COMMENT: Damaging claims like this should be beyond question in their robustness, or they are just irresponsible, says Ivan Macquisten
Are 40% of all antiques on the UK market fakes or forgeries? Of course not. Not if one is talking about items sold by reputable dealers and auctioneers rather than, say, some of the dodgier, anonymous types online or at car boot sales.
Yet the 40% claim has been doing the rounds in the media in recent weeks, thanks to a publicity campaign surrounding UKTV Yesterday Channel's new series of Treasure Detectives.
Check online now and around a dozen reports refer to this "huge problem" of fakes, as set out in The UK Fakes and Forgeries Report and confirmed by Curtis Dowling, the presenter of Treasure Detectives, in various media interviews.
This is news to ATG, which has been reporting and analysing the market for more than 40 years.
Such a potentially damaging claim for the art and antiques industry concerning fakes and forgeries cannot go unchallenged.
In our experience, the market is at best extremely difficult to measure by its very nature. Firstly, you have to define what an antique is. Secondly, you need to understand the difference between fakes, forgeries and the many items that have been modified without malicious intent. Thirdly, you need to have some idea of just how big the market is.
The nearest anyone really gets to this sort of scientific analysis of the market are the surveys conducted by Dr Clare McAndrew for The European Fine Art Foundation, and even they cannot be certain of their margin of error.
So what about The UK Fakes and Forgeries Report?
It sounds like an official government publication. Put together by HMRC or the Treasury perhaps?
From the article posted by the Mail Online on September 2, the day before the Treasure Detectives series started, it seems that the report is actually the product of a poll of 2000 people for TV channel Yesterday. The Mail explains that the poll "found that one in four people spend £141 on antiques each year, but that hardly any get them authenticated, meaning they stand a good chance of being fakes".
It continues: "The UK Fakes and Forgeries Report found that 68% of people who buy antiques are 'worried' that they may be fake."
If the Mail report is accurate, it would appear that the '40% of antiques are fake' figure has been extrapolated from the finding that 43% of people who buy antiques don't get them authenticated and that 68% of people who buy antiques are 'worried' that they may be fake.
Not really proof that 40% of antiques are fake then.
The other authority for this bold claim of '40% of antiques are fake' appears to be the decision that half of the 16 items they had on the Treasure Detectives series were fake: "which is a good indication of what's going on in the market", the Mail reports Mr Dowling as saying.
Is it? What proof is there of this?
Turn now to the August 28 interview with Mr Dowling in Metro, which starts by quoting him as saying: "I'm not an expert in fakes and forgeries - nobody is."
Next there is a bit of statistical 'slippage': "I'd say about 30 to 40% of the items floating around on the international art market are fakes. It's a really big problem," the Metro interview states.
So now we may be down to 30%, and we appear to be dealing with the 'international' market, not just the UK.
Nathan Rao in The Express puts those "worried" that what they have bought may be forgeries as high as 'almost 70%' in reporting the findings.
He adds a number of other statistics linked to how many people "splash out to decorate their homes", how many would donate to a museum, and so on, but nothing on actual proof of the level of fakes.
Nonetheless, The Express headline runs: Almost half of antiques sold in UK are reported to be fakes.
(One ray of light: the Daily Telegraph actually contacted ATG to canvass our views on the claims and, after hearing what we had to say, promptly dropped the story.)
Access to Report
Despite all this, ATG has yet to see a copy of The UK Fakes and Forgeries Report.
Why has the auctioneers', dealers' and collectors' main newspaper not been alerted to this important piece of research concerning the industry when there has been time to draw it to the attention of the Mail, Express and Metro and others?
When the articles appeared we contacted the programme makers UKTV and requested a copy of the report. We also contacted Mr Dowling's agent, who asked us to email details which he said he would forward to Mr Dowling. We did so.
It took a while to receive a reply, which eventually came from the TV company and consisted not of the report but of the press release that had been sent out promoting it. It makes interesting reading.
Firstly, it states that the findings are a combination of a survey of more than 2000 British adults and "expert opinion of Curtis Dowling, a world-renowned fakes and forgeries detective".
The press release is headlined: The nation's love of antiques has led to rise in the number of fakes and forgeries.
Below the headline is a bullet point list of the survey's findings. None actually supports the headline claim.
One states: "Antiques experts warn the boom in the industry has led to a rise in the number of forgeries" while another states: "Over two-thirds of antiques buyers are now concerned about getting conned by forgers." That's as close as it gets.
What the release also reveals is that the survey is actually titled The Yesterday UK Fakes and Forgeries Report, which certainly has less of an official ring to it.
I contacted the TV channel's press office again. "Is there any chance of getting hold of a copy of the report itself? I am interested in the stats side, how the 40% fakes and forgeries figure was arrived at and how scientific the survey is," I asked.
Came the reply: "I'm afraid we don't release the survey data. The survey was completed by 2000 adults, using a reputable survey company. The rest of the report was comment and expertise of Curtis Dowling."
What about methodology? What credibility can a report/survey have if those who commission it refuse to publish it?
Does this also mean that the journalists on the Mail, Express and Metro had not seen the report before splashing its contents?
As explained, I have not seen The UK Fakes and Forgeries Report - not for the want of trying - and if I ever do and find it to be a worthwhile and valid study I will be only too happy to report it as such.
However, so far I have only seen it in the form of a sensational press release to promote the new Treasure Detectives series. In that respect it has worked a treat.
The 40% fakes figure makes a great headline, but there appears to have been no thought given to the unwarranted damage this has the potential to inflict on an industry that, in general, the UK should be proud of. An industry that has provided Mr Dowling and Treasure Detectives with their livelihoods.
Don't get me wrong. There are fakes and forgeries on the market and, in certain areas, they can be quite a problem. But 40%? Such a strong claim needs far more conclusive evidence than UKTV has provided so far to earn the exposure it has had.
Newspaper headlines can be damaging, but I am really writing this piece because of their far longer-lasting legacy on the internet.
Now we have a slew of reports online all pushing the 40% message. Even the swiftest glance at the Mail, Express and Metro articles shows that this claim is completely unsubstantiated, yet because of the presence of those headlines on the internet this idea will stick in the mind and will disseminate across what we used to call the Information Superhighway like a virus - evidenced in the number of online articles linking back to these reports that have already sprung up.
This method of validating unsubstantiated statistics has form. I have seen it used to attack the legitimate trade in antiquities and at Government level in devising legislation to tackle stolen art and antiques.
Count on it, in a year's time when the issue of fakes and forgeries is raised again, that statistic will have morphed into hard, authoritative, indisputable fact for the news media - and possibly even Whitehall - to regurgitate, reinforce and beat our industry over the head with once more.
This article, which will also be posted online, will hopefully go some way towards diluting that effect.