Lowry’s paintings are worth a fortune – but can you tell the real ones from the fakes?

Journalist Fiona Bruce teams up with art expert Philip Mould in BBC1's Fake or Fortune? to investigate the copyists profiting from one of the most popular 20th century artists...

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Laurence Stephen Lowry. Rent collector, consort of a teenage girl and this country’s most famous and arguably most popular 20th-century artist. Also the most faked. Lowry’s simple style – haters describe him as a “Sunday painter” – has led to the art market being flooded with Lowry copies. “There’s an invasive thicket of these copyists and fakers,” says art dealer and Fake or Fortune? co-presenter Philip Mould scathingly.

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“All you need to do is flick onto eBay and you will see that there are hundreds of pictures not actually being sold as Lowrys, but bearing Lowry’s ‘signature’ and leaving you with the impression that’s what they might be. We call them ‘trappers’ rather than fakes, because they trap you into buying.” EBay is aware of the trade. It posts its own explicit warning on the site. Of course it isn’t just the austerity of the Manchester-born artist’s work that makes him what Mould describes as a “sitting duck” for fakers.

Can you tell which is real and which is fake in the picture above?

He remains immensely collectable. His painting Piccadilly Circus made £5.6 million at auction in 2011. Easy to see why disreputable dabblers might want a slice of that action. Mould admits to not being Lowry’s biggest fan, but says his respect for the artist grew while making Sunday’s series opener. “I felt that he lacked emotional range as an artist. But the more I got to know him, the more I realised that Lowry is an extraordinarily subtle painter and subtlety is not something you would necessarily associate with him.

“When you look at the pigments microscopically you see that he has really worked at the figures and fought over them. You see scratches and bumps – he uses his fingers and nails and the end of his brush. It is almost verging on sculpture. What looks like a peg man – I don’t like the term ‘matchstick man’ – is actually a work that is unexpectedly complex.

“The other astonishing discovery to me is that he uses things like biro. He uses things close to hand and actually engages in a rather more emotional and active way than perhaps you would give him credit for. There is also a beautiful poise to his figures. He was interested in ballet, he cracked anatomy, so there is a feeling of melody and fluency that appears to be rather simplistic, but there is something nonetheless poetic and persuasive about the way he does his forms, which sets him apart.”

The interest in ballet that Mould describes saw Lowry befriend a 13-year-old schoolgirl, also named Lowry but no relation. Even though he was then 70 she became his companion, accompanying him to the ballet, even joining him on holiday in, of all places, Sunderland. After his death in 1976 aged 88, the by then married Carol Lowry was the main benefactor in his will. Did the absence of love in Lowry’s life – he never married and is said never to have slept with a woman – influence his work? Mould believes probably so. “I think he was emotionally compromised in some way, yes. But within the parameters of his own emotional capabilities – it’s very clear he was autistic or had severe Asperger’s syndrome – he was an intense and interesting figure.

“There is certainly an identifiable feeling of dislocation and solitude to a lot of his figures. There is a feeling, I think, probably of loneliness about his work, of certain challenges and questions about his ability to relate to the world around him that is symbolised in the isolated nature of his figures.” But they weren’t all matchstick men, were they? “There was some more closeted work that wasn’t conspicuous during his lifetime,” says Mould. “There was a slightly fetishistic preoccupation with a certain type of robotic female, which may go some way to articulating his sexual preferences. I would say they were a bit weird, to tell you the truth.”

An important artist nonetheless? “Yes, undoubtedly. For a start, he became the artistic voice of the north. The north/south divide was strongly defined by him. He embodied the soul of a slightly dislocated north.” Mould says that because Lowry was so prolific – he’d even draw to request on napkins and cigarette packets – there are probably  “hundreds” of original works of art hanging on walls or lying in lofts waiting to be validated. So given this matchstick mountain, how is it possible to establish the authenticity or otherwise of a Lowry? James Rawlin, former head of modern British art at Sotheby’s, was on the panel of experts asked to consider the three paintings investigated by the programme.

“You have two things. The picture needs to be as you expect it to be – it has to exhibit the stylistic and technical qualities that your experience tells you it should. And that needs to run hand in hand with a properly established and properly researched and unimpeachable provenance – receipts, label on the back and traceable family history, that kind of thing.” And while to the inexpert eye the presence of so many fakes must confuse the picture to the likes of Rawlin, quality usually shines through. “Ninety per cent of the fakes you see are fakes the moment they walk through the door – you can see them a mile off.

The way they are painted, the way the subjects are dealt with, they’re blatantly not what they’re supposed to be. “There is a tendency to see Lowry’s works as quite simple, and they’re not. He trained for many years and was a very careful workman. Compositionally and technically they are actually very complex. In order to copy that you need an enormous amount of knowledge, skill and understanding of Lowry. It took him a lifetime to get it right, so it would be similar for a copyist. “It depends, I guess, on who you are trying to fool.” 

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Fake or Fortune? is on on Sunday 3rd July at 8pm on BBC1 (not Northern Ireland)