Experts Warn of a Surging Market in Fake Prints

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Kyle Johnson/The New York Times
Adrienne Fields, head of the legal department for the Artists Rights Society, which protects the intellectual property rights of artists and their estates, in New York on January 18, 2020. Fields spends much of her time policing the internet, where fake prints routinely show up for sale.

The New York Times

In Basel, Swiss authorities are prosecuting a local art expert who they say sold hundreds of fake prints that he passed off online as the work of Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol, Paul Klee, Pablo Picasso and others over 10 years.
In New York, Adrienne R. Fields now spends much of her workweek scanning the internet for forged prints that pop up at website after website. She is head of the legal department for the Artists Rights Society, which protects the intellectual property rights of artists and their estates.
“It happens every day that Adrienne sends a ‘take down’ notice to a website,” said Ted Feder, president of the society.
The two cities, almost 4,000 miles apart, are both on the front lines of the fight against the sale of fake prints.
Since the dawn of the internet, the problem of phony art being sold has only grown, experts say, and the primary coin of the forgery realm has long been the fake print, which is relatively easy to create, often difficult to detect and typically priced low enough to attract undiscriminating novice buyers.
But now the problem seems to be escalating, according to law enforcement officials in the United States and Europe.
Timothy Carpenter, supervisory special agent of the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s art crime team, said that the proliferation of online art sales has deepened the problem. “Before, you had to find a way to get it to the market, but e-commerce has changed the game,” he said.
The most prevalent fake prints are those falsely attributed to Lichtenstein and Warhol, experts said. But forgers have also brought to market multitudes of fake Picassos, Klees and Gerhard Richters, as well as phony works attributed to Marc Chagall, Joan Miró, Salvador Dalí and Henri Matisse.
Improvements in photomechanical reproduction techniques have made it easier for forgers to produce deceptive fake prints. “A real good reproduction can fool a lot of experts,” said John Szoke, a Manhattan dealer in Picasso and Edvard Munch prints. Detecting the forgeries is not simple, he said.
“It’s the color of the paper, the quality of the printing, the condition of the print, all of which you compare with the original,” he said. “And then you need years and years of experience.”
The term “print” is a broad one, traditionally used to describe a number of types of original fine art works such as etchings, lithographs and woodcuts that are produced in limited editions through a range of processes. In each case, the artist creates an image and works with a publisher or printer to produce the set number, often destroying the plate, the stone or other matrix used after printing.
Often the artist will sign and number each print with a marking that says it was, say, 12 of 200 (12/200).
The fakes, on the other hand, are typically photomechanical reproductions of the originals. The forgeries are made by people with no connection to the artist and are sold as his or her work; they will often be accompanied by phony signatures from the artist or bogus certificates of authenticity.
Experts say a major problem with many prints sold as Picassos is that they feature phony signatures. While Picasso made a lot of prints – about 2,400 – he did not sign a large number of them. Yet it is quite easy to find signed prints in the marketplace. Experts say some of them are fake and some of them are actual Picassos with a phony signature added.
“There are probably thousands of prints with fake Picasso signatures,” said Szoke, the dealer.
Among the most coveted Picasso prints are many of the 100 etchings from the Vollard Suite, which is named after dealer and publisher Ambroise Vollard. Picasso made them between 1930 and 1937 in response to a request by Vollard, who compensated him by giving him works he owned by Renoir and Cézanne.
Some of the images depict an artist in his studio. Others feature women who resemble Marie-Thérèse Walter, Picasso’s lover at the time. A complete set of the suite, signed by Picasso, was sold at Christie’s last November for $4,815,000.
Major online selling platforms like Amazon, eBay and Etsy say they have created protocols to weed out fakes and are working toward additional safeguards.
But Fields of the rights society said a lot of fakes still slip through in various locations online.
“It’s an uphill battle,” she said. “One fake can be shown on many websites, but you don’t know who the provider is. Prices range from $10 to tens of thousands of dollars.”