A while back, I got an artwork by Muraina Oyelami. Typical Muraina piece – three women, done in his sombre, multi-layered style. It seemed like an old artwork – slightly damaged at the edges but nothing serious. A bit dusty. The bearer assured me it was a piece that had been in storage in Osogbo for a while. But, there was something wrong with this piece. There was something about Muraina’s mastery of composition that wasn’t there. Maybe Muraina had an off-day on this one, I thought. But it seemed more than that. I held on to the artwork and sent a picture by email to Muraina.
I eventually took the work to him in Iragbiji. He said he’d done a work like that but the work in question definitely wasn’t done by him. It was signed Muraina, it looked like Muraina, but it most definitely wasn’t Muraina. Before then I’d been shown a really nice Ablade Glover. It looked like Glover but my instincts told me it wasn’t Glover and sure enough it wasn’t. And I’ve received a fair collection of Ben Enwonwu fakes – some good enough to make you pause, others just plain laughable. The type to make you ask : ‘Do I really look that stupid?’
There’s always been the imitation, the artist who copies another artist’s style exactly but signs his own name – usually annoying for the artist being imitated but still legal. But as soon as the artist copies another artist’s work and signs that artist’s name, it’s a whole new territory.
For the collector it’s a tricky situation. You’re getting an excellent deal for the work of an artist you’ve always wanted. You’re hoping it’s the real thing. It looks like the real thing. The artist is dead or far away, so it’s difficult to confirm. Records? What records? Nobody keeps records so it’s hard to prove provenance. So what do you do?
I wish I had incisive advice or new technology in fake detection to offer you. Unfortunately , it’s the same old advice – get a second opinion . A second opinion always helps. If you’re paying N100,000, it probably doesn’t matter a lot. But, if you’re paying a million, maybe , you really ought to check. If it’s a fake, all you have is oil and canvas. Nothing else. It’s near worthless. Yes, you can sell it on to someone without knowing it’s a fake (which is okay if you believe that what you don’t know won’t hurt you). The flip side though is that as soon as it’s clear that it’s a fake which may happen, you can’t get any value for it. I’m not sure what the legal position is on this, but I suspect that as soon as the artist who is being copied lays a formal complaint to the police, you’ll have to surrender the work.
It’s as annoying for the artist whose work is copied, as Muraina pointed out to me. People will judge your ability based on an artwork that is similar to your work but probably below your standard. If they see enough of the fakes, they start to think you’ve lost it. Of course, there’s always the lost revenue. Definitely unfair for an artist to spend years building a reputation and then have people illegally benefit from his hard work.
Getting a second opinion helps, but here’s the most important thing: always buy from a reliable source – artists and dealers you know and trust. If they know their integrity is on the line, they’ll be careful about the artworks they give you. ‘Ha!’ you might say, ‘integrity in Nigeria?’ That’s another story I suppose , but I do think there is integrity. You have to look really hard, I must admit, but good old integrity remains like a stubborn weed in a few places.
I think if you look closely at the artist or art dealer you’re dealing with you’ll know if they’ve got integrity or not. It’s one of those qualities people find hard to fake.