Faking It (Business of Art, 5)

Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a couple dozen essays on the history of painting for BeyondBooks.com, a subscription service that provided online supplementary materials for high-school students. The site’s owners have given me permission to publish the essays (copyright © 2001 Beyond Books) on my website. This essay (lightly edited) is the fifth of five in the section on the business of art. Click “Business of Art” in the Obsessions cloud at lower right to see the others.

Mistaken identities

An early biographer commented dryly that the French painter Corot (d. 1875) had produced 3,000 paintings, of which 10,000 were in the United States. Corot’s popularity made it worthwhile for forgers to copy him, and his later style was particularly easy to imitate, with its limited range of colors, misty focus and repetitive subjects.

Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, Boatman of Mortefontaine, ca. 1865-1870. Frick Collection, New York. Image: Wikipedia

To compound the problem, Corot sometimes put his own signature on the works of his assistants and students, presumably to help them earn more money on the sale. Thus even a painting with a genuine Corot signature may not be a genuine Corot.

Not every work once attributed to an artist and later rejected from the canon of his works (the list of works accepted indisputably as his) is a deliberate forgery. For an artist who ran a studio – Raphael and Jan van Eyck, for example – we can sort out many different classes of paintings that led to confusion. Aside from paintings that are indisputably by the artist and only by him, there are works that he painted with an assistant, who may have worked on the background or less important figures. There are works done by assistants or the “school of” the artist, which are recognizably in the artist’s style and may have been executed in his studio, but which he didn’t touch with his brush. Finally, there are works painted during or soon after the artist’s lifetime by someone influenced by the artist, but which the artist probably never even saw. Since many artists routinely left their works unsigned, there is a lot of room for honest confusion.

Normally the participation of an assistant decreases the value of a work, but occasionally such a work turns out to be more important than a work by the primary artist. According to Vasari, the angel on the left in Verrocchio’s Baptism of Christ (ca. 1472) was painted by the young Leonardo, who began his career as an apprentice at Verrocchio’s studio in Florence. It’s the touch of Leonardo that makes this painting priceless, although most of it is not his work.

Andrea del Verrocchio and Leonardo da Vinci (angel on far left), Baptism of Christ, 1470-1480. Uffizi Gallery, Florence. Image: Wikipedia

Counterfeit canvases

A forger paints with the intention of conning a buyer into believing he’s purchasing an original work by a famous artist. A forger does his best to copy the other artist’s style and choice of subject. Often he cobbles together a “pastiche,” elements from various authentic paintings: a face here, a gesture there, a piece of furniture from somewhere else.

One of the most famous forgers, Han van Meegeren (d. 1947), was more daring. Having invented a way to make his canvases appear several centuries old, van Meegeren carefully chose his mark: Holland’s foremost authority on Vermeer, Abraham Bredius. Then van Meegeren produced a painting from an undocumented period in Vermeer’s career, during which Bredius had speculated that Vermeer must have been painting a certain type of subject in a certain style. Other experts who saw the painting ridiculed the idea that it could be a Vermeer, but Bredius saw what he wanted to see: proof of his pet theory. He persuaded others to help him purchase the van Meegeren forgery for a substantial sum.

Han van Meegeren, Supper at Emmaus, 1937. Museum Boymans van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Image: Wikipedia

Van Meegeren was accused of selling real Vermeers to Nazis. To avoid the penalty for this treasonous act, he confessed to having forged the works. (See Arthur K. Wheelock, ed., Johannes Vermeer, catalogue of the 1995-96 exhibition at the National Gallery in Washington.)

Identifying fakes

How do experts identify a fake? One way is by technical analysis. Colors such as cobalt blue and zinc white are modern inventions. Their use in a painting that purports to be 16th- or 17th-century is a give-away that the work was created much later.

X-ray photography can look beneath the paint – useful since artists have characteristic methods of sketching on the canvas before they begin painting.

