MADE YOU LOOK: Why Our Fear of Being Copied Works Against Us On Every Level

If I'm famous 100 years from now, maybe my handprint will be my own forensic evidence of authenticity!
If I’m famous 100 years from now, maybe my handprint will be my own forensic evidence of authenticity!

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”  For ten years, Luann also wrote a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explored the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber & art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines, and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer.

If this fear is keeping you from sharing your work on social media, it’s doing far more harm than the copying itself.

 (6 minute read)

For the last few weeks, I’ve hinted that it could be worth your while to watch Netflix’s documentary, “Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art”. Short story: An artist from a culture that views “copying” differently than we do, creates fakes that sell for millions. (They may not even have realized how their work was being used to create a scam.)

What captured my attention was this description: “Made you Look is an American crime documentary about the largest art fraud in American history set in the super rich, super obsessed, and super fast art world of New York (City).” Obsessed. Rich. Fast. Put a pin there.

I’m amazed at the timing! This came out right after an artist I’m mentoring asked me about using watermarks for their new website. (They were worried their work might be copied.)

It’s estimated that 50% of the major art in on the market today, sold to private collections and museums around the world, are fakes.

What does this have to do with the fear of our own work being copied?

First, is your work worth millions? No? Then nobody is going to get super-rich copying your work. Here’s a good story about that, one I originally heard while on a tour of the FBI building in Washington, D.C. as a kid. The guy made beautiful nickels. That cost him about 3.5 cents to make. Guess how much money he made off them? Yep, not much. (Though today, those same forged coins are worth a lot, because of the story.)

Second, do people buy your work mostly for its investment value? No? Then nobody is going to get rich selling copies of your work to super-wealthy people, who do.

This documentary had a lot of interesting takes, especially how easily people can be fooled when we unconsciously want to be fooled. A woman with no knowledge of fine art shows up to a fine art gallery, in a car with a trunkful of Rothko paintings? And as they are sold, she “finds” even more? Come on!

In earlier articles I’ve read about art forgeries, many art experts can feel at some deep level that the artwork didn’t exactly ‘resonate’. But this time, plenty of experts chimed in that these truly were authentic. (That’s how good the copies were.) It wasn’t until a company was contacted that did deep forensic work that revealed them as fake. (The company above that charged $19,000 for such an assessment.) So these works ‘felt’ authentic. Now that’s a great copy!

Another irony: Not a single living artist benefitted from these forgeries. Only the forgers, galleries, auction houses, and appraisers made money. 

But here’s what really struck me as I watched this documentary:

Collectors love, love, loved their Rothkos, Warhols, and Pollocks. They were delirious with joy at getting a chance to own one, because, they claim, they absolutely loved the artist’s work.

Until they found out they were fake.

 Then all that love disappeared in the wink of an eye. 

This speaks volumes to me.

In other words, these collectors loved the idea of owning an original Rothko, Pollack, etc. And they appreciated the value of their purchase. They weren’t “blowing money on” décor. They were investing in a purchase that would only increase in value over time.

Do they really love art? Maybe.

Or do they love being able to show off just how much money they have? (In defense of these collectors, there are indeed very sweet reasons why we value originals over copies.)

I’m an art collector, too! Albeit on a very different level.

  • I’ve purchased original artwork from artists I love, and whose work I love.
  • I’ve purchased prints from artists who don’t have the original any longer (sold!).
  • I’ve purchased prints from artists whose work I can’t afford.
  • I’ve purchased original artwork I fell in love with, at antique stores and thrift shops. Sometimes I can trace down the artist, but usually I can’t. (Illegible signature, no online history, etc.)
  • I purchased a wood santos figures at antique stores. After finding duplicates, I realized they were mass-produced copies. I still loved them, but when we moved, I sold off the ones I didn’t love that much. (Ha! My own bias for ‘originals’ shows! And my unconscious desire to believe these were originals.)
  • I’ve purchased really weird objects that people have made, at flea markets, yard sales, and thrift shops.
  • I’ve purchased reproduced artwork at T.J. Maxx and Home Goods. (In fairness, the reproduction rights were sold by the original artist, so they did gain from the sales.)

