The Artful Collector: Should You Worry About Forgery in SF Art?

How important is Fraud in the SF/F art market?

I could write lengthy blogs on how forgers break down and then reconstitute the same clay to fashion Mid- and South American artifacts, using original (thousand-year-old) molds.  But there are Archaelogy magazines for that.  I could tell you how numismatists weigh coins to identify the fakes, or how fine art and sculptor forgers have fooled some of the best curators in some of the best museums in the world.  And there are some famous examples, for that. I could then reassure you, by telling you how rare this sort of thing has been in our collecting world.   But I don’t want you to rest easy: just because such deceptions haven’t been commonplace for us, doesn’t mean they don’t exist, or won’t become a problem as this collecting field matures and advances.

In some markets, forgeries and deception are commonplace.  Which markets?  The most expensive ones, or ones in which it’s easy to fool the viewer.   Typically, forgers don’t become interested unless the object has enough market value to merit them taking the time and effort to produce a counterfeit – and the less time and effort, the better.   It also clearly helps if experts can be fooled – and in some fields of collecting, this is easier than in others.  Historically, and for those reasons, some fields have been harder hit than others, among them: Pre-Columbian antiquities; Ancient coins;  Greek statues; medieval and Renaissance and contemporary fine art; sports memorabilia.

But in the field of SF/F art, just the opposite has been true!  There has neither been high values, to attract forgers, nor has it been easy to deceive collectors.  It’s only within the last couple of decades that values have risen high enough to attract the attention of those seriously engaged in deception. Before that, and even still today, it’s largely been the obsessiveness of fans and collectors that has provided the collegiality, knowledge, and long-time familiarity with the art needed to keep “counterfeiters” at bay.  To the point where any one who comes up with a valuable pulp painting “out of nowhere” would be suspect, unless they can provide adequate provenance.  Knowledge of the art and artists within this field is narrow and deep – and news travels fast when something shows up for sale that is “off” or “doesn’t look right”.   But this doesn’t mean fakes don’t exist.

Spotting an art forgery

Does it really matter if the artwork was actually done by the person to whom it is attributed?  Why?  I could spent a few thousand words answering that question, but for now, let’s pretend the answer is “Yes.”   If so, then it’s clear that the only way to assure authenticity would be to “buy art only from the artist.”  In other words, the same principle behind having books signed by authors in person, and baseballs signed by players in person.  However, what’s also clear is that this is not always possible – and in the case of art, even if the artist is selling it to you directly, it stIll might be a forgery!!!  How?


Because artists have been known to “forge” their own works!  Every time you see the word RE-CREATION in a description of a work of art, it means “this is not the original”.  It’s a fake, even though it’s a very special kind of fake, and the fact that it’s the artist (or even a member of the family) who painted who painted that fake, doesn’t make the “recreation” into anything else but a facsimile (i.e., forgery).

George Rozen "after" Jerome Rozen signature
George Rozen “after” Jerome Rozen signature
George Rozen
George Rozen “The Shadow” 1980’s recreation of Jerome Rozen’s 1938 pulp cover art for “The Shadow: Cards of Death” Heritage Auction sale March 1-2, 2012
"The Shadow: Cards of Death" cover by Jerome Rozen
“The Shadow: Cards of Death” cover by Jerome Rozen, issue May 1, 1938

There are many reasons for artists to copy over their own works.  And collectors may even enjoy owning them. But in the end, it’s still not the original work.

Sometimes there are ‘clues’ to the fact that it’s a recreation, and these should be heeded: words like “after” are dead give-away.  But another is the date following the signature.  Whenever this is provided, it behooves the buyer to check that out, to decipher the true meaning.  Sometimes it means the obvious: the date of (first) creation.  But in some instances it can also be there to signal that the date has meaning beyond that: the date of “second” creation.  As in this 1999 re-creation by Kelly Freas (1922-2005), from the original February 1956 digest.

Kelly Freas 1999 recreation of his own cover art for Astounding Science Fiction
Kelly Freas 1999 recreation of his own cover art for Astounding Science Fiction

Re-creations do not sell for the same price as originals, and those who buy them must understand how the market reacts to such artwork.   Original “Shadow” pulp art by Jerome Rozen sells for approx. $20,000-$30,000.  “Re-creations” by his brother George can sell for one-tenth of that, as did “Cards of Death” ($2062).  Same for Freas: his re-creation sold for about $1920. – while in comparison, even his own, and generally lesser valued pen/ink interiors from the same digest sold for $1100-$1400.

Rip-offs and Copies

There are copies, created in homage to respected/admired artists, and then there are copies meant to deceive.  With the passage of time, regrettably, these two motives can end up be indistinguishable from the market’s point-of-view.  Those intended to deceive can sometimes be spotted by the way the seller skirts illegality by not clearly stating it is the work of “X”.  Words like “attributed to,” “credited to,” “in the style of/school of/manner of” etc are one way to go.  Another way, and the one chosen by the seller of a painting (ostensibly) by Michael Whelan on eBay a few years ago, was to leave out the name of the artist altogether, as well as any real provenance.  In the listing were words like the following “I picked up this incredible find at a garage sale last year.  If you know science fiction art I’m sure you’ll recognize the monogram signature of this famous artist.  It’s an original painting in oil….”  And sure enough…there was Whelan’s distinctive “MW”.  So what was wrong?  Well, apart from the fact that the seller did not state clearly “this is a work by ___” – the painting was described as being in oil.  I called Audrey (Michael’s wife) immediately:  he didn’t do any illos in oils, right?  only acrylic?”  And she got the seller to take it down.  Note: it already had climbed to $4500. (!)

But then there are honest ‘homages’ – artistic, creative tributes to a another respected or admired artists in the form of works that allude to their work.   Gervasio Gallardo did that in his fine oil painting on stretched canvas, from the mid 1980s, whose theme was clearly inspired by the famous c. 1700 painting by Dutch painter Paul de Vos, “Stag Attacked by a Pack of Hounds.”

"Homage de Paul de Vos" by Gervasio Gallardo, oil painting 1980s
“Homage de Paul de Vos” by Gervasio Gallardo, oil painting 1980s sold by Worlds of Wonder c. 2004-2005


Paul de Vos "Dogs Bringing Down a Stag" c. 1700 painting sold Christies auction
Paul de Vos “Dogs Bringing Down a Stag” c. 1700 painting sold Christies auction sale 2011 $68,500.







A discussion of outright rip-offs and copies would take an entire post by itself.  Suffice it to say that among the most copied of all artists are the ones that are the most famous/iconic and worth the most money – and the name that immediately springs to mind is Frank Frazetta.  Search the internet and you’ll find both amateurs and professional illustrators who – and for a variety of reasons – have felt compelled to imitate Frazetta.

Private Commissions

In my experience, the market for “reproductions” that have the potential for ending up being confused for the real thing are not being driven by greed or fraudulent intentions, but rather by collectors who simply must have a painting they cannot own.  Unlike artists who may recreate past work that has been destroyed or no longer exists (see above) collectors may commission an artist to reproduce their own work, ie., make a copy of what they’ve already painted, as a private commission, or hire them to paint another’s work because someone else already owns it (so they can’t).  This is a time-honored profession for students and professional artists who spend years in Museums like the Prado, in Spain, copying Da Vinci, Titian and other grand masters’ paintings.   But it is not a practice I condone, or encourage and I try to talk artists and collectors out of doing this, when and if I can.

There already exist so many other works of art that you can own: why willingly own a copy/forgery?

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