Even the wooden stretcher to which a canvas is attached can be a valuable clue. If, for example, a 16th-century painting appears never to have been moved from the stretcher, yet the nails holding the stretcher together are of 19th-century manufacture … then something’s wrong with this picture.

Much of this data for detecting fakes is based on the findings of restorers as they minutely study paintings. (See this post in the Business of Art series.)

Technical analysis is not useful for differentiating works by assistants and followers of an artist, since those were produced so close to the right date that few technical discrepancies will appear.

Although technical means of authenticating paintings are constantly improving, no savvy potential purchaser of an expensive work of art relies on them exclusively. He calls in an expert – a connoisseur – who’s thoroughly familiar with the work of the artist in question. Such an expert has seen every canvas the artist produced or is said to have produced. He is familiar with the myriad of details that makes any artist’s work unique and distinctive: the artist’s choice of colors and combinations, his brushstrokes, how thickly he applies the paint, how he draws ears, noses and eyebrows, what sort of subjects he likes, and how he sets up a composition – not to mention such mundane details as the artist’s preferred type of canvas and stretcher, and if, when and how he signs his paintings. The expert knows the details of the artist’s paintings so well that he recognize at once if a newly discovered painting is a pastiche.

Nevertheless, experts aren’t infallible. Thomas Hoving, a former Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, points out in his fascinating False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes that when connoisseurship fails, it is usually due to speed, greed or need. That is, a potential purchaser is offered the painting for a limited time, and fears he’ll miss his chance; or he’s offered a bargain that he can’t resist; or he wants a certain painting to fill a gap in his collection, and knows that his chances to acquire such a painting are limited. Van Meegeren played on all three when he sold his Vermeer forgery to Bredius.

The quality of a fake

“The most tantalizing question of all,” wrote Aline B. Saarinen, “is: if a fake is so expert that even after the most thorough and trustworthy examination its authenticity is still open to doubt, is it or is it not as satisfactory a work of art as if it were unequivocally genuine?”

The obvious answer is that if you even suspect a work to be a fake, you lose that awesome sense that a great artist created it. Hold a Greek red-figure vase, flip through a medieval manuscript, stand nose-to-nose with a Velázquez, a Rembrandt or an Ingres, and you’re not dealing with just an old object. You’re dealing with an expression of a particular artist’s thoughts and values. In looking at it, you have a connection with talent, even genius. Even if a great artist produced a mediocre painting during a bad day, month or year, it has a value as part of the sequence of that artist’s life, part of the expression and development of his art.

A forgery, on the other hand, is a con game. The forger attempts to profit from someone else’s ideas and efforts. Even if you only suspect a work to be a forgery, the link with the original artist will never be as strong as with a genuine work. The nagging suspicion will get in the way of your enjoyment.

Setting aside the historical associations: yes, a forger might produce a painting with elements of style or subject that strongly appeal to some viewers. Yes, he might produce a work that fits in perfectly with the style of the time. Yes, he might be a technical genius at showing man and his world accurately. But chances are, his work will lack something essential. What?

Let’s shift for a moment to literature. Suppose I learned to write flawless Shakespearean English, so flawless that no authority could find any error in it. That doesn’t mean I would have anything profound to say. In fact, to express myself consistently in someone else’s vocabulary and style and to be constantly on guard to avoid detection would probably take such effort that I wouldn’t have the time or the nerve to create and express original ideas.

A forger may be excellent at manufacturing paint, aging a canvas, and cobbling together images from genuine works by an artist. He is unlikely to have much to say that is significant, else he would not be trying to make a living as a forger. Since one’s emotional reaction depends, to some extent, on the importance of what the artist has to say, on an emotional and philosophical level, a forged painting will lack the depth of an original.

Great artists have great ideas as well as great technical skill. Masaccio, Durer, Rubens, Titian and Goya are not great merely because they portrayed the world in a very distinctive style. They are great because they convey a view of man that speaks to all of us, on some level. And that, gentle reader, is what great art is about, and why we study it.


  • For other posts in this series, click “Business of Art” in the Obsessions tag cloud.
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