The Risky Business of Art Authentication – Part II
The Risky Business of Art Authentication – Part II

My first article on the subject published in December 2021 by The Karachi Collective (TKC) garnered significant interest from art collectors, gallery owners, foundations, and auction houses – some with great appreciation and others with discomfort of being called out and exposed.

This essay, The Risky Business of Art Authentication – Part II, focuses on the importance of examining the artwork closely and critically: particularly at the back of the painting, to look for telling tales of its origin, condition, provenance and journey through time. Putting the onus on the buyer to ensure the authenticity of the work being purchased, I have used examples from paintings that I have acquired over the years to share best practices for the benefit of others to follow, and hopefully leading to the preservation of important facts and details relating to the paintings, which adds to their provenance, authenticity, and value.

An artist’s signature is one of the most important aspects in the authentication of a painting. First and foremost, one should confirm who painted the painting by looking at the style, genre, strokes and signature. Artists only started to sign their works around the 15th century both in the West and the East. In Europe, research indicates that around 1400 A.D. is when artists started scribing their names on the paintings. Artist signatures first became prevalent during the early Renaissance (14th-17th century), which saw art production shift from co-operative guild systems to a celebration of individual creativity. A signature was the perfect way to differentiate your talent from that of lesser peers1. In the Indian Sub-continent, artists started to sign their works around the 15th century as can be seen in the pre and post Mughal period manuscript (miniature) paintings from South Asia. The artists generally inscribed their names inside or outside of the boarder with the statements ‘work of …..’ or ‘student of ….’.

While artists’ signatures were most commonly inscribed on the front, in more recent times the practice has either stopped or shifted to the back, also referred to in Latin as ‘verso’. Most contemporary artists these days prefer to sign their work on the back in order not to take away the viewers’ attention from the painting or believe that their distinct style of the painting in itself is a signature. Abdur Rahman Chughtai (1897-1975) is in particular such a case, as it is common knowledge that he did not sign a lot of his works, and when he did it was in different styles and places, making it very difficult to authenticate.

Experts while authenticating works can check signatures by looking them up in the artist’s catalogue raisonné or books written on them — and sometimes even narrow down the date of a work based on the stylistic form of the signature as it evolves over time. For example, M.F. Husain’s (1915-2011) signature and dating style changed several times over the life of the artist. He generally signed in English, and/or Gurmukhi and/or Urdu, and sometimes in two languages, but rarely or never in all three. This is how one can tell an “incorrect” work from an original very easily. Husain also had a distinct way of dating the work, using Roman numbering for months. When I met him in London during his exile, he autographed and very generously drew Duldul on the cover of an exhibition catalogue. He signed in English and Urdu and dated 30 IX 007 (30 September 2007). Upon seeing the date, I told him ‘Husain sahab at 90 you have become James Bond 007’ which brought a smile to his face.

M.F. Husain (1915-2011), Duldul, pen on paper, 2007

Signatures are also a great way of keeping a record of time, when and where it was painted. As in the case of Chughtai and Sadequain, they often noted the city the painting was executed. Forged or added signatures are common issues encountered in the international market and they tend to fall into one of two camps. Either a painting has been created to imitate an artist’s work, together with a mimicked signature, or someone might add a signature to a picture at a later date, in order to add to its authenticity and increase value. It is fairly easy to detect both, as there is often a concentration in execution, and a slower, more deliberate manner is apparent that you wouldn’t expect from someone signing their own name; faked signatures often lack fluidity. After seeing numerous works signed by an artist, you also develop a familiarity with how they sign and inscribe.

The Front of the Painting Says it All..

I recently saw a painting of M.F. Husain on paper at a home in Toronto which had all three signatures, one in each language, none of which closely matched his original signature style. It was not even a good copy of Husain’s Horses. He had acquired the painting in Karachi and brought it over.

Last year, I was invited by a Florida-based collector to New York to view significant works by M.F. Husain (1915-2011), F.N. Souza (1924-2002) and S.H. Raza (1922-2016) among other lesser-known masters with a tier 3 local auction house. Provenance was said to be from a Toronto family collection that I had never heard of (first red flag). I reconfirmed the family name with a very senior curator of a Museum in Toronto who would surely know the family if they were discerning art collectors (second red flag). I also questioned why such an important work by M.F. Husain would not be consigned with a Tier 1 auction house like Sothebys or Christies (third red flag). M.F. Husain painting of the Horses from the very first look did not seem to be right. The canvas from the back looked new and there were no signatures or labels on it. The same auctioneer also had consigned works of S.H. Raza from his Bindu series. Upon noticing closely, the concentric circles were so perfectly painted that there was no paint flowing over. In reality, at the time of painting this work, Raza would have been at least 85+ years of age and to paint perfect concentric circles would prove difficult. I have had the rare pleasure of meeting Raza sahab at his home in New Delhi in 2015 and seeing his work, which at age 93 was imperfect with smudging concentric lines.

And the Back of the Painting can Reveal More..

