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Fake Or Fortune?: Five tips for art buyers

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Philip Mould Philip Mould | 09:48 UK time, Friday, 14 September 2012

The new series of Fake Or Fortune? begins with Fiona Bruce, Bendor Grosvenor and myself investigating a small work said to have been painted by Degas.

A massive name, a faker's favourite. To prove it would transform the fortunes of its owner Patrick Rice, who has devoted a large part of his waking hours in retirement to prove it.

Authenticating paintings is engrossing but fraught with dangers.

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Fiona Bruce retraces the footsteps of Degas at the Palais Garnier in Paris

The auction world is relatively unregulated and stepping past the landmines a collector's necessity. But there are simple starting points for telling a dodgy picture from the real thing.

So here are my five tips for when you're buying at auction. The same tools can be used in the buying process from antique dealers or gallery owners from whom it is often easier to get clear, protective guarantees.

Cheese in the trap

Question what you see. Pictures for sale can be signed by big names like Picasso or Turner or with exciting looking labels on the reverse indicating exhibitions or collections.

Be deeply cynical.

Have a look at the cataloguing. If the auctioneers have not made any reference to the obvious artist they normally know something you don't.

I call these Cheese in the Trappers (Trappers for short). They are extremely common, particularly in less well-known auction houses or on internet sites, and often estimated at under £100 to lure the unwary.

Framed by the frame

A frame can be an excellent way of outing a fake. Most fakes or trappers at sale are done in the last year and the frames are modern or wrong.

Most serious 20th Century artists made sure their pictures were properly framed, or at least their dealers did.

Wrong frames look too modern, or cheap, or cut-down from something bigger. Often they don't quite fit, like hand-me down trousers.

Bendor Grosvenor, Fiona and Philip

Bendor Grosvenor, Fiona Bruce and Philip Mould in Fake Or Fortune?

Health check

A knackered picture is relatively worthless. Many people are taken by paintings that may be old and possibly by good artists but that have been so over-cleaned or butchered by amateur restorers that no one wants them.

When an old painting has been savagely over-cleaned or overly-pressed onto a fresh canvas (called re-lining - a common process of restoring old oil paintings) the surface details are often lost.

Done more brutally still and the whole top layers go, leaving no more than the preparation layer.

At this level you can often see the gauze of the canvas beneath. Remove that and you have no more than the bare bones - ie raw canvas!

The usual way of dealing with wounds like this is literally to repaint those areas. It's called overpaint or inpainting. Whenever this in evidence it's a big warning sign.

So look out for raw canvas and overpaint, also later daubing that covers damage like a badly touched-up car chassis.

Another way of spotting overpaint is that it often covers over the craquelure - natural cracking found in old paint - in a way that looks stodgy and clumsy.

Plumbing the past provenance is often key.

Try to ascertain recent ownership. Trappers or fakes normally come from 'a little old lady' a 'house clearance' or 'we just don't know'.

Use your instincts here. Bluff has a way of sounding hollow or evasive.

Trust your eye

Get to see as much real art as possible and don't make too many apologies for the potential purchase in question.

Countless times I have been shown pictures that purport to be by a great hand on 'a bad day'. In my experience good artists don't have bad hair days - just the odd lazy or distracted moment, and the coiffeur remains detectable.

Philip Mould is an art expert and the co-presenter of Fake Or Fortune?.

The second series of Fake Or Fortune? begins on Sunday, 16 September at 6.30pm on BBC One and BBC One HD. For further programme times, please see the episode guide.

Comments made by writers on the BBC TV blog are their own opinions and not necessarily those of the BBC.


  • Comment number 1.

    Fantastic program but why the medly of musical scores ?
    these distractions dilute the very interesting topic
    and can only increase the program makers costs !

  • Comment number 2.

    Great programme as usual. Think Fiona is wonderful but the best bit was the visit to my alma mater, The Courtauld Institute of Art. So glad that the BBC recognises it as one of the most credible art history institution. It was a marvellous place to study when it was at Portland Place - now home to The Home (pronounced HUME) House Club and is even better in Somerset House as the collection is more accessible to students and the wider world. My experience was seriously augmented by fabulous students and the world-renowned Anita Brookner.

  • Comment number 3.

    This was an excellent program, when I saw the very similar picture in the German collection I thought the other must be a copy, but I was proved wrong!

  • Comment number 4.

    Personally, I found the music during the program delightful and apt. The only problem is that I can't recall what some of the pieces are called or who they are by. The first piece which was played as the cast was assembling.... Can anyone tell me what it was and who it was by?

    Another great program from the BBC :)

  • Comment number 5.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 6.

