Shades of grey among the eBay ‘Lowrys’

Richard Howells’ online hunt for ‘masterpieces’ may be a playful act of irony, but it also questions the nature of artistic authenticity

October 3, 2013

Tate Britain’s blockbuster exhibition L. S. Lowry and the Painting of Modern Life comes to an end this month. This has encouraged me to reflect on my prized collection of fake Lowry drawings, all acquired via the internet, and the surprisingly complicated issues of authenticity and art history they give rise to.

If we believe what we see on eBay, the attics of the UK are groaning under the weight of much-loved but sadly unauthenticated works by the celebrated artist L. S. Lowry, reluctantly offered for sale. The individual back stories vary, but common themes include elderly relatives and modest private collections from the Manchester area (claimed connections with Salford are particularly popular).

Maybe buyers and sellers alike received much of their relevant art historical education from the 1978 earworm Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs by one-hit wonder pop duo Brian and Michael. According to the song, Lowry “Painted Salford’s smokey tops/On cardboard boxes from the shops”, and cardboard certainly features among the surfaces used for these mystery works of art, together with scraps from exercise books, cigarette packets and even fine art paper.

Drawings are a particular favourite. This is not unreasonable, of course, as Lowry was an accomplished and prodigious draughtsman, in addition to being a popular painter. His drawings feature in national collections and respectable publications such as Mervyn Levy’s The Drawings of L. S. Lowry (1976).

For several years, I have been collecting drawings by “Lowry” via the internet. But my collecting is underpinned by two crucial provisos: a benchmark presumption that every drawing I have bought is fake and a determination to pay no more than £20 for each one.

Why? Partly it is a result of a well-developed sense of irony. And, of course, a real Lowry drawing, no matter how sketchy (such as the one coming up for auction at Christie’s on 16 October), is likely to start at £15,000. My latest internet “Lowry”, by comparison, cost me all of £13.48 (plus £4.99 postage and packing).

So what have I been getting for my maximum outlay of £20? My collection so far comprises 25 drawings, all of which bear Lowry’s signature or the initials “L. S. L.”. Many of them are also titled and dated. They are made in pencil on a variety of surfaces – mostly paper, but some card, some scraps and the inside of one art history book dust jacket. Sometimes the paper is torn, ageing or even suspiciously “aged”. For the most part, the draughtsmanship is very good and in some cases would stand up well in its own right, regardless of the signature. Stylistically, they look as though they all could, at least, be by Lowry – certainly at first glance. They are by no means all typical “matchstalk men” industrial scenes, and include some in Lowry’s lesser-known styles, more familiar to those who have bought the books or seen the exhibitions.

So are they all shameless fakes and forgeries? As an academic, my first investigative recourse was naturally to the definition of terms, in this case the Forgery and Counterfeiting Act 1981. This informs us that someone is guilty of forgery “if he makes a false instrument, with the intention that he or another shall induce somebody to accept it as genuine”. Interestingly, therefore, the law is not just concerned with the authenticity of the object itself, but also with the far knottier concepts of “intent” and “inducement”.

Consequently, in addition to the drawings themselves, the seller’s description of them is likely to be crucial. Mindful of this, perhaps, the typical internet seller I have dealt with laments that, sadly, the item comes with no history, documentation or certificate of authenticity, and so under eBay rules must be sold as “in the style, manner or after Lowry”. Appropriately for this artist, there are many shades of grey.

What exactly are eBay’s guidelines on this? I asked the company what I should do if I myself wanted to sell a work of art that looked like and carried the signature of a well-known artist but was not authenticated. It advised me not to do it. The signature of any famous artist is considered a trademark and eBay doesn’t allow the sale of inauthentic items on the site. When I observed that a lot of other people did not seem to be following its advice, eBay responded that it understood my concern. However, because of the sheer volume of listings, I might still find some items on the site that are in breach of its policies. Indeed.

L. S. Lowry, Rainy Day, 1955

So I proceeded next to the opposite end of the fine art auction market. The specialist I spoke to at Christie’s sounded very helpful and promised to forward my enquiry to its own Lowry expert. I wanted to know more about the prevalence of Lowry fakes on the internet and the telltale signs of forgery. Perhaps we’d even have a good laugh together at my own rogues’ gallery of dubious art.

Unfortunately, instead of the expert, I soon received a message from a junior (oh, the ignominy of it) press officer saying: “Unfortunately I do not think we will be able to assist with your request at this time.”

That, to me, had the distinct sound of a very polite oyster snapping firmly shut.

The Lowry Collection in Salford was much the same, as was Tate Britain, home of the current blockbuster in London. Nobody wanted to talk to me about this. Was this more than just a coincidence of silence?

I explained to the various organisations that beneath my veneer of levity, I was asking some very serious questions about the market for unauthenticated art – but to no avail.

So finally I resorted to the most quixotic enquiry of the whole investigation: asking my most regular internet “dealer” about the genuine story behind her copious supply of drawings from a “personal collection”. Remarkably, she responded, but only to say: “it is not something i would be interested in participating in kind regards” (sic), insisting that I must not use her name.

But that did inspire me to take a closer look at some of her finer offerings. They were all done carefully enough, but two turned out to be almost exact copies from The Drawings of L. S. Lowry (although the date of one was out by 33 years). And my most recent acquisition (the one that cost me £13.48) turns out to be a copy of a work that was on show at the Unseen Lowry exhibition in Salford until the end of last month. The version I purchased, however, is in better condition and unlike the exhibited and authenticated work, is titled, dated and signed “L. S. Lowry”. Oh my.

This all leaves me with some interesting unanswered questions. How many similarly dodgy “Lowrys” are there in circulation? What is the effect of this on the “legitimate” market? If Lowry is so easily forgeable (he is certainly formulaic), can he be a truly great artist? And does it matter whether the pieces are really by Lowry if they are good drawings anyway (and some of them actually are)?

Of course, in the art market (as opposed to the rarefied world of aesthetics), attribution is all – which is why the Christie’s drawing is likely to go for a thousand times more than the amount I paid for any of mine.

For my part, each internet Lowry – of all shades of credibility – remains 20 quid well spent. The only drawback is the cost of the framing, which will be considerably more than the cost of the art. Unless, of course, just possibly…

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