The Illicit Allure of Art Forgery

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Sep 11, 2023, 7:51:14 PM9/11/23
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The Illicit Allure of Art Forgery

An anarchic desire to undermine the art world’s institutions lends art forgers a roguish, rebellious identity that is both compelling and unsavory.

Olivia McEwan - 3 hours ago

Forgery in the manner of John Constable (1776–1837), "Seascape," watercolor, The Courtauld, London (all images courtesy Samuel Courtauld Trust)

LONDON — A certain romanticism surrounds art forgery. Unlike other material goods, such as watches, handbags, or even coins, artworks are unique objects, the value of which is determined by quantitative and qualitative factors. For this reason their trade within art markets relies to a great extent on good faith. The success of commercial galleries and dealers depends on integrity — that what they are selling is what they say. Deliberate deceit, and on a significant scale, is cause for scandal and a career’s end, as in the high-profile case of Knoedler, an art dealership established in 1846 but closed in 2011 following a flurry of lawsuits.

It is arguably especially embarrassing when national museums, staffed by art historical experts who are (on paper at least) driven by the interests of the public as opposed to financial gain, become tangled up in a contested artwork. The Louvre and the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris, the National Gallery of London, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna have all at some point endorsed the authenticity of works sold by the alleged forger Giuliano Ruffini, charged with gang fraud and money laundering in December 2022. In 2013, London’s National Gallery included a disputed Orazio Gentileschi painting on lapis lazuli in its exhibition Making Colour, which originated from Ruffini via the dealer Weiss.

Crucially, the National Gallery did not complete technical analysis on the “Gentileschi” prior to exhibition. It is against this backdrop that the Courtauld Gallery presents an unconventional exhibition, Art and Artifice: Fakes from the Collection, which comprises nothing but forgeries it has acquired during its history. It emphasizes their use by students at the Courtauld Institute for educational purposes via technical analysis, art historical investigation, and connoisseurship. Far from shaming those who knowingly or unknowingly gave or received the works, it instead highlights the importance of academic study as a counter to the greed that motivates many exchanges of forgeries. It also recognizes the difficulty in distinguishing deliberate faking from innocent study; copying established masters has for centuries been the method by which artists learn and improve, yet the line is easily crossed into outright forgery: artists in Ancient Rome both copied and adapted the work of their ancient Greek predecessors, at times veering very close to this line.

Umberto Giunti (1886–1970), forgery in the manner of Sandro Botticelli (1444/1445–1510), “Virgin and Child” (1920s), egg tempera on wood panel, The Courtauld, London

Some famous examples are on view. Han van Meegeren is best known for his forgeries of Vermeer, which he sold to the Nazis in the 1930s — a story ripe for dramatic effect, as seen fictionalized in the 2019 film The Last Vermeer. The Courtauld holds his copy of Dirck van Baburen’s “The Procuress” (1594–1625; original is in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), which was already known as a forgery when it was passed to lecturer Geoffrey Webb by a colleague so students could examine van Meegeren’s various creative techniques, such as incorporating Bakelite into the painting and baking it to harden the surface. In another demonstration of how important close physical examination is to investigation, visitors can clearly see the canvas warping and buckling away from its frame in a manner unlike what you would expect from sturdier 17th-century Dutch works. Flat photographic reproductions do not allow the viewing angles by which this is revealed.

Elsewhere, we learn how technical analysis can unmask deception: An x-ray of a supposed Renaissance Virgin and Child triptych shows it is joined together by regular, thin nails only available after the 19th century, while another x-ray shows the typical irregularity of thick, handmade nails expected in a Renaissance piece. Along the same lines (though sadly no examples are present here), a common test done by conservators is spectroscopy, which helps identify pigments at a molecular level; often a forgery is uncovered because it contains pigments unavailable at the supposed time of manufacture. Several works on paper are also exposed as forgeries by watermarks dating from after the purported artist’s death.

