Teams of artists are putting in a lot of effort to make a living off of art crime, but it is typically just an issue of time before the forgeries are discovered, which typically leaves investors in a state of devastation.

Ontdekkers Road Antique Shop

When a customer in an “antique” shop on Ontdekkers Road in West Rand, Johannesburg, asks for assistance, the store’s proprietor quickly pokes her head out of a cramped office that isn’t much bigger than a closet. Beside her desk is a painting that demands attention; it is a burly self-portrait by the Dutch painter Frans Hals from the 17th century and it is framed in an ornamental gold frame. It is difficult to identify as a fake when looking at it closely; however, the owner insists that it is authentic, despite the fact that it has a cost of R36 000.

In the past 20 years, Ontdekkers Road was notorious for unique “finds,” and dishonest dealers would scour the original, impoverished mining residences on the shorelines of old Johannesburg for unique findings. In an era before the widespread availability of the internet, prospective buyers who did their math might have reasoned that the Hals was authentic, having possibly found its way from Europe to post-World War II South Africa.

We were hoping that neither the vendor nor the distributor grasped the actual worth of their goods, much like the people on BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, when an unexpecting owner bags a million pounds for an ornament that’s been in a store room for 50 years. Assertions of gullibility seem inconceivable in today’s world when information such as the location of the original Hals’s self-portrait in the Museum of Modern Art in New York can be found on the web in a matter of seconds.

The Criminality of Forged Artwork

The international occurrence of fake art, which is a criminal violation of the legacy of any artist, has turned into a local issue, and fakes can be found in South African artwork just like in other art around the world. In the year 1940, the illustrious Gerard Sekoto became the first African artist to have a painting purchased by a museum. That museum was the Johannesburg Art Gallery.

He was awarded an honorary doctorate by WITS University, and the IZIKO South African National Gallery exhibited some of his works. He fled the country in 1947 in order to spend the rest of his life in self-imposed exile in Paris, and he remained there until the day he passed away in 1993. Master forgers are aware of the fact that owning a Sekoto is comparable to possessing the Star of Africa. Today, Sotheby’s reaffirms that record sales of his artwork were achieved at auctions held in London and Johannesburg.

The Gerard Sekoto Foundation is responsible for the legacy of Sekoto’s oeuvre as well as the artist’s copyright. They keep a close eye out for encroachments and forgeries while guarding Sekoto’s work to preserve it and ensure that it is protected. In recent years, the industry of producing fake paintings has seen significant growth. Not only of the work that Sekoto did but also of the work of numerous others.

A trained art expert will have no trouble recognizing a forgery. Art historians have a variety of tools at their disposal, and their extensive knowledge is an asset when it comes to identifying forgeries. The knowledge of the styles used by prominent artists during various time periods is also painstakingly recorded and adapted.

Recognizing Forged Artwork

Boy with a Yellow Cap (circa 1940), a painting by Sekoto, has a rich history. It was created in the 1940s. The late Professor Murray Schoonraad was the owner of it, and the sale is documented somewhere. Sekoto was instructed by the artist Judith Gluckman in 1939, and this artwork was an attempt at utilizing a new technique. It exhibited an emerging style that would later make him famous. Recently, a “duplicate” of the painting has made its way onto the market, and it appears to have originated in the UK.

The foundation is named after Gerard “It is being advertised as a work of Sekoto’s hand, and yet it demonstrates none of the seamless customizations that are already evident in Sekoto’s early work,” says Sekoto.   Both the color tonalities and the painterly techniques in the two paintings are quite distinct from one another. The original painting is lively, whereas the copy is dull and solid. For example, the boy’s cap in the original painting is comprised of gold and brown tones that range from light to dark and are discreetly incorporated by brushwork.

The copy features a predominance of buttercup yellow tones, and the painting method is flat, lacking finesse and vibrancy in its execution. The darkness on the forehead beneath the cap and above the left eye and ear is illustrated in the original as a subdued deep grey color; however, in the copy, the shadow is illustrated as a solid block of purple color, devoid of any nuances… It is as if the painting was selected in order to accommodate an already existing frame with an antique appearance; consequently, the subject matter is required to adhere to the allotted space. The work of the maestro is displayed here, and it is compared to the work of a rookie.

The Method Of Forgery In South Africa

Even though galleries are the best place to go to get a professional opinion on whether or not copies are authentic, some exhibitions themselves are the problem. “Based on the research, the bulk of the forgeries we’ve researched can be linked back to a group we refer to as the African Modernist Fake School – a skilled artist or team of artists who collaborate to produce forgeries on demand,” writes Gerard de Kamper, Chief Curator of Collections and professor at the University of Pretoria, in The Conversation.

The majority of these auction houses can be found in Johannesburg, Durban, and Bloemfontein. They conceal their identities by relying on fine print clauses such as ‘signed as.’ For their part, the galleries are only found on the internet and sell their wares through well-known classed advertising and online auction websites. The sellers frequently claim to have been friends with the artists and their families; in some cases, they may even have an employee on staff whose surname is identical to the artist’s surname.

They sell forgeries accompanied by bogus certificates claiming their authenticity. Occasionally they publish books about the artists that contain forgeries that are combined in with the original works in order to give the impression that the forgeries came from a legitimate source. One art gallery even went so far as to give forgeries of works created by black modernists to a university in the United States.

A Solution For Forgery

The great news is that a solution that will put an end to this ridiculous and illegal practice is currently being formalized. Auction houses that can be trusted are starting to get in touch with universities at the first sign of trouble. A Master’s program in Tangible Heritage Conservation has been developed at the University of Pretoria.

This program trains post-graduate students to work as restorers to preserve and protect South Africa’s cultural heritage. “The reason for the deception is that there is not a sufficient amount of published subject matter on these artists. According to Professor de Kamper, six of the eight have not been the subject of any scholarly publications at all.

It is a well-known fact that several communities of art students are actively engaged in the illicit practice of copying famous works of art. It is possible for an intelligent and entrepreneurial group of people to earn a living doing honest work by documenting, researching, and establishing a South African heritage database to safeguard the legacies of artists whose work requires such safeguarding.