The secrets of Greek auctions

Greek art sales abroad seem to be enjoying great success recently. Those organized by Sotheby’s and Bonhams keep making new records regarding both the overall turnover but also the prices of works by certain 19th and 20th century Greek artists. At Sotheby’s autumn auction recently, the turnover came to 11.5 million euros and 16 artists marked personal records. Naturally, demand for high-quality works has rocketed and the large auction houses are doing the best they can to provide fine paintings by great Greek artists. But how can they guarantee the authenticity of the paintings they auction off at a time when forgers have such advanced methods in their disposal? It is a well-known fact that there are dozens of counterfeits of Yiannis Gaitis, Constantinos Parthenis and many others on the Greek market. There are, of course, certain security measures that can protect potential buyers from purchasing fakes, but auction houses can only guarantee authenticity to a certain extent. They auction off items they believe to be authentic. From that moment on, responsibility lies with the buyers. We should not forget that forgeries have gone on the market in the past: In May 2000, Sotheby’s and Christie’s tried to sell two identical Paul Gauguin paintings and it turned out that the one held by Christie’s was a forgery. In 1997, Sotheby’s fired a senior staff member involved in a scandal with forgeries and last year it withdrew a fake Damien Hirst from an auction. Kathimerini contacted Constantinos Fragos of Sotheby’s and Terpsichori Angelopoulou of the Art Expertise company, which represents Bonhams, to ask about the methods they use to exclude forgeries from auctions. It is a particularly difficult process: In Greece there is no institution that can officially rule on a work’s authenticity. Hence, these rulings take place orally. What is more, apart from a few exceptions there are no «catalogues raisonnes» nor foundations dedicated to the study of the work of Greek artists, so one cannot skim through bibliographical references to check if a certain work is authentic. «We have reached such high standards after hard work for many years and good results, that, at this point, auctioning a fake piece and endangering the house’s reputation would not be to anyone’s advantage,» said Angelopoulou. She added, though, that 20 percent of the works she examines before preparing a catalogue for any auction are falsified, from copies of paintings by Constantinos Parthenis to Alekos Fassianos. «In some cases, it is obvious from the first look but at other times you need more extensive research. Every piece goes through a strict check, regarding technique, colors and bibliography.» Specialists recruited «We always recruit art historians who know an artist’s work in depth and are more qualified to testify on its authenticity,» said Frangos, adding that they also use technological means. «If, despite all of that, there are still doubts, then the work in question does not make it into the catalogue. Including a work of art in the catalogue is a guarantee of authenticity in itself. It tells the clients that we believe it is authentic. If a client brings forward credible documents that cast doubt on the authenticity after the purchase, then we provide a full refund.» It is clear that auction houses do their best to protect their clients, but is it enough? «The auction houses try to be honest in their dealings, but Greece lacks the scientific structure to provide the guarantees,» said a well-known art historian, who wished to remain anonymous, to Kathimerini. «It is necessary to create an independent body of experts from different professions, whose identity will remain secret (so that they cannot be subject to pressure or threats) which will testify to the authenticity of works of art.» «Forgers all over the world have developed techniques so advanced that they can even fool the staff of the big auction houses. They come up with dozens of new methods,» said an art dealer. «What is worse in Greece, where there is no proper structure, is that if a case of forgery does end up in court, both sides will bring five university professors as witnesses and the judges will never be able to make a correct ruling.»