By the number present in the show, a depressingly common mode of faking is the addition of an artist’s signature to an existing, or forged, painting or drawing. A drawing by George Romney, one of several studies for a painting series inspired by Shakespeare’s plays, was sold by bookseller Walter T. Spencer who — evidently believing it to be by William Blake — added Blake’s “signature,” to “augment [its] value.” Several drawings similarly doctored by Spencer are apparently in the Courtauld collection, while an unidentified drawing in the manner of Philips Wouwerman has had a monogram added to imitate his genuine signature. 

Though far from scientific, pure connoisseurship remains an invaluable method of examination. Anyone looking at the anonymous forgery in the manner of Georges Seurat, “Nude Woman with Blonde Hair,” would be hard pressed to reconcile its clumsy manner with the master’s real, inimitable use of pointillism, and yet the association by Seurat’s friend and cataloguer Félix Fénéon was enough to convince Samuel Courtauld, who acquired it for the collection.

Han van Meegeren (1889–1947), forgery in the manner of Dirck van Baburen (c. 1595–1624), “The Procuress” (around 1930), oil paint on canvas, The Courtauld, London

Elsewhere, connoisseurship may simply be a hunch that not all is right: A fascinating forgery in the manner of Sandro Botticelli, the so-called “Madonna of the Veil” (1920s), was believed genuine upon acquisition; however, several experts commented that the Madonna’s visage was too reminiscent of 1920s silent film stars and eventually unmasked it as a work by Sienese forger Umberto Giunti. Viewing it in person, a distinct lack of Botticelli’s typical luster is striking. Giunti also drilled holes to mimic worm damage, and painted cracks onto the surface to give the appearance of age.

In 1960, the Courtauld Institute’s then-director, Sir Anthony Blunt, told artist Eric Hebborn that a couple of his drawings looked like Poussins. Hebborn would go on to be one of the most prolific and notorious forgers of the 20th century, claiming to have duped several major auction houses and museum curators into acquiring thousands of his pieces forged in the manner of several Old Masters including Corot, Mantegna, Rubens, and Piranesi — and 11 are owned by the Courtauld. That he forged in such a wide range of styles bespeaks a staggering and chameleonic virtuosity: watching him draw so freely in the manner of Bruegel in this fascinating documentary, it is hard not to feel both admiration and queasiness that his talent effectively undermined the artists he imitated, the integrity of museums and curators, and art history itself.

Indeed, it is this anarchic desire to undermine the art world’s institutions that lends forgers a roguish, rebellious identity that is both compelling and unsavory. Wolfgang Beltracchi and his wife Helene were apparently driven by a desire to fool the “fraudulent” art world, viewing their forgery activity as a workmanlike crusade against institutions and even going so far as to insist that their work made people happy. The troubling allure of the forger has been explored in gripping fictional characters, such as Georges Perec’s Portrait of a Man Known as Il Condottiere, in which a painter essentially goes mad trying to create the perfect “fake,” as does the protagonist in William Gaddis’s 1955 novel The Recognitions (both highly recommended reads). 

Several works on view are presented as still being investigated, emphasizing how such detective work is an active and continuing need. Most recently, in April 2023, an auctioneer admitted to helping create fake Basquiats, and there will be more forgery in the future. As long as there is financial gain to be made, there will always be forgery, and an ongoing battle against it. 

Forgery in the manner of Auguste Rodin (1840–1917), “Seated female nude,” graphite and stumping, The Courtauld, LondonIcilio Federico Joni (1866–1946), “Virgin and Child with Saints,” oil paint and gold leaf on panel, The Courtauld, LondonForgery in the manner of Francisco de Goya y Lucientes (1746–1828), “Figures seated by a rock,” brush and brown wash, The Courtauld, LondonDish with a portrait of Marco Barbarigo, probably Venice, probably 1850–58, FN-glazed earthenware, The Courtauld, LondonJacob Savery I (1566–1603), forgery in the manner of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (1525/30–1569), “Rocky landscape with a castle” (around 1590), traces of black chalk, pen and brown ink, The Courtauld, London

Art and Artifice: Fakes from the Collection continues at the Courtauld Gallery (Somerset House, The Strand, London, England) through October 8. The exhibition was curated by the Courtauld’s MA Curating the Art Museum students.

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