The art of sifting fake art. Forgeries abound; appraisals a must

ONE of the art market's biggest problems is its prosperity. Paintings and sculpture by major artists sell at auction for millions of dollars. Even photographs that 15 years ago could have been purchased for less than $100 now sell in the five- and six-digit range. All the money has simply been too good for thieves and forgers to resist. ``I have a drawerful of pictures of Norman Rockwell fakes,'' said art dealer Martin Diamond. ``No one is more faked than Rockwell.''

``We get people in here all the time trying to sell us what they claim are Ansel Adams photographs,'' said Tennyson Schad, president of New York's Light Gallery. ``Most of the time they're just pictures cut out of a magazine. On occasion, someone will try to pass off his own work as an Adams.''

Auction houses, where the big prices for works of art make headlines, have been even more deluged by people looking to sell works of questionable authenticity. The process of thoroughly checking a work's history of ownership as well as its authenticity may take more time than the auctioneer can provide, and bogus works change hands. `Stills' by Paul Strand

Last April, for instance, a sale of several supposed Paul Strand photographs was consummated at Butterfield & Butterfield, a San Francisco auction house, before inquiries determined that the photographs had been fraudulently misrepresented.

The pictures, dating to 1933, were made by an assistant to Strand who was hired to make ``stills'' for a film called ``The Wave'' which Strand - who periodically in his career took time off from photography to make movies - was directing in Mexico, according to Anthony Montoya, director of the Paul Strand Archives in Millerton, N.Y. He noted that another technician on the set, Augustin Chavez, got his hands on some of these stills, and it was Chavez's brother who began marketing them as original Paul Strands. Some of them surfaced in San Francisco, although others may be in circulation elsewhere.

The misattributed ``Strand'' pictures were ultimately exposed by the archives, where copies of the assistant's stills were found and identified. If alive, an artist may help identify which works are his. Even if he is not, notebooks or other documentation about what the artist had created can help clear up any mysteries.

Photographs, bronze sculpture, and fine art graphic prints are frequently problematical, because they are from multiple editions. A great deal of money can ride on the question of whether a particular work is an ``original'' - created by the artist or under his supervision - or ``posthumous,'' or something else.

George Guerney, an expert on the work of painter/sculptor Frederic Remington (1861-1909), says there may be twice as many Remington sculptures that have been cast posthumously as in the artist's lifetime. ``Foundries get their hands on an original sculpture and make their own editions from them, just churning them out to be sold,'' he said. He added that ``some recasts look better than the original, because of the craftsmanship of the foundry. It's not hard to be fooled sometimes, and you need good documentary evidence of when a work was made and where it came from.''

There has been some help in the graphic print field as California, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, and New York have all enacted print disclosure laws. These states now require sellers of prints to state whether the work is from a limited edition, the size of the edition, the name and address of the printer, whether the printing plates are still intact (that is, if other editions could be made), and whether any other edition of the image is in existence. Although photography and sculpture are not covered by these statutes, a growing number of people in these states and elsewhere have been demanding certificates from the dealer or printer with this same information. The peril of wishful thinking

Paintings and drawings pose an even greater problem, and bogus works frequently enter the market for both innocent and fraudulent reasons. Lack of expertise on the part of the dealer or collector, or wishful thinking on the part of an investor, may be the culprit. Pictures that look something like the work of a major artist but are not may sit in an attic for years, later being sold in a garage sale or flea market. After a sale or two, the work can occasionally find itself in a collection or in an auction. It is at this level that experts come in, evaluating the work and determining its authenticity and value. The bogus art, however, may have already been sold for hundreds or thousands of dollars.

At other times, the sales are more criminally motivated. Walter P. Chrysler, heir to the automobile fortune, brought 23 forged paintings for $1.1 million from a dealer who was later arrested. Another major collector, Algur Meadows, donated his collection of Spanish paintings to Southern Methodist University in Dallas for a museum in the 1960s, but it was quickly discovered that almost all of the collection's big name works - by Goya and Vel'azquez, for instance - were fakes.

``The man who sold Algur Meadows these works - there were about 40 or 50 - was nothing more than a professional con artist, but Meadows believed his every word,'' said Alex Wildenstein, an old-masters dealer who was asked to find out what works in Meadows's collection might be authentic. Little was.

One way prospective buyers can protect themselves, says Gilbert Edelson, administrative vice-president of the Art Dealers Association, is to make sure the dealer will accept the work back for the money paid if it is discovered to be unauthentic.

He added that collectors ``should stay away from anything that is offered ridiculously way below value'' and buy only from reputable art dealers.

In addition, most dealers will offer a photograph of the object which can be brought to an appraiser or other expert in the field who can validate its authenticity.

Appraisers can be found through the Appraisers Society of America, (703) 620-3838; the American Association of Appraisers, (212) 687-9775; the New England Appraisers Association, (617) 523-6272; and the Art Dealers Association, (212) 940-8295, as well as through other, more regional groups that check the credentials of their membership. The cost of appraisers generally runs from $25 to $125 an hour.

The International Foundation for Art Research in New York, (212) 879-1780, has an Art Authentication Service, which will bring together questionable works with the experts in the field who can evaluate them. Fees for this service are determined by the nature of the work involved.

Daniel Grant is a writer on the arts.

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