The fine art of authenticity

Advanced technologies such as peptide mass fingerprinting and synthetic DNA tagging are the new tools experts are using to prevent counterfeiting of artworks.
Last Updated 28 November 2020, 20:15 IST

The art world is no stranger to controversy and much of it revolves around authenticity, fakes, frauds and financial scams. A recently discovered chalk drawing of Christ is believed to be the work of Leonardo da Vinci, a claim which is innocuous enough by itself; however, it brings back attention to the controversial painting ‘Salvator Mundi’, which sold for a whopping $450 million a few years ago, becoming the most expensive painting ever. Initially attributed to an artist Boltraffio, who worked in Leonardo’s studio, it was re-identified and attributed to da Vinci in 2011. And now, it is back in the news, as an Italian scholar has pointed out that this newly discovered drawing with its remarkable similarity to Mona Lisa and other self-portraits, clearly shows that Leonardo could not possibly have painted ‘Salvator Mundi’!

This conclusion is based on various factors, which refer to the artist’s distinctive style and language, the dynamism and quality of his work and preference for three-quarters’ view portraits. Authenticity is a term frequently used in context with art, with various connotations ranging from ‘originality’ of the artwork to forgeries. It is also used in conjunction with conservation interventions with issues related to losses, alterations and extents of mediation. The right identification of the author of a work of art becomes a grey area when supporting documentation is missing or is incomplete, or in cases where the artist is no more and there are questions over the style, language of the work or the signature of the artist.

However, artistic style and language may not be sufficient to determine fakes as was seen in the case of the infamous forger Han van Meegeren. He was responsible for selling what was then believed to be an authentic Vermeer painting to Nazi Field-Marshal Hermann Goering, during WWII.

Van Meegeren spent a considerable amount of time perfecting his technique to make the new painting look old. The dramatic art scam garnered so much attention that it also highlighted the need to update methods of evaluation, adopt scientific approaches and not rely only on subjective opinions.

The authenticity of the provenance (ownership history) of any artwork contributes towards establishing identification of the artist. It can, however, be a lengthy and expensive process, involving the verification of the artist’s signature, referencing documentation in books, letters, photographs, films, or any other form of media, which are of significance and historical relevance. It also involves specific scientific tests and forensic analyses along with appropriate scrutiny and opinion from experts.

Forgeries galore

Is this something that plagues only old artworks, where artists are no more? Unfortunately no. Authenticity and provenance of contemporary art too may get shrouded in controversy.

Fakes and forgeries plague the contemporary art market and there have been several instances in Indian art circles too, where living artists have exposed fakes selling in their name with carefully forged signatures. The provenance has also been manipulated and supported by forged documents.

The certificates of authenticity provided by the artist, their representatives or galleries are an accepted form of documentation in the current market; yet they do not offer a foolproof system. Supporting documents, receipts, bills of sale, letters and unquestionable provenance help in augmenting the legitimacy of the art.

Meanwhile, new and advanced technological mechanisms are paving the way forward. Artificial intelligence, peptide mass fingerprinting and synthetic DNA tagging are just some of the tools in the arsenal that can be deployed by experts and artists to authenticate and prevent counterfeiting of artworks.

The author is a Bangalore-based art consultant, curator and writer. She blogs at Art Scene India and can be reached on

Dab Hand is your fortnightly art world low-down. It will tell you all about what fresh ideas are out there, what to collect and what to admire from afar. And, of course, what not to.

(Published 28 November 2020, 19:47 IST)

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