature on the art and nothing else.

Regardless of these cautions, many of you insist on going it alone regardless, so for you, here are some additional pointers to consider when examining the signature on any work of art:

** No matter how good a signature looks, the art itself must match the style of the artist whose name is on it. Hopefully you've studied enough works of art by the artist firsthand to know what that style looks like. Stylistic elements that you should be familiar with include brush strokes, subject matters, the types of materials the artist typically uses to make their art, what the backs and sides of the art usually look like, typical sizes, shapes, mediums, colors, and so on.

** Know where the artist usually signs their art and compare the location of your signature to known examples. Most artists tend to sign in particular locations. Any discrepancy in location could be a cause for concern. For example, a major red flag would be if an artist normally signs on the front of their art, but the piece you are thinking about bidding on is only signed on the back-- not an uncommon ploy in the forgery business.

** Note how the name is signed. Artists typically sign consistently from artwork to artwork. For example, some use their full names, some use their full last names and first initials, some use initials only, some always sign in the same color, and so on. Any differences between a signature you are looking at and how that artist typically signs should be considered potentially problematic.

** Whenever possible, use color examples of known signatures for comparison purposes. Black & white examples can still be helpful, but they often lack the subtleties of color examples, like texture, how colors blend with the rest of the art, and so on.

** Some artists do more than just sign their names. For instance, they may date their art, underline or otherwise embellish their signatures with various flourishes, include the location or title of the composition on the art, write the backs of the art, and so on. Again, any departures from how a signature and accompanying information or details normally appear on a work of art should be regarded with caution.

** If you're buying online, make sure the seller provides a good clear detailed enlargement of the signature with no glare, reflections or shadows. If they don't have one posted online, have them email you one. Some sellers are well aware that a great way to sell fakes is to provide either poor close-up images of signatures or no close-ups at all.

** Unless an artist is known for signing in mediums other than that of the art itself, beware when the medium of the signature does not match the medium of the art. For example, if a painting is signed in ink instead of paint, a signature is scratched into dried paint, or a watercolor is signed in pencil instead of watercolor, these discrepancies could indicate problems.

** With paintings in particular, artists tend to sign in colors that correspond with the colors and compositions of the art. Be concerned if you note any kind of mismatch in this regard (unless the artist is known for signing in distinctly different colors).

** Note how well or poorly a signature blends with its composition. Signatures of most artists look like they're part of the art, like they belong there, like they're harmonious with the compositions. Signatures that seem discordant, out of place or significantly different in appearance or style when compared to the overall compositions may be problematic in some way.

** Sellers sometimes state that works of art signed only with initials are by known or famous artists who happen to have those same initials. Unless an artist regularly signs with initials only, make sure the seller can prove their claims beyond a doubt and provide the necessary documentation to back them up.

** Note the overall appearance of the signature. A signature should look relaxed, fluid, spontaneous and unforced. Beware of signatures that look rough, tentative, sloppy, overworked, awkward, uneven or shaky.

** Pencil or ink signatures on works on paper, especially limited edition prints, are the easiest to fake. Unless a seller presents adequate verifiable proof, evidence or documentation that a work of art is authentic, or you are extremely familiar with the particular image and how the artist typically signed, be careful.

** A good sign is when the signature is actually "in the paint" of the composition. This indicates that the artist signed while the painting was still wet.

** Forgers sometimes alter or paint over signatures of minor artists and add signatures of better-known ones. Check the area around a signature to make sure it matches the surrounding composition. Also check other areas of a composition where artists normally sign for irregularities in the painting Watch out if small surface areas don't completely match up.

** Forgers usually have to sign on top of dried paint. Many older paintings develop hairline surface cracks that are not visible to the naked eye. If you are concerned that a signature has been added later, magnify the edges of the signature with a pocket microscope or digital microscope and study the enlargements. If you see indications that the signature is signed over pre-existing age cracks, or that paint has "bled" from the signature into adjacent age cracks, this would indicate that the painting was signed well after the fact, and could be cause for concern.

In the end, if you have any doubts whatsoever, no matter how attractive a work of art (or its price) may be, best procedure is to let it go. Keep in mind that unless you really know what you're doing, certain online auctions and other less established, off the beaten track, or non-art venues continue to be among the more hazardous places to buy art.


(art by Anoka Faruqee).

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