Stories by ANDREW SIA
Reproductions of an artist’s paintings are common. But beware of fake works that claim to be the real thing.
ON Nov 1, at the 4th Art Expo 2010 in Kuala Lumpur, a Malaysian collector paid RM2mil for a set of 10 silkscreens by American pop art icon Andy Warhol.
And on Aug 8, Ibrahim Hussein’s 1969 painting, The Dream, fetched RM500,500 at a sale held by Henry Butcher Art Auctioneers in Selangor. It was the most expensive Malaysian artwork sold in a public auction – more than double the record set in 2007 by the late artist’s Falcon (1976), which was sold by Sotheby’s in Singapore for RM236,736.
As the market value of Malaysian art grows in tandem with its popularity, reports of forgers keen to make a killing have begun to surface.
Basically, there are two types of fakes, says lawyer Pakhruddin Sulaiman, a prominent Malaysian art collector.
“One is a genuine fake, a copy of an original work by, say, Van Gogh. These are sold as reproductions but are not signed by the artist. This is quite prevalent in countries like Indonesia, Vietnam and even the West and it’s quite harmless.
“The dangerous fakes are those which claim to be originals.”
Artist Eric Quah recalls: “I travel often to Thailand and Indonesia where I see shop after shop selling copies of art. In China, works by Chen Yifei (classic painter and director; 1946-2005) sell for millions of US dollars. So they ask draftsmen or a contract artist to make reproductions from photos. Some sell for as low as RM50 and may not be well done.
“But some copies can be very good, too. Locally, I have seen fake works of Jehan Chan, who does paintings of koi fish.”
“Unless you know his work well, you can’t really tell they are fakes,” chips in Liew Chin Chin, who runs the Starhill Art Gallery in Kuala Lumpur.
Artist Stephen Menon claims he knows of a hotel in Kuala Lumpur that wanted to buy the paintings of an artist who does Malay silat paintings. “When they realised his prices were high, they asked someone to copy the work, complete with the signature!”
Lim Wei-Ling, who runs Wei-Ling Gallery in KL, fears that local art collectors could become disillusioned if the situation in Malaysia becomes like that of Vietnam’s.
“Art forgery is rampant there. Because art prices have gone up tremendously, people are forging works left, right and centre. Some galleries in Hanoi and Saigon are in on it too. Collectors are paying six-figure US-dollar sums for fakes of artists such as Vietnam-born Le Pho (1907-2001).”
Liew adds that she has heard of a few forgeries in the country, mainly of sketches.
“These are easier to copy and difficult to find in the market. Galleries which have no integrity will demand RM50,000 to RM100,000 even for such small pieces.”
Pakhruddin says he, too, has “heard of” forgeries of works of artists such as AB Rahman, Yong Mun Sen and even Latiff Mohideen.
“And there’s suspicion in the art market that a few Dzulkilfi Buyong fakes are floating around – the strokes (of these) are not similar to that of his other works.”
Artist and art academic Jolly Koh estimates the current market value of Dzulkifli’s works at between RM80,000 and RM120,000. He says he has seen two supposed Dzulkifli works, kept by private collectors, which he is pretty sure are forgeries.
“I have seen lots of his works, both good and bad. But those two stick out like sore thumbs. They could have been done by someone from the roadside.
“Moreover, one of the works was supposedly done in 1968. But Dzulkifli was a child prodigy who was at the peak of his powers then.”
Koh adds that there are “vicious rumours” that when certain famous artists die, leaving behind inferior or unfinished works, their relatives have signed these off as originals.
Forgeries extend to other art works too, such as ceramics. Jasmine Seng, the manager of TY Gallery in Kepong, KL, recalls how her father-in-law, (gallery founder) Tan Tiau Yoke, was often cheated by middlemen in China.
“The middleman would show him the real items, but deliver the fakes. He loves ceramics but his understanding of it was not so deep then. Nowadays, he goes directly to meet the Chinese artists and does not get cheated any more,” Seng says.
The most prominent possible fakes concern Ibrahim’s works.
Quah says: “Ibrahim did a series of sports prints and now the paintings (which the prints are supposedly based on) have emerged. Luckily, the artist’s wife is around and collectors can verify with her whether the pieces are genuine.”
Ibrahim’s Sports series of eight prints was done the year he turned 50, and launched during his Retrospective exhibition in 1986 at the National Art Gallery.
Koh, who went to London to study art in 1959, the same year as Ibrahim, adds: “To fake an Ibrahim Hussein, you need to be a good, mature artist who can understand his art. You also need to be a flexible artist who can adapt yourself to fit his style.”
There is legal recourse for those who think they might have bought a fake work. Lodge a police report, he suggests. The courts have powers to confiscate such works and experts who know an artist’s work well can also be called in to testify.
Fakes are rare
However, while such cases may grab attention, the overall picture is that art forgery is still uncommon in Malaysia.
“Yes, we have the cheap labour, but our industry is not big enough – not at the level of millions of ringgit – for people to want to copy paintings,” says artist Jailani Abu Hassan, better known as Jai.
With contract artists who copy works so common in Thailand and Indonesia, what would stop them from copying Malaysian art works?
“In artistic terms, we are the youngest in South-East Asia. Indonesia’s art market is so much more developed. They have so many good artists at home, I don’t think they would bother to come to Malaysia,” explains Jai.
“Not yet anyway … But as our prices rise, who knows?”
Pakhruddin says fakes are not common in Malaysia right now because we have a primary art market – art works go direct from the artist (or galleries representing them) to the collectors. Thus, it’s easy to verify whether the pieces are authentic.
“Our secondary art market, where collectors sell off what they have, is not well developed. We had our first Henry Butcher art auction recently. This is unlike Indonesia’s buoyant secondary market, which has home-grown art auction houses. But once our secondary market develops, that may attract the forgers.”
Artist Ivan Lam notes that the Western art markets handle works from hundreds of years ago, which cost millions, “so the chances of fakes are higher. Our artists go back only about 50 years.”
Forgeries usually involve weak or minor works by artists which are not well documented, Pakhruddin says.
“Artist are human, and they have their off days. Sometimes, one of their poorer works suddenly appears in the market and it’s far below the market price. Dzulkifli Buyong’s works normally sell for about RM90,000; when someone offers it at RM20,000, that arouses suspicion.”
Lim adds: “If it’s too good to be true, then it’s probably a fake.”
However, there are lots of gullible people, Lam comments.
“We have read about things like the fake US black money scam, but people still fall for it. Art fakes are just another scheme to exploit our weakness.”
At the end of the day, it’s up to the buyer. If you are suspicious, just don’t buy, Pakhruddin advises.
And what of those who have been cheated?
Koh says: “They will never admit to making such an expensive mistake. It’s a matter of ego. So they will just say, ‘Oh never mind, I like it’.”