Art Hoaxes

From the Encyclopedia of Hoaxes, edited by Gordon Stein (Detroit: Gale Research, 1993).

Denis Dutton


www.denisdutton.com



As much as many other human enterprises, the art world today is fuelled by pride, greed, and ambition. Artists and art dealers hope for recognition and wealth, while art collectors often acquire works less for their intrinsic aesthetic merit than for their investment potential. In such a climate of values and desires, it is not surprising that poseurs and frauds will flourish. For works of painting and sculpture are material objects that derive their often immense monetary value generally from two factors; (1) their aesthetic qualities their embody, and (2) who made them and when. It is the second of these two factors that comes into play in most art hoaxes, which are cases of forgery.

I

A forgery is normally defined as a work of art presented to a buyer or audience with the intention to deceive. Fraudulent intention is necessary for a work to be a forgery; this distinguishes forgeries from honest copies and merely mistaken attributions. Usually a forger paints a work in the style of a famous artist and tries to sell it, often in collusion with an unscrupulous dealer, claiming it is from the hand of the famous artist. Forgers are very seldom try to execute exact copies of existing authentic paintings; such works are in most cases impossible to sell to informed buyers.

Because of cautious expertise among dealers and curators, the creation of plausible forgeries is a very demanding process. If a forger wishes, for example, to fake an important seventeenth-century painting, he will begin with a seventeenth-century canvas, as the production of an old-looking canvas from modern materials is virtually impossible. He will have to find an unimportant but sufficiently old painting and either paint over it, or dissolve and scrape away the old painting. If he paints over it, he faces the possibility than an X-ray will reveal the underpainting. Trying to remove the old paint from the canvas may, however, by nearly impossible, as it might have fused with the fibre material. Sometimes forgers have left parts of the underpainting that could not be removed and tried to incorporate them into the design of the new forgery.

Next comes the selection of paints and brushes. A good forger of a seventeenth-century painting will know the history of pigment formulae and will carefully avoid any paints invented in later times which would reveal his fraud. For example, ultramarine did not come into general use until 1838, and Prussian blue does not predate 1800. Other colors in use today are clearly from the late-nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The notorious Dutch forger of Vermeers, Han van Meegeren (q.v.), in addition to using only badger hair brushes, lest a single modern bristle be found embedded in the paint, also studied old pigment formulae, grinding his own lapis lazuli, for instance, to produce blue.

The style in which a forgery is done of of great importance. In order to succeed, a forger will have to study the brush techniques, typical subject matter, and stylistic qualities of the artist to be forged. Many forgeries are pastiche works: paintings what draw together miscellaneous elements from a number of authentic paintings in a way that will seem to fit perfectly into the established oeuvre of the older artist. Style, however, is where even the most technically accomplished forgers usually fall down. It is almost impossible for a modern painter, no matter how intense the attempt, to think himself fully back into the representational conventions of a previous century. Thus even so cautious a forger as van Meegeren produced from the very beginning of his forgery career paintings which, though they were supposed to be by seventeenth-century hands, displayed elements of twentieth-century style: for example, the faces in his 1937 Vermeer forgery, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaeus, are strongly influenced by photography; one of the faces even resembles that of Greta Garbo. These stylistic features were much less apparent to the trained eye of the 1930s, precisely because they seemed so “normal"; in retrospect, they appear today quite obvious. (Accordingly, we may expect today’s successful forgeries to appear more obviously fake to our grandchildren.)

The pigment of old paintings acquires through time two characteristics: it becomes very hard and it shrinks slightly, causing the appearance over the paintings of a network of fine cracks called craquelure. Depending on how thick the pigment is, it may take as much as ten years or more for a forgery in oils to dry to the hardness of an old work, so forgers, impatient to cash in on their work, will add solvents to their paints to increase the drying speed. Craquelure presents a more serious problem. The cracks on old paintings blacken with dust and dirt and their effect can be mimicked by actually laboriously painting fine, black cracks over the surface. This technique will not, however, get past the experienced eye of a dealer or curator, so the forger may try to induce cracking in the paint surface which has been rendered brittle (perhaps by slow baking). But even if the baked-and-cooled painting is rolled on a tube, the cracks will tend to line up in one direction, rather than extending randomly in all directions, so rolls at right angles and diagonally must be attempted; however, the first rolling will tend to make more cracks than subsequent rolls, so a completely random pattern is nearly impossible to produce. The forger may attempt to achieve the effect of a cracked surface by scratching with a needle into the pigment. When the resulting surface is wiped with black ink, the result can look excellent, but the “cracks” will not extend all the way to the canvas, and this may reveal the fraud. It is possible to achieve a more natural cracking by use of egg white with pigment; this has the difficulty, however, of requiring very fast work over the whole canvas.

