Fairs Fakes and copies Analysis Germany

Authentication by numbers

Gerhard Richter systematically numbers his works, making forgeries easy to detect. So why don’t all artists follow his example?

Tisch, 1962, the first of Richter’s numbered works. Photo: © 2010 Gerhard Richter

When a Belgian auction house was offered a painting by Gerhard Richter last year, it contacted the German artist’s archive in Dresden to check the work’s authenticity. It was neither connoisseurship nor forensic tests that led to the conclusion that the work was a fake—it was a number on the back. Richter has numbered all of his paintings and sculptures sequentially, so when his archive attempted to link the work to its corresponding number, it found that the dimensions did not match and it was therefore concluded to be a forgery.

As prices for contemporary art have skyrocketed over the past two decades, the stakes in authentication disputes have become higher. Prominent foundations for artists such as Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Jean-Michel Basquiat have disbanded their authentication boards due to costly legal battles. Richter, on the other hand, hopes to avoid these problems by cataloguing all of his works.

“Everything is there for all to see. Richter himself could not fake a Richter,” says the curator, writer and dealer Kenny Schachter who organised “Polke/Richter Richter/Polke”, at Christie’s Mayfair, London (until 7 July).

Richter started to number his paintings and sculptures in 1962 after he moved to what was then West Germany. He assigned the number 1 to his painting Tisch (table), drawing a clear line under the pictures he had made in the GDR. (An exception is his “Elbe” series from 1957, which entered his list of authorised works in 2002.) The Gerhard Richter Archive was established in Dresden in 2006 and has been working on a six-volume catalogue raisonné of Richter’s numbered works published by Hatje Cantz. The artist himself wrote a preliminary catalogue raisonné in 1986, followed by another in 1993.

Not included by Richter in his series of numbered works are his drawings, watercolours and editions. Catalogue raisonnés of these have been published independently in recent years, and information on his “overpainted photographs” is currently being compiled for publication in 2015. The research for this is being done by the team behind the artist’s official website, www.gerhard-richter.com, which includes an online database of all publicly accessible information on the artist’s work.

Hans Ulrich Obrist, who has organised the Richter exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler, Basel (until 7 September), says that the artist’s meticulous system stems from him being “an amazing editor” of his own work. “He won’t allow a work into the catalogue raisonné until he’s really sure about it. He says that once they leave his studio they are like grown-up children, they have their own lives.” There are, however, authentic works in circulation that Richter has refused to number. These are authorised by the Dresden archive with certificates, but the lack of a number indicates that Richter was not satisfied with their quality.

Richter’s work has had both critical acclaim—around 40% of his works are in museum collections—and commercial success. Dietmar Elger, the director of the archive, says he would not do the job for any other artist. “It’s a lot of work and nothing would be more frustrating than if nobody took any interest.” And his efforts seem to be paying off. Schachter says: “Richter’s market surely benefits from such unequivocal certainty with regard to his output, I’d say to the tune of a 20% kicker.” The US-based art adviser Lisa Schiff says that Richter “probably has the highest buyer confidence of any contemporary artist”.

Richter is not the only artist to keep good track of his works. The Swiss-German artist Paul Klee was also known to have obsessively numbered his works—his system was at the heart of his recent exhibition at Tate Modern, London. But galleries play an equally important part in keeping inventories of their artists’ works. The dealer Gerd Harry Lybke of Galerie Eigen+Art started an archive for his artists, including Neo Rauch, as soon as he opened his gallery in Leipzig in 1983. Why? “Because I’m German,” he says. Apart from the old stereotype of German thoroughness, Lybke says that the unstable political situation in the GDR in the 1980s meant that, should he have fled to the West, the information on his artists’ works would not be lost.

Not every German is that thorough, however. Richter’s contemporary Sigmar Polke had a more “nonchalant attitude” to his work, according to Schachter. “He was the polar opposite of his former companion: there is no catalogue raisonné to date [Polke died in 2010] and fakes have been known to crop up on the market perhaps as a result of such lax attitude emanating from the studio.” The market of the late artist Jörg Immendorff is also riddled with fakes, which were surfacing at auction even when the artist was still alive. Immendorff’s former dealer Michael Werner told The Art Newspaper that “everything was out of control” in the artist’s studio in the last five years of his life.

Establishing a work’s provenance is still the key problem in authentication issues—buyers and sellers of art have the right to remain anonymous—but building a meticulous archive “is the very least that artists should be doing”, Schiff says. “All artists could learn a lesson from Richter.”

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