And I love them all.

The artwork I have moved on? Usually it involves an artist whose work I loved, but did not love the artist. I mean, they treated me rudely, or with disdain, or in other toxic ways. I eventually sold it, or gave it away, because every time I looked at it, it reminded me of that artist. Ugh!

Why do your collectors buy your work?

And what is the reason you hope they buy your work?

Here is what I hope:

I hope they find it beautiful.

I hope they find it lifts their hearts when they see it/wear it.

I hope they remember the wonderful conversations we had, before, during, and after their purchase.

I hope they feel encouraged to share their own creative work with the world.

We all want to be seen. We all want to believe we have a place in the world. We all have a creative place in our souls. We all want to be remembered when we’re gone.

People who copy actually want the same thing, though they are certainly going about it the wrong way. Most can’t adequately copy the skills we’ve acquired along the way.

And the other things they can’t copy well?

Our story. Who we are. Our face-to-face encounters with our audience in real life, through our galleries, and through our social media presence online. Those who have followed us for years, and leap to buy when they see “their” piece, the work we made that speaks to them.

Two lessons learned here:

  • Our art does not speak for itself. We speak for it.
  • Not sharing our art (out of fear of being copied) only harms us.
  • Okay, three lessons: Most of us are probably not in the same league as Rothko, Pollock, Van Gogh, and other “big market” art. (I’ll add “yet” there, just in case.) And we are also still alive. So we can share our work on social media with more confidence.

In closing, I found this spot-on quote in a Scram-lets puzzle, of all places:

“If it’s important to you, you will find a way.

If not, you’ll find an excuse.”

Don’t let fear get in your way!

Our work may be copied, one way or another. Trademarks and copyrights won’t stop them. Once we discover the copycats, there are ways to discourage them that don’t involve a lawsuit over a copyright violation, as some commenters shared. Most will stop on their own, when they realize they aren’t going to make a lot of money doing it, or when they move on to copy someone else’s work.

But the fear itself can be soul-crushing. Fear is a way for our lizard brain to keep us safe. But fear does not serve us, here.

Of course, in these times, social media is hands-down the best way to share our art.

But even when we get back to a somewhat-old normal, remember this:

Do you want to have your voice in the world? Share your work.

Your comments are always welcome, often insightful, and sometimes inspirational, too! Shares, the same. You can find more of my articles at Fine Art Views, and/or visit/subscribe to them through my blog.

Author: Luann Udell

I find it just as important to write about my art as to make it. I am fascinated by stories. You can tell when people are speaking their truth--their eyes light up, their voices become strong, their entire body posture becomes powerful and upright. I love it when people get to this place in their work, their relationships, their art. As I work from this powerful place in MY heart, I share this process with others--so they have a strong place to stand, too. Because the world needs our beautiful art. All of it we can make, as fast as we can! Whether it's a bowl, a painting, a song, a garden, a story, if it makes our world a better place, we need to do everything in our power to get it out there.

8 thoughts on “MADE YOU LOOK: Why Our Fear of Being Copied Works Against Us On Every Level”

  1. Your latest post is just chock full of truths I need to reflect on! Thank you so much for all the soul you put into your art writing. Being copied is not something I have worried about, just the worry that people will get sick of my artistic interests! Some kind of overexposure. How encouraging your writing is and lucky I feel to have found it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Carol, I am honored by your words. I write to get myself from a sad/scared/angry place, to my better self. Then I share it, in case someone else is struggling with the same battle. If it helps them, that becomes another facet of my creativity: Healing, encouragement, validation. SO GLAD you found this today, and so glad you let me know!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Enjoyable article. I am not an “art” collector. However, when I buy anything, it’s due to my personal attraction. Thanks.

    Like

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