Senior curator of the Bruce Museum Nancy Hall-Duncan never expected to find one of the art world’s most notorious forgers and the FBI Art Crime Team among the lenders she had selected to contribute to a future exhibition. Yet when planning commenced for an exposé-style show documenting fakes and forgeries within the art world, Hall-Duncan realized that these non-traditional sources would prove invaluable in fully presenting the gravity of the issues at hand.
Originally intended as a small but thoughtful exhibition, “Fakes and Forgeries: The Art of Deception,” on view at the Bruce Museum through September 9, has exploded into an unexpected blockbuster.
At one point, the 60 artworks included in the show, with their suspicious signatures and tainted attributions, might have been sneaked into the museum through the back door and under the cover of night. It is quite the opposite story today as “Fakes and Forgeries” brings to the forefront a host of startling counterfeit works, each revealing the circumstances of its deception and in some cases allowing a peek at those who perpetrated the sham.
Inspired by Bruce Director Peter C. Sutton’s work on authentication issues, the exhibit contains items from such famous study collections as the Conservation Center, Institute of Fine Arts, New York University and the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), New York City. While it is generally accepted that most major collections contain works that are not authentic, constraints on the market and political issues make it a delicate area to probe.
Many museums tend to keep their fakes and forgeries under wraps, often alluding to them as works “in the manner of” or “from the circle of.” Others are more open, finding the educational benefits to be overriding. With the support of the FBI and numerous prestigious institutions, Hall-Duncan was able to present a myriad of confiscated works of art that have never before been exhibited.
John Myatt, the Twentieth Century’s “most ingenious and damaging art con” †now running a legitimate business called “Genuine Fakes” †lent two of his own “originals,” providing a degree of immediacy to the exhibition.
Organized chronologically according to the art movements they mimic, “Fakes and Forgeries” includes medieval manuscripts, paintings in the manner of Fifteenth Century artists, decorative objects and jewelry of the Renaissance and Baroque periods. There is a fake Winslow Homer, a Seurat, a Corot, a Matisse, a couple of Picassos. Juan Gris, De Kooning, Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat are also represented †some more authentically than others, yet all forged.
Besides the obvious perverse fascination with intrigue and duplicity, the show raises a more important point about the role of museums in an age of duplication that daily compromises the very concept of originality.
“Museums,” Hall-Duncan said, “exist to protect and exhibit genuine works of art; authenticity is at the heart of a museum’s purpose. Though both have been breached in serious ways in recent years, the attempt to preserve our culture and morality depends upon our ability to recognize the truth, including whether or not artworks are authentic.”
In order to fully understand the impact that fakes and forgeries have on the marketplace and how they threaten and erode the natural order, one needs first to understand the difference between a fake, a forgery and the intervening shades of gray. Simply, a forgery is a work done in the style of a given artist and signed with that artist’s signature. It is a deliberate attempt to deceive. A fake, on the other hand, is a work that replicates an existing work of art. Copies, reproduction and replicas are not fakes until they are represented as originals. Between the two are pastiches, semi-fakes and works made not by the artist but with the artist’s approval.
In most cases, fakes and forgeries follow the market, filling the desire for items in vogue. Because they are often passed off to the most elite, forgers have found ingenious, nearly undetectable ways to fool the eye. They have, for instance, converted medieval choir books into vellum sheets, used old cupboards for panel paintings, buried works to simulate aging, used dirt and vacuum cleaner dust to age the back of paintings, even added K-Y jelly to paints to simulate weighted brushstrokes.
As a result, some forgeries have gone undetected for years, leaving experts with only a vague feeling that something is amiss. As scientists increasingly join with connoisseurs and historians in the hunt for authenticity, fakes and forgeries are subject to more immediate detection and their creators to prosecution.
Still, there are cases where provenance is so impeccable that merely suggesting a work could be “wrong” is tantamount to heresy. Such was the case involving a forgery of a Thirteenth Century French reliquary that listed as provenance the collection of Count Renesse-Breidbach and later owned by J.P. Morgan. A gift of the financier to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the rock crystal and bejeweled reliquary was considered authentic for more than 100 years. In 1980, a technical investigation showed its flaws. Only the rock crystal at the center of the base was original; the remainder of the piece was composed primarily of Nineteenth Century craftsmanship.
