Prominent Australian artists Charles Blackman and Robert Dickerson have begun legal proceedings in the Supreme Court recently, claiming that art trader Peter Gant has been dealing forgeries of their work.

In a case that could turn the art world upside down, Blackman and Dickerson are seeking an unprecedented injunction to prevent Gant from running his gallery — Peter Gant Fine Art — after he sold several pieces that the artists say are fakes.

Dickerson claims that a drawing entitled Pensive Woman — which Gant sold for $10,800 in 2005 — is not his, describing the work as “clumsy” and a “bloody awful drawing”.

Blackman is also taking action against Gant, stating that two charcoal drawings sold under his name — Street Scene with School Girl and Three School Girls — are shoddy forgeries.

Geoffrey Smith, vice-chairman of Sotheby’s Australia, testified on the legitimacy of the supposed Blackman drawings and found that, while the genuine schoolgirl series is 50 years old, the paper and pigment of the alleged fakes was fresh.

According to The Age, Gant allegedly “resold the first Blackman work after a buyer returned it to him and expressed concerns about its authenticity”. The two pieces were then on sold for $13,500.

In light of the allegations against Gant, Crikey has given an art expert a blank canvas to shed some light on the world of fine art forgery.

Crikey spoke with Associate Professor Robyn Sloggett, the director of the Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation at the University of Melbourne and an art authentication expert with 25 years’ experience.

How often does your department come across art fraud?

Well for a start we call them problematic paintings, not forgeries. Once you start saying fraud or forgery you start entering into a particular legal territory that can colour our judgement.

Ok then, how often does your department come across problematic paintings?

We have them through pretty regularly, in terms of numbers we probably get around a dozen a year that we are asked to verify.

Who asks you to verify a painting?

Typically it is an art dealer or owner, but they can come from all parts of the art world. Usually questions are asked when a painting can’t be attributed to an artist’s body of work. Once questions have been raised, we are asked in to verify the authenticity.

What kind of techniques do you use to identify problematic paintings?

There are three methods we use to verify paintings. The first is provenance, such as where the painting is from, what its history is and if that matches up with the artist’s history.

The second is historical analysis, which involves going over someone’s body of work and matching up the dates. For example, if someone paints a scene of France, were they actually in France at that time? It also involves lining up pigments used in the painting and seeing if they were available at that time.

The third technique is material techniques analysis, which is what our department specialises in. Most of this involves paint analysis, to see if the paint layers and techniques match what the artist used. We also use infrared technology to identify any underdrawing and to see if the painting has been changed in anyway. There are a whole raft of scientific techniques that we can employ.

Is the original artist ever brought in to confirm a suspected problematic painting?

We prefer the authentication process to be an objective undertaking, which can then go back to whoever owns the painting. We prefer to keep our investigation separate to any other inquires that are going on about the work.

Is it ever easy to spot a fake?

I am continually amazed by the poor quality of problematic paintings that I come across.

How much of the art market do you believe is made up of forgeries?

There are a lot of figures floating around and it depends on where you look, one number says that 10% of the market is made up of suspicious works.

But it’s a difficult amount to quantify, if you look at legal proceedings they would suggest the number of problematic paintings is negligible. Our investigations would suggest that the number is not negligible, and that once you get dubious works entering the market, they never leave.

What happens when you spot a forgery?

Everything is completely confidential. Our findings are solely between us and whoever commissions the inquiry, which is usually the owner of the painting.

Have forgeries been on the rise in recent years?

It all relates to the level of trade and price levels in the art market. When you have a hot market you get a lot more problems, as more works are inserted into the market and more works are traded. As soon as you have a commodity that has some value, people want to capitalise as soon as they can. It’s what happens in any market.

Is this all about buyer education?

I think so. If you buy a car you want to make sure all the numbers match up. It’s the same in the art world. I think there are basic things that everyone should do. It’s a lot of money to spend on something that could end up being worthless. People should do their research first. It’s all about buyer beware.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey