Forging a career: a history of art’s fraudsters and fakes

   |  16 January 2014  |  AMA  |  Tweet  |  LinkedIn

Paris, 16 January 2014, Art Media Agency (AMA).

For as long as works of art, and the artists who create them, have gained both cultural and monetary reward, art fraudsters have followed in their tracks. Art historians locate the métier’s origins as far back as two thousand years, with early Roman sculptors having replicated the work of their Grecian predecessors – producing Romanesque works which the period’s art investors happily bought into.

For these 2nd-century Roman artists, replicating the works of the recently-conquered Greeks was an attestation, not of broader criminal intent, but of admiration. In Italy, imitation truly was the sincerest form of flattery, and artistic exchange between the country and Greece remained transparent: classical Greek artifacts were brought to Rome, and Greek artists were employed by Romans to make new versions of existing pieces, which were displayed in both public and private spaces.

For “collectors” of the period, too, concerns regarding the identity and repute of an original “artist” were significantly less than they are for contemporary art buyers: for the Romans, a sculptural work’s primary function was as a visual representative of an esteemed religious or historical figure, decorative addition to an existing property. The Renaissance notion of the enigmatic “master” painter remained far off, with the identity of an artist responsible for a work – whether fraudulent or legitimate – remaining of relatively little consequence.

In the contemporary art world, this utopian Roman free-for-all seems a long way off. The contemporary art market places a great deal of value on the identity of a work’s author – a factor which has become increasingly important in recent years, in which art has come to be seen more and more as a serious financial investment. And, whilst technological advances might cause art forgery to be viewed as a quaint, somewhat antiquated pursuit, recent cases of art fraud – notably that of New York’s Knoedler Gallery – prove the contrary.

Art Media Agency looked at some of most significant, ridiculous and captivating examples in the history of art forgery, and the efforts of the legal and scientific bodies which seek to promote a culture of authenticity.

Famous fraudsters
Towards the end of the 14th century, artworks had begun to acquire commercial value: the Roman works (which had themselves been imitations of Greek pieces) had been unearthed, and had caught the eye of art fans. The aesthetic interest of the populace turned into a commercial interest, and soon artists were astutely marking their works with signatures.

The imitative relationship which had surfaced in early Renaissance ateliers – where students learn and work under their master’s name – was no longer charming, but threatened the stature and livelihood of the artist whose hand was replicated. Some artists even went so far as to add not only signatures to their works, but written warnings: a depiction of the virgin by Albrecht Dürer was inscribed, “Be cursed, plunderers and imitators of the work and talent of others” – a threatening proclamation which firmly outlined replication as a reductive, and punishable, offence.

Yet, whilst theatrical, Dürer’s written curse was not based on an unfounded concern. Even renowned artists of the period had turned to replication, with dealers happily emerging to cash in on works whose origins they knew to be dubious. In 1496, Michelangelo produced a sculpture depicting a sleeping Cupid, covering the piece in corrosive earth in an attempt to make it seem ancient. The inventive artist then sold the work to dealer Baldassare del Milanese, who happily sold the piece to Cardinal Riario of San Giorgio.

Whilst Michelangelo’s mud-bath technique may seem laughably simplistic, the artist’s talent for sculpture undoubtedly aided his dealer’s attempts to convince the cardinal of his work’s authenticity. Later, art forgers would share the artist’s talent for production, electing to use their skills not to begin their own artistic career, but to profit from the established career of another.

Considered to be one of the most ingenious art fraudsters of the 20th century, Han van Meegeren was a Dutch painter and portraitist, whose replications of famous works were so thoroughly executed that they repeatedly fooled experts who were asked to determine their authenticity. Yet whilst Michelangelo’s motives were undoubtedly financial, van Meegeren’s drive to produce fakes stemmed from an egotistical desire to prove his talent by replicating the works of great masters.

Enraptured by the works of the Dutch Golden Age, van Meegeren had originally sought to establish a career under his own name. Yet critics of the artist’s early works – produced under his own name – denounced his style as outdated and derivative. Rather than pursuing or transforming his own artistic vision, van Meegeren elected to respond to those who mocked his works in an incredibly roundabout way, producing highly convincing forgeries of artists including Frans Hals, Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch and Johannes Vermeer – the activity, presumably, offering quiet satisfaction for his own bruised ego.

Van Meegeren’s most successful forgery was Supper at Emmaus, a work which the artist created in 1936 whilst staying in the South of France. Art historians declared the fraudulent work as one of Vermeer’s best pieces, and the painting was sold for $6m, having been authenticated by esteemed art historian Abraham Bredius in 1937.

This reasonably fruitful period of forgery was followed by steady descent into ill health and, eventually, van Meegeren’s arrest and trial. During the German occupation of the Netherlands, van Meegeren chain-smoked, drank heavily, and became addicted to morphine-laced sleeping pills, with the quality of his replica Vermeers correspondingly witnessing a sharp decline.

With authentic Vermeers predominantly held in storage, however, the artist’s fakes continued to go undetected: even if art historians had their doubts as to a work’s origin, legitimate Vermeers with which to compare his pieces were few and far between. Nevertheless, at the end of the Second World War, a “newly discovered” Vermeer raised suspicion among Allied experts. Van Meegeren’s fraudulent activities were uncovered and the artist was arrested – declaring, defiantly, in his court case: “The painting in Göring’s hands is not, as you assume, a Vermeer of Delft, but a Van Meegeren! I painted the picture!”

Other famous fraudsters were similarly lured, not only by the promise of profit, but by a deep-seated desire to attain the “perfection” of the famous figures they imitated. Diversifying away from van Meegeren’s Vermeer-focused production, John Myatt produced bogus Renoirs, Picassos and Modiglianis, claiming to have been driven by a desire to create “perfect” art.

Myatt’s “career” in forgery began as a childhood hobby, with the painter displaying a particular talent for replicating famous works from a young age. The artist continued his interest into adulthood, throwing himself into the activity after his wife left him. Initially honest about the origins of the work he produced, Myatt even placed an advertisement in British sartorial publication Private Eye, offering “Genuine Fakes” for the price of £150.

What began as a somewhat unusual hobby, however, turned into one of the largest fraud operations of the 20th century. John Drewe, one of Myatt’s regular customers, informed the painter that he had been able to sell some of his fake works as genuine works – an activity which reached its peak when Drewe managed to sell a painting by Myatt, falsely attributed to Drewe, to Christie’s, where it fetched $25,000. Tempted by the potential to make significant profit from his activity, Myatt joined Drewe, producing works which were regularly sold to Christie’s, Phillips and Sotheby’s, as well as to dealers in London, Paris and New York. Police have estimated the total number of frauds produced by Myatt to be in the region of 200 – of which only 60 have been recovered.

In 1995, Myatt’s fraudulent activities were uncovered by detectives from the UK’s Scotland Yard: the artist was sentenced to one year in prison for conspiracy to defraud, but was released after serving just four months. Drewe, his accomplice, was given a six-year sentence, of which he served a total of two years. Yet, however unexpected, this apparently devastating turn of events paradoxically advanced Myatt’s career as a legitimate artist. Myatt has since become successful in his own right, with his paintings regularly reaching up to £45,000 – whilst nevertheless being indelibly marked as fakes.

Eclipsing Myatt and van Meegeren, however – both in scope and profit – is Wolfgang Beltracchi, a self-taught painter who masterminded one of the most audacious and lucrative fraud rings in history. Working with a close ring of accomplices, including his wife and her sister, Beltracchi claimed to have found “new” works by artists such as Max Ernst, André Derain, Max Pechstein and Georges Braques, as well as a number of prominent Expressionist and Surrealist artists.

Works by Beltracchi sold for six- and seven-figure sums in auctions at Sotheby’s and Christie’s, with a fake Max Ernst even featuring in a retrospective dedicated to the artist at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. Other prominent members of the art world to have been mistakenly convinced of work’s authenticity included Steve Martin, the collector who purchased a fake Heinric Campendonk through Paris-based gallery Cazeay-Béraudière, paying $860,000 in 2004, and French press mogul Daniel Filipacchi, who paid $7 million for another fake Max Ernst in 2006.

Beltracchi’s ring was eventually charged with selling 14 fakes, whose estimated value was placed around the $22 million mark. The total cost of their works, however, is thought to have been worth significantly more.

Finding the fakes
The number of fakes to have escaped expert examination is an attestation not only to the skill of the painters who replicate the works of esteemed artists, but of the difficulty of accurately analysing works. Advances in digital imaging technology has improved accuracy somewhat, with techniques such as wavelet decomposition revealing discrepancies in the textures of painted works, which may point to them being fraudulent.

Alongside more technologically advanced methods, however, traditional investigative techniques and chemical analysis remain invaluable. For detectives investigating the source of a work, the absence of a paper trail is telling; many significant fraudsters, such as Beltracchi, have aroused police suspicion after claiming to have simply “stumbled across” a work by an esteemed Old Master – with a co-incidentally high market value.

As concern regarding fakes has increased, so the number of expert organisations dedicated to the genre has amplified. Amongst the most specialised is the Rathgen Research Laboratory, a research institute affiliated with the Berlin State Museums, under the auspices of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. The oldest museum laboratory in the world, the institution examines works of art to determine their composition, age and authenticity.

Offering an expert’s opinion on the process of determining whether a work of art is real or not, Dr Stefan Simon, the current director of the Rathgen-Forschungslabor, shared the institution’s process of testing potentially fraudulent works:

“In general, once a work of art is accepted to the lab, anamnesis, the investigation of its history, is the first step to be taken. This is mostly managed by our partners, but is of key importance to the process. After this, a whole range of analytical methods are applied, starting from non-destructive imaging technologies, to micro-sampling and subsequent testing. The aim is to look for inconsistencies, such as unusual metal components in alloys or in paintings pigments with a ’terminus post quem’, that is to say pigments which were in use only after the work of art’s alleged date of origin.”

Commenting on this process, Simon said, “of course it’s not easy,” adding that factors such as time and the location of a fraudulent work can make it hard to trace the person who originally created it. Simon nevertheless remains optimistic: “The analytical technologies available to us are continuously developing. Tomorrow, we shall have better tools, more sensitive methods, and higher resolution – it is impossible to say what science will be able to do us in the future.”

Whilst art experts have long struggled to decide on exactly how many fraudulent works are circulating on the market – and how many have made it into museums and galleries, Simon remains hopeful. His institution is “continuously working” on fraud cases, and their success rate is high: “In most cases where a work is under suspicion, there is eventually some evidence for forgery which can be revealed.”

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