Look for signs of canvas naturally aging at the back and gallery labels, auction house shipping and recordkeeping numbers, receipts, price information and other artist notes and signature. The artist might also have provided a title or date — and sometimes more besides it. For example, in case of a painting acquired from Bangladeshi artist Mahmudul Haque (1945-2022) in addition to signing, naming and dating his work on the reverse, the artist included the address of his daughter’s home in Canada where he was staying, a welcome addition that helps in full authentication and building a credible story behind the artwork and its acquisition.

The frame of a painting may also have details on where it was framed, its age and who framed it. Artists are very particular about getting the best framing done for their works, and often do the stretching and framing themselves. That is why it is very important to leave the original framing untouched. I have acquired paintings from artists for which the stretching and framing was done by their own hands.

In the case of Mohammad Kibria (1929-2011), when I met him in Dhaka in 2010 at his house by the lake in Dhanmondi and acquired the painting from him, he confirmed that he had framed it himself and painted the frame as well. So, I left the original frame as is and added a more ornate frame as an extension to the original. His signature at the back along with title and medium details and the year painting was executed in his handwriting are important authentication points, along with a memorable picture of him with me. I remember Kibria as a very gentle human being who has had a major influence on modern and contemporary artists of Bangladesh with his minimalist abstract expressionism that he developed after receiving his training in Japan from 1959-62.

Mohammad Kibria (1929-2011), Untitled, oil on canvas, 2008 (front and verso). Collection of Ali Adil Khan

An Ismail Gulgee (1926-2007) painting titled Allah, when acquired from his home in Karachi in 2006, the oil paint was still fresh and would take a week to dry. So, Gulgee framed it himself using cheap plywood in order to protect it during its transportation as a hand carried item in flight from Karachi to Toronto. A picture was also taken of Gulgee at his studio while the painting was still wet on his easel to serve as a lasting memory and proof of purchase, is also safely kept as a record with the date it was taken at the back of the painting.

In both cases, the paintings were also signed at the back upon my request.

Ismail Gulgee (1926-2007), Allah, oil on canvas, 2006 (front and verso). Collection of Ali Adil Khan

Painting materials used can narrow down a painting’s origins..

The make and kind of canvas, paints and stretchers used in preparing a painting can often provide key clues in determining the age and authenticity of a painting. Master artists generally chose to work with the highest quality premium paints, typically Winsor & Newton, Charvin, Old Holland, Rembrandt, etc. because they create luminous colors that are hard wearing as they last for 100+ years. Some artists like Sadequain (1930-1987) painted on large wooden panels as they were sturdier and provided him the ability to use his blade scratching techniques to give his paintings form and texture. The age of the wood used can also be easily determined along with the microscopic chemical analysis of the paint to match with other paintings that the artist made during the same period.

Stamps and labels from the suppliers of these materials may contain the names and addresses of their businesses. Comparing the date the materials were purchased with the date on which the artist signed the finished work can even give us an idea of how long it took to complete the work. The types of materials used to create a work’s board, cradle or stretcher, along with how it was constructed, can vary from artist to artist, over time and between places.

For example, the painting by Tassaduq Sohail (1930-2017) acquired by me from The Noble Sage Gallery in London in 2023 is signed by the artist in front, but not dated. However, the year 1982 can be ascertained from the stamp of the canvas maker (C. Roberson & Co, Ltd, 71 Parkway, London) and the date (11 JUN 1982) at the back.

Tassaduq Sohail (1930-2017), Untitled, oil on canvas, 1982 (front and verso). Collection of Ali Adil Khan

Labels indicate provenance and exhibition history..

When a gallery or museum displays a work of art, it often attaches a label to its back that indicates the artist’s name, the picture’s title, and usually a date, inventory number and address. Labels that record a painting’s journey can also come from customs and border controls, conservators, or defunct bureaucratic mechanisms such as Germany’s Reich Chamber of Culture (1933-45), which stamped a double-headed eagle on the back of the art it plundered.

In another example, a Mussarat Mirza (b. 1946) painting I acquired from the Canvas Gallery in Karachi in 2011 has a label pasted at the back from the artist stating her name, home address and phone number, along with the year (2005) it was executed in, medium as oil on canvas, dimensions and a suggested price of Rs. 60,000. There is a second label pasted by the gallery with their name and address indicating the same price. The number 6 written on the canvas and copied on the artist’s label indicates that the work must have been from a series shown at her solo exhibition titled Rah-e-Hoo in 2006 at the Canvas Gallery. This exhibition is mentioned in the book titled Harjah Touh – In the realm of light, published in 2022 by Noorjahan Bilgrami of Koel Gallery. The exhibition flyer along with the certificate of authenticity provided by the gallery and the invoice are also saved at the back of the painting.

Mussarat Mirza (b. 1946), Untitled, oil on canvas, 2005 (front and verso). Collection of Ali Adil Khan
Rah-e-Hoo Exhibition Flyer for the Solo Exhibition of Mussarat Mirza (b. 1946) at Canvas Gallery in 2006

However, not all paintings versos have signatures or details. For example, an Anwar Maqsood (b. 1939) Untiled painting (2013), I acquired in 2022 from a mutual friend has nothing at the back but a picture of him with the painting taken in his home library.

Anwar Maqsood (b. 1939) pictured with his painting, untitled, acrylic on canvas, 2013. Collection of Ali Adil Khan

Marks and inscriptions also have a story to tell..

Private collectors throughout history have added their names to the back of works they owned. King Charles I of England (1600-1649), for example, branded his initials ‘CR’ topped with a crown onto the reverse of works in his royal collection. Mughal emperors often noted outside the border, in their own handwriting in Persian and Urdu, the names of the artist and the subjects painted. The albums and paintings produced by the artists in the Mughal Court and Imperial Atelier were inventoried and catalogued, a practice similar to that of keeping track of the vast array of Jewels in the Mughal Treasury.

Inventory numbers reveal a work’s auction history..

Since the early 19th century, Christie’s auction house has marked the back of pictures with an inventory number. Initially these numbers were stenciled in black ink, while other auction houses used chalk. Today, rather than stenciling numbers on the back of pictures, it is more common for a sticker with a barcode to be applied. These numbers or barcodes correspond to records that tell us when and where something was sold, and sometimes who sold it and what price was paid. The Christie’s archives in London have details of most of the sales held during the auction house’s 250-plus years in business.

A Saira Waseem (b. 1975) painting titled Silent Heart (2002) acquired in 2014 from Rohtas 2 Gallery in Lahore has a Sothebys auction house labels and markings that indicate that it was consigned in London for sale on June 15, 2010 and September 15, 2011 auctions. I have also made it a practice to note inscriptions at the back of the paintings, with details stating when the painting was acquired and from whom it was acquired, thus creating a solid retraceable provenance and history. It was further noted that the painting was acquired during my visit to Lahore, Pakistan in 2014 and that it came from the personal collection of Professor Salima Hashmi and that the transaction was executed by Asad Hayee, who at the time was running the Rohtas 2 gallery. I also made sure I noted the publications this painting was referenced in e.g. The Eye Still Seeks, Pakistani Contemporary Art by Salima Hashmi, Penguin Studio, 2015, pp. 280. In effect, the back of this painting is like a passport and tells of where it came from and where it has travelled to.

Saira Waseem (b. 1975), Silent Heart, gouache on wasli, 2002. Collection of Ali Adil Khan

On rare occasions, the back of a painting may reveal another work of art..

Sometimes the back of a painting or drawing can reveal something that rivals the importance of the work of art on the front, such as a handwritten note by the artist — or even a second picture or drawing.

I cannot stress enough the importance of maintaining all the paperwork associated with a painting, be it a label or an exhibition catalogue, a note from the artist or an invoice from the gallery. These documents add to the provenance of the painting and increase their level of authenticity and value significantly. There are paintings by M.F. Husain that have videos associated with them, showing the entire painting process and dialogue during the making of the painting. In one such video which was made in 1998 during Husain sahab’s visit to Toronto, he is seen sketching and then painting the large work titled Tulsi, while constantly talking about Madhuri Dixit and the films she had recently acted in. He was totally obsessed with Madhuri at the time. As we know, later in 2000, M.F. Husain produced an art film titled Gaja Gamini starring Madhuri Dixit and Shahrukh Khan.

To access the previous article by author Ali Adil Khan ‘The Risky Business of Art Authentication’ click on the following link:


  1. Christies – 7 things to know about artist signatures, 23 July 2017 [link]

Ali Adil Khan is an art critic, curator, writer and collector. He has organized and curated numerous exhibitions in Canada and abroad, served as an advisor to the Royal Ontario Museum, the Aga Khan Museum, Ontario Arts Council, Canadian Community Arts Initiative and the Art Gallery of Mississauga in Canada. He is the founder and director of Shehla and Adil Giving for Arts (SAGA) Foundation and the South Asian Gallery of Art (SAGA) and a proud supporter of Karachi Biennale 2022 and 2024. He received his education in Karachi and Austin, and now lives and works in Toronto, Canada. He currently serves as the Vice Chair of the Oakville Galleries Board of Directors and is a member of the Acquisition Committee of the Art Gallery of Mississauga in Canada. Over the last 20 years, he has painstakingly built a noteworthy collection that includes Modern and Contemporary artists from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka.

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Comments (4)

  • What a fascinating article. I loved all the various stories you have weaved together. Nicely done, Adil!

    Nitin Deckha
  • Thank you Adil Sb for writing this brilliant piece.
    For all those art collectors in Pakistan or probably South Asia, these few articles painstakingly written by Adil must be considered mandatory before they embark on their journey because the journey to collect high quality art as enjoyable as it should be is difficult and treacherous. Fake, unauthentic or incorrect pieces, irrespective of how you name them, can eat all the investment; the passion flies off too once you realize that you have been conned. So thank you again for educating and guiding both the experienced and novice collectors.

    Syed Kamran Hashmi
  • Excellent piece of writing Adil…love it!

    Shahid Rassam
  • Thank you for sharing, Adil! Very nicely written and thoughtfully detailed – a helpful resource for art collectors!

    Shannon Anderson

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