Fakes devastate folk art market, says Dr. Bishop

Fakes have become a very big problem in the folk art field, and Dr. Robert Bishop sounded some warnings at a recent antiques marketing conference here. "When you start talking about fakes and their influence on the marketplace, I can only say that the effect is devastating," he declares. He cites the field of Haitian primitive art.

"The bottom has dropped out of this market recently," he says, "because so many fakes are now floating around that no one feels secure with their purchases. I recently sold my own collection of Haitian primitives because I felt it would no longer appreciate in value, but would probably depreciate substantially because of the large numbers of fakes in circulation."

Faking usually follows a sudden, steep escalation in prices, he says. Duck decoys have, for instance, now reached the monetary realm (fine examples are now bringing from $15,000 to $25,000) where a faker can go to work and reproduce them at great profit. Cigar store Indians are also being widely faked, he says, as are carvings by John Bellamy of Portsmouth, N.H., and reverse paintings on glass by William Matthew Pryor.

Frakturs (or fracturs, a kind of illuminated writing used by early Pennsylvania Germans) are also being faked. And many reproductions of earlier types of glass almost defy people to tell the difference between old and new. Milk glass is widely faked at one end of the scale, and Tiffany lamp copies have been sold for real, at the more elaborate end of the scale.

"Certainly we've seen in the last couple of years an astonishing increase in value for the late 19th-century furniture. It is now not unusual to see pieces of great mission oak bringing from $10,000 to $20,000. When that happens, the fakers appear almost overnight." Pennsylvania painted furniture of the 1830 to 1840 period is being faked as well. Stickley furniture, he suspects, will soon be copied, too.

"In the last few years one of the most terrifying things to me, as director of the American Museum of Folk Art," Dr. Bishop says, "is the extraordinary rate that folk paintings are being reproduced. The work of the Bard Brothers, those great New York City port painters of the late 19th century, is being faked in a very alarming way." The Bard signature on a painting now commands between $20, 000 and $30,000, so buyers should beware of copies that might have been made and signed yesterday. Dr. Bishop has also seen copies of Caleb Bingham paintings.

Collectors, dealers, and museum curators are all aware of the problems brought about by modern-day fakers. More knowledge is the only answer, says Dr. Bishop. "If you have enough specific knowledge, and look at enough original pieces, and are aware of the area where the fakers are operating, you will be more likely to recognize the copies when they do turn up," he continues.

He recommends that the voice, particularly, deal only with reputables dealers. A good dealer, he reminds, will always give a written guarantee which includes a statement of what a piece is and what restoration has been made to it.

The Museum of American Folk Art is beginning now to collect examples of fakery for an exhibition, several years down the road, called "Folk Art Fake s."

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