    I recognized the South Forland light house straight away from Turner's picture. My grandparents retired to Ramsgate.

  • Comment number 7.

    How do u go about getting a painting looked at
    By experts like these?
    My dad who is 80 as a jf herring he
    Brought in doncaster in the 70s
    From a auction house.
    Its been 2 doncaster museum
    Its been to art dealers
    Antique road show etc
    And no one will give yes or no
    One said thd paint was correct 1847
    One said that a signuature was under the
    Jf herring and so it goes on
    Would love 2 find out the truth for mi dad
    Before he goes
    Many thanks

  • Comment number 8.

    Why did they 'cut down' the Van Dyke that was shown as restored tonight ? Surely there was a lot more to this beautiful painting !

  • Comment number 9.

    This has been a superb series. It has made an amazing contribution, not only to our knowledge of the art world, but to art history itself. It is not every day that new works by great masters turn up, and yet this programme seems to have unearthed several of them. Thanks to the meticulous process of investigation to which each painting has been subjected, employing the latest scientific analysis and expert opinion, every episode has unfolded like a gripping detective novel. Much of this, I'm sure, is 'staged' after the event to make for a clearer show, but the final evidence is still convincing. The series has also taught us the vital importance of provenence for more recent pieces, as well as our ultimate dependence upon connoisseurship: even if all the science and objective research points to a particular result, it can still boil down to one individual's finely tuned aesthetic response to the work of another. Well done, BBC. I hope there is more to come.

  • Comment number 10.

    Hi everyone

    Thanks for your comments.
    atlee163, you can now find details about the music featured in the first episode of Fake Or Fortune on the programme page: https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b01mxxzd/segments. Hope that helps!


    BBC TV blog

  • Comment number 11.

    I have an oil painting attributed to Boucher.Is this something that be of interest to 'Fake or Fortune'?

  • Comment number 12.

    I have a flower painting by F Van Balen.

  • Comment number 13.

    I think I have a portrait of Pope Louis xiii by Hubert Von Herkomer purchased around 1887 – 1889.
    It has been authenticated by the sellers as genuine (The Fine Art Society PLC) by the label on the reverse.
    Do You think this would be of interest or should I email someone direct with the picture etc.
    Many Thanks

  • Comment number 14.

    Fiona Bruce said "if you have a picture you would like us to look at, let us know" well,
    I would like you to look at a picture of a Doge. Francesco Dona 1545/1553 which I bought 20 years ago.
    How do I get an image to you?
    thanks for your help

  • Comment number 15.

    How do I get the team to look at my painting?

  • Comment number 16.

    We have an interesting picture of a dutch interior by Peter de Hooghe and has been dated to the 1700,s it has been in the family since the early 1900,s.
    We have tried to E.mail details and photos as per the programe to fakeor fortune@bbc.com but no go, even phoned the bbc but was only given the bbc website ? seems impossible to actualy contact you as nothing is on the web page please help. thanks.

  • Comment number 17.

    I too have a picture about which I would like an opinion. It is a watercolour bought at a small country house sale in the Yorkshire Dales by my father c1945. It is of Venice and has a notation in pencil on the back addressed to the purchaser from the artist who is J S Cotman. I am assured that it cannot be a Cotman because he never went to Venice but an obvious architectural error shows that it must have been painted from someone else's sketch. Is the team interested or do they only do oils? I also have some pencil sketches that came from Farnley Hall in the late 19th century. The provenance is impeccable but who by???

  • Comment number 18.

    Hi everyone

    Thanks again for your comments.

    For those of you asking how to submit a painting to the programme, we asked the Fake Or Fortune? team and you should send clear photographs of both the front and back of your painting as well as information about where and when you acquired it to the following address: Fake Or Fortune?, BBC Broadcasting House, Whiteladies Road, Bristol BS8 2LR. You can also send your photographs and info to fakeorfortune@bbc.co.uk.

    This information has now been added to the Fake Or Fortune programme page.


    Eliza Kessler
    BBC TV blog

  • Comment number 19.

    Fiona and I are extremely grateful for the warm response that the programmes have received and thank you for your comments here Charlotte_Langley, The Bimbler, atlee163, Kunimasa1 and others.We are now full tilt into the next series and welcome your suggestions. Do please send them to the postal or email address Eliza has given above.

    Also at comment 8, champagnes1 has asked:
    Why did they 'cut down' the Van Dyke that was shown as restored tonight ? Surely there was a lot more to this beautiful painting!
    All I can say to that is that it is much better to have something smaller, and more honest - ie from the Studio of Van Dyck himself - than something added to at a later date which seeks to alter and elaborate a great artist's work!


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