Once a satisfactory appearance of craquelure has been produced by one or more of these techniques, a final varnishing is required. Many collectors of old art consider it a mark of authenticity when a painting is obscured by a cloudy, dark varnish, and the forger will be only too happy to oblige, giving and work coats of brownish gunk. Finally, a bit of attic dust is an excellent touch.

Although many old paintings of little value have been “recycled” by forgers, occasional mistakes can be made. One particularly delicious story involved a dealer who tried to sell an “eighteenth-century French” painting to the wealthy industrialist Alfred I. duPont in 1931, claiming it to be a portrait of one of duPont’s ancestors. The asking price was $25,000, a very large sum of money at the time. When duPont reacted suspiciously, the painting dropped to $10,000, and eventually to a mere $1000. DuPont considered the frame alone to be worth $400, so he bought the portrait and showed it to a curator who determined that the work had been altered by overpainting. The curator suggested the overpainting be removed, which was easily done, revealing beneath a magnificent Madonna and Child by the seventeenth-century Spanish painter Murillo, valued at $150,000. The forger had cheated himself.

II

The painting having been finished, the forger now faces what may be his most difficult task, the establishment of a provenance for his work-a story which explains where the painting came from and why “such an important work” has remained undiscovered until now. A newly discovered Dürer or Rembrandt said to have been picked it up in a junk shop in Peoria will provoke too many suspicions; the forger needs a plausible story about its whereabouts for the last few centuries. In this respect the forgery of works of art resembles hoaxes in other fields: whether the faker presents the world with a fragment of a flying saucer, the burial cloth of Jesus, or a mermaid preserved in formaldehyde, it is necessary to invent a provenance for the object. This may involve forging one or two official museum certificates with old wax seals to be affixed to the back of the canvas. For a serious forger skilled enough to fake a seventeenth-century painting, old certificates of authenticity pose little difficulty. If the forgery is of a twentieth-century work, perhaps the artist’s old, decrepit, and nearly-blind brother or widow can be tricked, via flattery or money, into signing a letter of authenticity. The forger (or his dealer/partner in crime) now needs a story of how it came into his hands. This has resulted in many variations on the following theme: “An old Italian family, which has owned this masterpiece for generations, has fallen on hard times, and with tears of regret, has been forced to sell it. No, they have insisted on the utmost discretion: they do not want to be named.” (We may imagine this sales-pitch delivered, perhaps with an upper-class British accent, to a Texas oil millionaire in the plush and soothing surroundings of a New York dealer gallery.)

One of the most clever and audacious provenance-establishing routines was that used in the 1960s by two confederates of the modern Hungarian forger forger, Elmyr de Hory. They searched second-hand bookshops in France for out-of-print art books of the 1920s and 30s. They looked for books on modern art that were illustrated with color plates that had been glued onto the the text paper of the books (a common procedure for art books of the time). They might, for example find a book with a plate that was described in the text or caption, “Raoul Dufy, The Reception at Elysée Palace, 1928 oil on canvas, 87 X 133mm, signed in lower left corner.” They would then telephone de Hory and ask him to produce a forgery which exactly matched the description of the plate. After de Hory had delivered his painting, his partners would have it photographed and printed on a paper stock that closely matched the other plates in the book. They would remove the original plate and replace it with their color reproduction of the forgery. Here then was an old art book which had in it the very painting they were selling! As another copy of the book would be next-to-impossible to locate in Texas, South Africa, or wherever the painting was bound, there was little chance of being found out. They would even give the doctored art book to the buyer of the forgery to proudly place on his coffee table.

The price at which a forgery is offered to potential buyers is often an indication of its true status. Authentic masterpieces are always expensive, honest copies cheap. Forgeries offered by fraudulent dealers tend to be priced far too high for copies, but considerably under the market for authentic work. Along with the phony provenance, the dealer might explain that there is a shady side to the owner’s life, that the owner has large debts that need immediate payment, and that at this special bargain price the painting must be bought immediately. The general rule with painting, as with other collectibles which are prone to fakery is, if the price seems too good to be true, it probably is.

III

We have so far described a clear case of intentional deception where a forger produces a pastiche work and tries to establish it as the creation of another artist. But many cases which might be treated as forgery are not so clear cut. A nobleman of the Italian Renaissance might admire a painting owned by a neighboring duke. He accordingly instructs his personal court painter to produce a copy of the painting for himself. It may be that neither the original nor the copy is signed; as both works are Italian Renaissance paintings, later scientific tests will be no help in distinguishing them. If the original is signed, a later owner of the copy may surreptitiously sign it with the original artist’s signature. Thus over the years what started off as an innocent copy is turned by a later owner into a forgery. To further confuse matters, a later owner of the original may, if it was originally unsigned, forge on it the signature of the original artist in order to protect the reputation and value of his painting. In such a misty and confused historical context, it may be impossible ever to determine which is the original and which the copy.

To these complexities, we may add the fact that historically many paintings, such as those of the Flemish artist Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), were produced in workshops. In such circumstances the credited artist may have painted only the most important parts of the work, leaving minor portions to his assistant. He may even provide no more than a sketch or outline which is completed by assistant. This compromises the idea of exclusive creative responsibility for a work of art. It has probably happened that workshop assistants have falsely signed their own private output with the names of their more famous employers in order the increase the sale prices of their paintings. To add to the ambiguities, Rubens himself often employed as assistant artists of the calibre of Van Dyck, Teniers, and Jan Breughel.

Mention must also be made of the fact that art training itself in the past relied much more on copying than it does today. One still occasionally sees in European museums art students with easels set before Old Master paintings executing exact copies. Such sights were much more common in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This indicates two considerations important in the history of forgery. First, there were in the past a large number of highly competent, if never exact, copies made of old paintings both famous and obscure. Some of these training copies have, if their canvas and materials resemble the original’s, been passed off as authentic. Second, the general prevalence of copies is a reminded that there were in the past many artists whose training centered on perfecting the ability to copy or mimic another artist’s style. Many of these artists would have been perfectly able to forge, given sufficient motivation. One of the most copied paintings of history was Leonardo’s Mona Lisa. Even leaving aside the most recent work, many hundreds of copies of this work of art are known to exist. Some of these are nearly as old as the original and a few are thought by their owners, more in hope that reason, to be the actual original Mona Lisa, a copy of which, they claim, now hangs in the Louvre.

Perhaps the most forged painter in history was the French landscape artist, Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875). It has been jestingly said that of the three thousand or so paintings he produced in his career, about 10,000 are now in the United States alone. Actually, the number of Corot fakes exceeds even this figure: it has been estimated at more than 100,000 paintings. Besides being in his time an extremely popular and prolific artist, Corot was generous to the point of occasionally signing his own signature the paintings of his students. Many of his paintings feature a loose, sketchy, spontaneous style which lends itself easily to casual forgery. It might be said that the body of work claimed for Corot is now so clogged with fakes, some obvious, but others quite subtle and apparently respectable, that it will never be possible precisely to sort out in every case the authentic from the forged paintings.

IV

Forgers in general produce their fakes for the money they bring, though especially in the twentieth century they have also often tried to find a moral justification for their activities. Van Meegeren, for example, claimed that he originally intended with his first the Emmaeus as a tool to take revenge the critics who had humiliated him. He planned to wait until the painting had been widely lauded by critics and historians, and then he would reveal to the world who the artist really was. He made so much money on the painting, however, that he kept his cover and painted more forgeries. Similar claims have been made by other forgers, including more recently the British forger Eric Hebborn, who expressed a desire for revenge against the British class establishment and art dealers as a prime motive for a thirty-year string of forgeries which began in the 1950s. In taking such a righteously self-justifying stand, forgers are often cheered on by a public eager to see what it perceives as embarrassment of the rich élite of the art world. During his trial in 1949, van Meegeren became a folk hero, not only for having humiliated art snobs, but for having suckered the Nazi leader Hermann Göring, who had paid a high price for one of van Meegeren’s phony Vermeers. Even van Meegeren’s forgeries then began to sell for modestly substantial amounts, though they never achieved anything near the prices of Vermeers.

