Treasures... Beware of artful codgers
During the summer I visited an antiques shop in Dublin where I found a small painted box with oriental styling. The price was €135 and dealer assured me that it was 19th century. "Is the stamp more recent than the rest of the box?" I asked after showing him the "Made in Japan" logo.
"Yeah," said the dealer shiftily, "that must have been done later."
When I went back a few weeks later, the shop was closed. The incident was a salutary reminder of the shady side of the antiques industry. Fakes and forgeries are out there. The trouble is many forgeries are very good indeed and don't come with "Made in Japan" stamped on the base. In fact, the little box was just a copy of a period piece, not intended to deceive. The dodgy dealer, however, was.
A forgery, just to define the terms, is an object made from scratch to be a fraudulent imitation of something else, designed to deceive just like a forged banknote. A fake is an original object that has been altered to give it the appearance of something else, like a painting with the signature of another artist added. A fence meantime, is a person, like Del Boy in Only Fools And Horses, who knowingly trades in dodgy goods.
Forgery can be a lucrative business. In 2010 the German police intervened to stop the €5.8 million sale of a painting in the style of Fernand Léger (1881-1955). Scientific examination revealed it was a fake. The painting was the work of the famous German art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi who confessed to this and 14 other forgeries.
Interestingly, although the title of the painting, Natur Morte, translates as "still life" it is a cubist composition of a train. More recently, in June 2015, a dealer based in Cornwall was sentenced for selling works he claimed to be by Alfred Wallis (1845-1952). In fact, the paintings were reproductions purchased online for less than €700 each.
One work, a painted fishing float, was advertised on the dealer's website as "the single most desirable and tactile Wallis work that we have ever seen". The selling price was around €82,000.
Sometimes even the top experts can be taken in by the most unlikely people. Take the case of Shaun Greenhalgh, a 40-something year old who, living with his octogenarian parents George and Olive (headlines called them the "artful codgers"), codded British museums out of the equivalent of close to ¤1m by selling them a series of forged Eygptian and Assyrian 'antiquities' which were actually made by Shaun in the garden shed behind their council house with materials he bought at Woodies.
Until recently, forged items worth less than €300 were rare. It simply wasn't worth anyone's while making them. Now, low-value forgeries are becoming more widespread, probably because of the ease of online communications. "A lot of forgeries are coming in from the Far East," says Louis Walsh of Treasures in Athlone. "The word on the street is that you can send over a sample of an item and they come back to you with a price."
Recently, he purchased a forged copy of a 1966 commemorative ten shilling coin for €2 (the current value of the real coin is around €25). "It really is very good," he says. "It looks like silver and the weight is very close to that of the original, but the writing around the edge is a little bit off centre and there are a couple of little bumps around the edge."
Walsh knew the coin was a forgery and bought it as a curiosity, but admits people are getting caught left, right and centre. Last week, he recounts, a woman came in to his shop with a War of Independence IRA medal. She asked Walsh if it was genuine. He examined it, and had to tell her that it was not. She marched out of the shop, shaking her head and muttering: "I'll kill him, I'll kill him…"
Walsh is one of those participating in this weekend's Irish Antique Dealers Fair in the RDS, which is organised by members of the Irish Antique Dealers Association (IADA). All the dealers are carefully vetted and only genuine works of art are allowed in the door. "If you buy from a dealer who is a member of the IADA you are in a much stronger position if there's a problem," says Julian Radcliffe, an international expert in the seamier side of the antiques trade.
He's the chairman of Art Loss, a database of lost and stolen art, antiques and collectibles. Mostly, Art Loss deals with high-end items. A Queen Anne Japanned bureau valued at £400,000, for example, was stolen from Northern Ireland in 1990. Eleven years later it turned up in London in the hands of a leading antique dealer. The bureau had spent some time at a farm on the west coast of Ireland and had been "partially restored in Dublin, no questions asked".
To prevent the accidental sale of forged, faked or stolen items, some of the larger auction houses, like Adam's and Whyte's, subscribe to the Art Loss database and all their lots valued over €1,500 are checked.
"I would always ask a dealer to provide full documentation, the history of the item, including a full description and measurements," says Radcliffe. "Even if I was buying a piece for €300 I would insist on it. The documentation holds people to account and puts the lid on endless arguments about who sold what to whom.
"It's the only way to raise the standards in the industry."
When buying furniture, he recommends buyers watch out for 'Georgian' furniture that has been made from the carcases of genuinely old pieces. "In some instances, restoration is essential. If a piece of furniture has been treated for woodworm it will depreciate the value of the item but, left untreated, it might depreciate the value of every item in your house.
"In the same way, the runners of old drawers may need to be replaced to avoid damaging the piece. That is acceptable, but putting four new legs on it is not."
Julian Radcliffe will give a talk on "Fakes and Fences: Protecting the dealers and their clients" at 3pm today as part of the lecture programme in the Irish Antiques Dealers Fair at the RDS. Full details on www.iada.ie.
Meantime, British forger Shaun Greenhalgh has been released from his four-year prison sentence and sells his fakes online for up to £3,000.
In the salerooms
O'Reilly's next auction of fine jewellery, watches and silver takes place on Wednesday, September 30 and includes several examples of floral brooches.
These include a floral basket brooch, set with ruby, sapphire, turquoise, and diamonds, all mounted in 18ct gold (estimated between €4,000 and €4,500).
The less extravagant ruby and diamond brooch, modelled as a flower, mounted in white gold is estimated between €6,000 and €7,000.
An Autumn Antique and Decorative Interiors Auction will take place at Victor Mitchell's Mount Butler salerooms in Roscrae on Wednesday, September 30 at 10.30am with much in the way of traditional antique furnishings, paintings, silver, beds, and lighting.
Lots include a 19th century walnut pier cabinet (estimated at €600); a 19th century four-poster bed (est €800); a 19th century gilt overmantle (est €500) and various miniature silhouette portraits (est €30 to €80). Full details on www.victormitchell.com.
DeVere's Irish Art Auction will take place on Tuesday, September 29 at Buswells Hotel at 6pm.
Lots include 24 works from the studio of Desmond Carrick (€400 to €1,500), as well as oils by Peter Curling, Patrick Collins, Felim Egan, Nick Miller, and Sean McSweeney.
Full details on www.deveres.ie.
A sale of Important Irish Art at Adam's on Wednesday, September 30 includes Gerard Dillon's Resting Tinkers, dating from the mid-1950s and carrying a pre-sale estimate of €20,000 to €30,000.
The sale also includes Barmaid by Daniel O'Neill (c.1948) (est €20,000 to €30,000) and The Old Landing Place (€25,000 to €35,000) by Jack B Yeats. Full details on www.adams.ie.
Whyte's sale of Irish and International Art takes place at the RDS, Anglesea Road, on Monday, September 28.
The sale includes the dramatic Playboy Of The Western World - Frontispiece by Sean Keating, who painted Christy Mahon's father as a self portrait. It is estimated between €35,000 and €45,000. Full details on www.whytes.ie.