<< Back to Articles for Collectors
Art Forgery- How to Spot Fake Signatures
This quick course in art forgery, fake signatures in particular, is part of a continuing instructional series on how to dissect and analyze ways that works of art are placed up for sale online, particularly at auction sites where private sellers can offer their art directly to buyers. eBay, for example, does not actively police their auction offerings, but rather depends on emails from dealers, collectors, experienced bidders and related professionals to notify them of problems like possible misrepresentations, fakes, forgeries and similar issues relating to particular works of art. As things stand currently, any seller can describe any work of art in any manner that he or she chooses and as long as no one complains, that art sells to the highest bidder. As a result, eBay and similar online auction sites are among the riskier places for uninformed or inexperienced individuals to buy original art. But know that forgeries can be found for sale just about anywhere, and you'd better know what you're doing especially if you like to buy outside of established galleries and beat the bushes for bargains.
The following tips have to do with how inspect, assess and analyze the actual signatures and online images of signatures on paintings, drawings, prints and other original works of art that you find for sale online or anywhere else. Many novice buyers believe that as long as the artist's name is on the art, all's well and the work is authentic. But that can be a fatal mistake... and a forger's delight. Amateurs often also believe that all they have to do is study and compare a particular signature to known documented examples by that artist and look for stylistic similarities and differences, and if they look close enough, it's genuine.
These types of quickie inspections and premature conclusions are not nearly enough; in fact, they're not even a start. For one thing, forgers often practice signing fake signatures by using the exact same examples that buyers use for comparison purposes. These days, practically anyone can find examples of just about any artist's signature online-- whether you're a buyer or a forger, so watch out. In addition, no matter how good you think you are at comparing signatures, unless you're an experienced dealer, collector or related fine art professional who does signature comparisons as part of their job descriptions, you take significant risks when relying on your eye alone. This is especially true if all you're paying attention to is the signature and nothing else.
Regardless of these cautions, many of you will insist on going it alone regardless, so for you, here are some additional pointers to consider when examining the signature on any work of art:
** No matter how good a signature looks, the art itself must match the style of the artist whose name is on it. Hopefully you've studied enough works of art by the artist firsthand to know what that style looks like. Stylistic elements that you should be familiar with include brush strokes, subject matters, what the back of the art looks like as well as the front, typical sizes, and so on.
** Know where the artist typically signs their art and compare the location of your signature to them. Most artists sign in particular locations on their art. Any discrepancy in location is a matter of concern. A major red flag would be if an artist normally signs on the front of their art, but the piece you are looking at is only signed on the back-- not an uncommon ploy in the forgery business.
** Note how the name is signed. Artists typically sign consistently from artwork to artwork. For example, some use their full names, some use their full last names and first initial, some use initials, some always sign in the same color, and so on. Any differences between a signature you are looking at and how that artist typically signs should be considered potentially problematic.
** Some artists do more than just sign their signatures. For instance, they may date their art, underline or otherwise embellish their signatures with various flourishes, include the location or title of the composition on the art, annotate the backs of the art, and so on. Again, any departures from how a signature and accompanying information or details normally appear should be regarded with caution.
** If you're buying online, make sure the seller provides a good clear detailed enlargement of the signature. If they don't have one posted online, have them email you one. Some sellers are well aware that a great way to sell fakes is to provide either poor close-up images of signatures or no close-ups at all.
** Unless an artist is known for signing in mediums other than that of the art itself, beware when the medium of the signature does not match the medium of the art. For example, if a painting is signed in ink instead of paint, or a watercolor is signed in pencil instead of watercolor, this could be a problem.
** With paintings in particular, artists tend to sign in colors that correspond with the colors and compositions of the art. Be concerned if you note any kind of mismatch in this regard (unless the artist is known for signing in distinctly different colors).
** Note how well or poorly a signature blends with its composition. Signatures of most artists look like they're part of the art, like they belong there, like they're harmonious with the compositions. Signatures that seem discordant, out of place or significantly different in appearance or style when compared to the overall compositions of their artworks may be problematic in some way.
** Note the overall appearance of the signature. A signature should look relaxed, fluid, spontaneous and unforced. Beware of signatures that look rough, tentative, sloppy, overworked, awkward, uneven or shaky.
** Pencil or ink signatures on works on paper, especially limited edition prints, are the easiest to fake. Unless a seller presents adequate verifiable proof, evidence or documentation that a work of art is authentic, or you are extremely familiar with a particular image and how the artist typically signed it, be careful.
In the end, if you have any doubts whatsoever, no matter how attractive a work of art (or its price) seems, best procedure is to let it go. Keep in mind that unless you really know what you're doing, certain online auctions and other less established, off the beaten track, or non-art venues continue to be risky places to buy art.