In fact, a vague pattern can be detected by studying the more noted forgers of the last century. They tend to be artists whose careers have usually foundered after a promising start. Most are men, though there are a few women, such as Madame Claude Latour, who was convicted by a French court in 1947 (some of her Utrillo forgeries were said to be so accurate that even Utrillo himself could not be sure he hadn’t painted them). Successful forgers often exhibit impressive technical skill, and yet as artists they seem to have nothing to express themselves. So they use their talent to imitate another’s style, and though the outcome will have a superficial resemblance to their target artist, the work overall will lack the inner passion and vision that makes great art so perpetually fascinating. The imitative ability of the forger succeeds best where a single fake must be seen in isolation; a whole gallery or portfolio of forgeries, on the other hand, will begin to betray itself more clearly as fraudulent. Where an original artist may attack a canvas with uninhibited enthusiasm, the forger tends toward deliberation and care: where Picasso can with one bold gesture create a powerful line, the forger may painstakingly try to achieve the same, with a resulting sense of constriction, of a lack of freedom. This is one of the reasons that many forgers attempt to fake sketches and “early works” of an artist-if the work does not look quite right, it have always be explained by the fact that it was done before the artist established his mature, more confident style.

While we can all laugh at the monetary excesses of the art market and the occasional foolishness of art historians and critics, it must be allowed that the so-called educated eye of the connoisseur is not to be completely disregarded. Though Christ and the Disciples at Emmaeus received high praise when it was unveiled in 1937, it was also seen by the Paris representative of the New York dealers, Duveen Brothers. He wired back to his bosses the following cable:

SEEN TODAY AT BANK LARGE VERMEER...CHRIST’S SUPPER AT EMMAUS SUPPOSED BELONG PRIVATE FAMILY CERTIFIED BY BREDIUS WHO WRITING ARTICLE...STOP PRICE POUNDS NINETY THOUSAND STOP PICTURE ROTTEN FAKE.

V

The same features which may immediately mark a forgery to the educated eye may be the ones which make a forgery appealing to a particular time or age. If we see a film purporting to dramatize the French Revolution, and even though the costume and make-up designers have tried to be as historically accurate as possible, we can normally tell accurately in which twentieth-century decade it was produced: it will look immediately like a 1930s, or 50s, or 70s movie. Such indications as physical posture or the style of an eyebrow may on the one hand make a fake Botticelli or Picasso slightly more palatable to the contemporary eye. These features may seem almost imperceptible, but once fashion changes they will become immediately apparent. As mentioned, there are shades of Garbo in van Meegeren’s Vermeers, but their most apparent stylistic qualities are the way in which they resemble the German Expressionist style of their time. There are faces in the van Meegeren forgeries that even evoke the work of the German Expressionist artist Emil Nolde.

There was another aspect of the insidious character of the van Meegeren case. The first of his widely known Vermeers, the Emmaeus, was close enough to Vermeer to fool some experts, but it also had unmistakable aspects of van Meegeren’s own style. Nevertheless, since the painting had been praised as a fine Vermeer, the van Meegeren aspects of it were henceforward accepted as stylistic features of Vermeer. In his next Vermeer forgery, van Meegeren included more of himself still and less of Vermeer, and so on, gaining more acceptance each time that his own style was actually Vermeer’s. His last forgeries in fact were hardly anything like authentic Vermeers, but because curators and buyers had their understanding of the Vermeer style warped by the earlier forgeries, van Meegeren was able to get away with it. In the unlikely event that his forgeries had remained undiscovered, we would today have a wildly distorted view of the art of Vermeer.

