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curating into 2108

Updated: Feb 16, 2018

we are kicking off 2018 with a short article on art fraud


A 2016 study on South African Fraud at the Michaelis School of Fine Art, University of Cape Town, was undertaken through a number of qualitative interviews with leading experts of the South African art world to establish if forgery, which is “a process of copying a valuable artefact, so as to deceive a viewer into thinking that it is original or real”, was happening.

Authenticity is a tricky subject. The expertise of connoisseurship (a person who has a great deal of knowledge about fine arts), provenance (the history of an art work) and a scientific analysis, which can include the dating of pigments or paper, are best used in a collaborative team. This often does not happen. Opinions of connoisseurs differ, there can be sloppy provenance research and scientific analysis is often neglected.

A leading curator of a corporate art collection, stated that fakes may be emerging from smaller auctions. The detection of the fake usually happens when the buyer takes it to a bigger and more sophisticated auction to sell. A better connoisseur may then notice anomalies in the work. However, the governance on art works is often poor and instead of opening a legal case about the art work and bringing it to the attention of the relevant authorities, the work is just taken out of the bigger auction. This may result in the work resurfacing in another, smaller auction thus continuing the scam.

Bernadine Benson’s PhD study (2013) into Heritage Crime in South Africa was the first research project exploring art crime in this country. Although focused on heritage theft and not fraud, it gives insights and possible trends into the situation. Her research showed that reporting of theft to the police does not happen in almost half of the thefts, and also indicates that items are captured incorrectly in about 50% of the cases.

In 1983, Esmé Berman documented the main areas of art fraud from the 1930s to the early 1980s. She listed fakes in the works attributed to Frans Oerder (1867-1944), Maggie Laubser (1886-1973), Irma Stern (1894-1966), and Pierneef (1886-1957) among others. According to Berman, when returning a fake, most buyers are content when recovering their money from the seller. There is no law in South Africa which requires seizure and public destruction of a fake work. At that time, Berman also suggested that a central repository be established to help professionals but this has not happened.

Esmé Berman identified many faked landscapes in the Cape Impressionism style and figures in the Expressionism style. Through anecdotal stories, a number of possible new South African artists who are being faked has emerged. Currently it appears that more township and contemporary artists are being faked.

The art industry is known to be fairly secretive and interviewees in the 2016 research were given the option of remaining anonymous. The sample group of 12 consisted of art experts in the following fields: curator, art academic/historian, auctioneers, collector and gallery owner. They are leaders in their fields, with most having a decade or two of experience, and are based in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Pretoria. Some responses are indicated below.

A ‘collector, curator and art historian’, responded that fakes are “Too numerous to mention and relating to more than 40 South African artists’ work – mainly township artist works from the sixties". He believes that at present most fakes are on paper. He also believes that the local art market is “thin on expertise and integrity” and that the “faking, forging and theft rings are getting worse by the year”

Another curator and art historian stated “Yes, in relation to the work of Frans Claerhout, George Pemba, Gerard Sekoto, Gregoire Boonzaier […], Ephraim Ngatane, and Frans Oerder.”

A gallery owner, mentioned seeing fakes similar to those reported by others but did not believe that it was his responsibility to do anything about this.

The collector needs to be aware that the auctioneers and gallery owners are in business and are not necessarily your friends. Certain practices at some auction houses might be questionable. Experts are limited but a collector should try to identify one who is independent and does not have a conflict of interest because they are paid by the gallery or auction house. Insist on a provenance check and an independent scientific analysis, should it be necessary. Caveat emptor - the principle that the buyer alone is responsible for checking the quality and suitability of goods before a purchase is made, should definitely be heeded when collecting art.

Benson, B.C. 2013. Addressing Heritage Crime in Gauteng, South Africa: An Integrative Exposition. PhD (Police Science), University of South Africa.

Benson, B.C. & Prinsloo, J. 2013. “Thefts from Museums and Galleries in Gauteng: The Value of Accurate Crime Reporting”. Acta Criminologica: Southern African Journal of Criminology, 26(1).

Berman, E. 1983. Art and Artists of South Africa. Cape Town: A.A. Balkema, p. 174-177. Cohen, P.M. 2012. “The Meanings of Forgery”. Southwest Review, 2012, Vol. 97, Issue 3:12-25.

Makin, V. 2016. “South African Art Fraud”, BA (Hons) in Curatorship, Michaelis School of Fine Arts, University of Cape Town.


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