A picture sometimes lies

PUBLISHED: 15:55 13 July 2009 | UPDATED: 15:03 20 February 2013

Two images of genuine watercolours by David Cox (1783 - 1859), which show a spontaneous, fresh style.

Two images of genuine watercolours by David Cox (1783 - 1859), which show a spontaneous, fresh style.

So how can you tell the genuine articles from the fakes?

A picture sometimes lies

So how can you tell the genuine articles from the fakes?


As a picture valuer the question I am asked most frequently is 'What's it worth?' The second most popular question is 'is it genuine?'
There are as many fakes, copies and reproductions on the market as there are genuine works and often it is very difficult to be sure exactly what one is looking at. Prints can often cause confusion.
In Victorian times the annual Royal Academy exhibitions were hugely popular with the general public and prize-winning pictures were mass reproduced in print form. These prints were usually photogravures or chromolithographs and a huge number survive today.
Photogravures are a lithographic process and printed in either sepia or a monotone black and white. Close examination with a magnifying glass will reveal that the actual surface of the picture is totally smooth and the image is composed of thousands of tiny dots rather like a newspaper photograph.
Any original oil or watercolour will have some sort of texture as layers of paint are applied by the artist. Chromolithographs are slightly more difficult. These were often printed on a textured paper to resemble canvas. There is no suggestion of built up paint though. Very often the chromolithograph will be slightly blurred where the different overlays of colour are slightly out of register.
I think it is important to stand back and ask exactly what the picture is trying to be! A little detective work will often provide the answers. Is the image on paper? If so it is unlikely to be an oil painting. Could be a watercolour though. Is the surface completely smooth? If so it is probably a print - is the image made up of little dots? - very likely to be a print.
Oleographs are the modern equivalent of photogravures and chromolithographs - a mass produced, decorative and affordable picture.
An oleograph is a photographically produced lithographic print on paper which is then stuck on to canvas and covered with a transparent varnish textured to resemble the brush strokes of a genuine oil painting. So from the back we see the raw canvas (like an oil) and the front has apparently the correct brushstrokes - very confusing! Again the trusty magnifying glass should give the game away - look for the little dots!
So what if we are sure that the picture in front of us is an original watercolour or oil - how do we know that it is genuine? At the risk of sounding pessimistic it is very unlikely that the Monet or Van Gogh at the local car boot sale is genuine. We have to consider provenance - the painting's history.
I saw a Turner recently listed on Ebay with a 'buy it now' price of £4,000,000!
It would be a brave man who would buy this. It may be a very fair price for the work of the greatest English painter but what guarantees are offered by the vendor? Where has the painting been exhibited, which collections has it been part of, is it in the catalogue raisonné? There are so many questions that need to be addressed to determine if a picture is right or not. I think it is quite right to be dubious of most paintings of this magnitude and it is worth remembering that old adage 'if it seems too good to be true - then it probably is!'
On a lesser scale, we could take the work of that wonderful 19th century watercolourist David Cox. I would say that eight out of every 10 Cox's that I am shown are not genuine. They may be clearly signed but this means nothing. The only way to be sure is to be familiar with Cox's style and this means doing one's homework. Looking through auction catalogues and reference books helps enormously as does looking at examples on the internet. Best of all is to go and see some original works and in Cox's case, Birmingham Art Gallery holds the largest collection of his works in the country.
Cox had a wonderful fluid and spontaneous style. Anything 'wooden' or hesitant is frankly unlikely to be by him. I don't subscribe to the idea that artists had 'off days'. One wouldn't expect any other craftsman to temporarily forget all their years of training and practice to produce a substandard work before reverting to their best again. An artist's style is very often more telling than their signature.
So, assuming our Cox is stylistically correct, we must look for other clues. Is there an exhibition or gallery label attached? Do we know any of its history and what guarantee does the seller provide? All reputable auction houses and dealers will offer a money back guarantee if a painting they have described as genuine can be proved not to be.
Occasionally some incredible pictures turn up at church fetes and jumble sales, so do keep looking but it's worth remembering to keep calm. Be objective and apply these rules - who knows you might discover a lost masterpiece.
William Lacey can be contacted at Halls, Welsh Bridge, Shrewsbury, tel: 01743 284777.



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