It has been said that the great age of forgeries was the nineteenth century. There was through that epoch a vast increase of interest in antiquities of the classical world and the Middle Ages. There was an flourishing market for Old Masters paintings, while imperial expansion meant a new fascination for art and craft objects from cultures beyond the accepted edge of civilization. The combination of wealthy, obsessed collectors of such art who were not always expert in spotting fakes and a force of hungry dealers and highly skilled craftsmen meant that forgery prospered then as never before. Objects purporting to be from ancient Egypt, India, and the Far East were especially popular, as well as works from medieval Europe. Ivory was coming into Europe in considerable quantities, and the popularity of medieval carving, for example, resulted in a vast outputs of ivory religious carvings purporting to be from the Middle Ages. So great was the confusion created by this, in fact, that medieval ivories lost much of their popularity among collectors.

With the rise of modernism in the twentieth century in art, and the subsequent decline of painting technique, craftsmanship, and historical copying as a teaching method, the age of forgery of old works of art is probably for the most part past. The forgery of contemporary works will continue, and it can be expected that forgers will try go into fields that are as lucrative but require less intensive labor than the forgery of old European art. One area where forgeries are currently turning up in large numbers is African art. Workshops within Africa are producing forgeries of nineteenth-century masks, ancestor figures, and artifacts which are said to be capable of fooling even the most knowledgeable experts. Since the styles of African art are so astonishingly various, artificial aging techniques so straightforward, and prices so high, it is not surprising that the current market supports a large number of “old” African piece of dubious authenticity.

VI

The deepest question to address in the area of art forgery is simply, what difference does it make? One strand of thought holds that a work’s status as a forgery can make no difference to its aesthetic value. If we cannot see a difference in a copy, or if a work of art pleases us, it is aesthetically irrelevant who created it or when: if experts and the public at large both enjoy a van Meegeren as much as a Vermeer, then the paintings are of equal value. On this view, to affirm the value of a work of art, and then turn around and deny its value once it is known to be a forgery amounts to hypocrisy and snobbery. If you can’t see a difference between two objects, so this line of argument goes, there is no aesthetic difference between them.

While it enjoys wide popular acceptance, this position has been disputed by a number of philosophers. Nelson Goodman has argued that if I am presented with an original and a copy which, so far as I can tell, are indistinguishable, the fact that I know one is a copy should still make an aesthetic difference to me. His reason is that, though I cannot at present see a difference, no matter how hard I look now I cannot rule out the possibility that sometime in the future I might be able to see a difference. Differences between the two works that elude me now may at a later time, and with greater sophistication and eye training, seem obvious to me. This is one of the lessons of the van Meegeren episode: at first his fakes fooled experts, but later on it became easy even for novices to pick out the characteristics that distinguished van Meegerens from authentic Vermeers. Moreover, looking for the difference has the benefit of training the eye.

Another line of argument holds that what we admire in a work of art includes more than what simply meets the eye. If we listen to a recording of a pianist who amazes us with her virtuosity and later discover that the speed and accuracy of her runs was electronically faked, we are justifiably disappointed. This shows that our attitude toward a work of art is in part determined by what we know about the circumstances under which it was produced. The Victorian painter J.M.W. Turner, for instance, is often praised for being ahead of his time in adumbrating the loose brush technique and hazy character of later Impressionism. But no twentieth-century Turner forgery, however appealing to the eye, could be praised as “ahead of its time.” Part of what we admire and enjoy in art is innovation and originality; forgery by its very nature is derivative and unoriginal. Historically speaking the artist may be an imaginative and revolutionary creator; the forger is always a parasite.

Finally, a major objection to forgery is the way it distorts our understanding of an original artist or an historical time. As the forger’s aim is to sell to his own contemporaries, he only wishes to mimic the appearance of his model artist. Once a forgery is accepted as genuine, it will inevitable affect our art-historical understanding of some time past. As noted earlier, many forgeries are seen as such by later generations. Nevertheless, it is fair to ask if a perfect, undetectable forgery is possible. The answer is, curiously, that we can never be sure. The truly successful forgeries, if they exist, hang to this day on the walls of our museums. About them, we may never know.

 

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