Essay: Art Forgery


Art Forgery, the intent to deceive, usually for financial gain, by proffering an art object as representing something other than what it is. Art forgery has many subdivisions, such as the deliberate imitation offered as an original; a genuine old object that has been altered by partial repainting or reworking to give it greater value; early copies not initially intended to deceive but later passed off as originals; the pastiche made up of original parts that do not go together; and workshop artifacts attributed to the master.

Throughout history art forgeries have been made whenever creative works have been considered valuable for a collection. The Romans copied Greek original sculptures, and many of the copies have at some time or other been considered originals. Today these copies are in museums, valued for what they are. Coins have been counterfeited since they were first minted by King Gyges of Lydia (died about 648 BC). Sometimes molds were made of originals and copies produced by castings. At other times original dies were used to strike an unauthorized issue. Various Byzantine emperors debased their coinage with base alloys—a form of deception—and coins were even produced in base metals and gilded to be passed off as solid gold. Jean de France, Duc de Berry, an art patron and coin collector, had modern copies made of old Dutch and French coins to fill in gaps in his collection. The Italian artists Giovanni Cavino and Pirro Ligorio were master coin counterfeiters of the 16th century. Even the great Michelangelo forged an "antique" marble cupid for his patron, Lorenzo de Medici. In the 18th century a forger produced a marble head of Julius Caesar that had been purchased by London's British Museum in 1818 as being authentic.

Perhaps the most prolific production of art forgeries has occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries during periods of avid collecting, when profits for a successful deception have been enormous. The Louvre Museum in Paris bought its gold Tiara of Saïtaphernes for 200,000 gold francs and declared it a genuine work of the 3rd century BC, although it had been made in 1880 by the goldsmith Israel Ruchomovsky of Odesa, Russia. He was commissioned to execute a number of works in the antique manner by unscrupulous dealers, who then sold the objects as antiquities. The Italian artist Giovanni Bastianini, in the third quarter of the 19th century, executed in good faith a number of fine sculptures in the manner of Donatello, Verrocchio, Mino de Fiesole, and other Italian old masters, which were subsequently sold as genuine to—among others—the Louvre and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Perhaps the most famous master forger of all time was Alceo Dossena, who successfully produced sculptures of such high quality that they were accepted as genuine by many art critics, museum directors, and famous collectors. Apparently Dossena, a master artist, did not know he was defrauding a third party, as he merely supplied work in various styles—archaic, Greek, Hellenistic, Roman, Gothic, and Renaissance. When he discovered that a Madonna and Child he had sold for 50,000 lire was in turn sold for 3 million lire, he stepped forward and proclaimed that the works were modern.

Of almost equal notoriety is the story of Hans van Meegeren; he painted a number of fake Vermeers and Pieter de Hoochs that were accepted as genuine by eminent art critics and sold to important collectors and museums for fabulous sums. When he was accused of collaborating with the enemy in having sold, through an intermediary, Vermeer's The Woman Taken in Adultery to Hermann Göring during World War II, he was able to prove the "Vermeer" was by his own hand; van Meegeren was sent to prison for one year.

In recent years skillful forgeries of paintings by Vincent van Gogh, Paul Cézanne, Pablo Picasso, and other modern masters have appeared. Often these are declared fake by art historians, frequently after a technical examination.

By use of special illumination such as ultraviolet black light, infrared photography, and X-ray radiographs, inconsistencies and changes in paintings may be detected. Instrumental analyses may reveal anachronisms in a work of art, and techniques such as carbon-14 dating, thermoluminescence dating, and dendrochronology (tree-ring dating) are all helpful in detecting forgeries in works of art.

The dates when many pigments were introduced into the artist's palette are known; thus, if the 18th-century pigments Prussian blue and zinc white appear in a painting purported to be of an earlier date, then the work is obviously a forgery. Paint extending over an old crackle pattern may be evidence of repainting. Signatures are often changed by a forger; frequently, the binocular microscope is used to detect the alteration. Radiographs will reveal changes made by the original artist as well as those made on an old object by a forger. Pottery from archaeological sites is often "restored" from pieces that do not belong together by filing down edges of similar pieces from a second object. These, and fills of plaster or other materials, may show up in the X-ray.

The best detector of a false work of art, however, is the trained human eye. For example, a banker who is thoroughly familiar with printed currency can detect counterfeit money just by casual scrutiny, just as a fraudulent signature on a check is glaringly obvious when compared with a true signature. The detection of forgeries should be carried out jointly by art historians, art conservators, and scientists who have specialized in analysis of art and archaeological materials.

In summer 2009, ARCA - the Association for Research into Crimes against Art - began offering the first postgraduate program dedicated to the study of art crime. The International Art Crime Studies Masters Program includes coursework in art fakes and forgery.

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