Not infrequently, forgeries are suspect from the beginning but make their way through the channels of authentication anyway. Such was the case of the “Vermeer” that is arguably the most famous forgery in the world. Looking to fill a void in the Vermeer catalog, Han van Meegeren painted “Christ and His Disciples at Emmaus,” circa 1936″7, on a doctored Seventeenth Century canvas. Using badger hair brushes and as many period pigments as possible †including lapis lazuli for the blue †he even devised a means of simulating the slow drying process of oils with a mixture that simulated Vermeer’s linseed oil.
So convincing was the painting that van Meegeren, using an intermediary, was able to have it authenticated by Dr Abraham Bredius, a leading scholar. Although the Paris agent for Duveen, the New York dealer, declared it a “rotten fake,” “Christ at Emmaus,” was sold to the Dutch Rembrandt Society for the equivalent of $4.7 million on today’s market. When the painting was eventually traced back to van Meegeren, the forger had to prove his authorship by painting †in front of six official witnesses †yet another picture.
Occasionally forgeries just enjoy bad luck. Such was the case in the spring of 2000, when Gauguin’s “Vase de fleurs,” was offered at auction. Unfortunately, both the original and a forged copy of the 1885 painting showed up at Christie’s and Sotheby’s at the same time. The painting consigned to Christie’s proved to be a forgery. Sotheby’s realized $310,000 on the authentic version.
Myatt is referred to by Nancy Hall-Duncan in the exhibition catalog as “the forger in what has been called perhaps the most ingenious and damaging art con of the Twentieth Century.” He is said to have forged paintings in the style of Alberto Giacometti, Pablo Picasso, Jean Dubuffet, Marc Chagall, Ben Nicholsen and others, all of which were accompanied by phony documentation provided by his partner John Drewe.
Myatt and Drewe were ultimately exposed, not through detection of their deceit, but as victims caught up in a domestic drama. Myatt, it seems, left his wife for another woman and forgot to take the documentation that Drewe had created for numerous paintings. When the scorned wife came across them, she went to the police.
At the subsequent trial, Myatt testified against Drewe and was given a one-year prison sentence, while Drewe got six years. Of the more than 200 works Myatt allegedly forged from 1986 to 1994, only a fraction have been recovered. In another twist of fate, when Myatt was released for good behavior after serving only four months of his sentence, his arresting officer suggested the business in which he remains employed †painting in the style of great artists but adding his signature and the words “Genuine Fake” on the back.
Interpreting what makes a fake is often subject to compromise, the areas of black and white are often blurred. Copying has been a staple of art instruction for centuries. In some instances, a copy can be all that remains of a known work of art. Case in point: Wenceslaus Hollar made copies in the Seventeenth Century after works by Albrecht Dürer. Clearly not leaning towards deceit, Hollar signed his own names as well as Dürer’s, including Dürer’s distinctive monogram and the date. “A Recumbent Lion,” one of the images in the exhibit, is the nearest image we have to Dürer’s original, which has been lost.
Ultimately, the fine line between the legal and illegal is drawn at the moment a fake is represented as an original.
Salvador Dali, for instance, created an entire industry for fake Dalis simply by signing blank sheets of paper prior to the print making process. While many of those sheets became legitimate prints, others went on to be used to create pirated prints that the artist never saw.
In the late Twentieth Century, forgery, like art itself, became big business. Not only has the potential for fraud been propelled by the Internet, it has spread to the big box stores. One unlikely seller includes Costco, which in 2004 sold three fraudulent Picasso drawings, all accompanied by forged documentation, to a San Francisco collector.
And where are these forgeries coming from? The answers are uncertain, but what is known is that China, with its low wages and hunger for exports, is at the forefront of forgery with a mass production industry of art students cranking out copies by the thousands. One 26-year-old artist named Zhang Libing was reported by The New York Times to have painted more than 20,000 Van Goghs in a third-floor garret where socks and fresh canvases dried side by side. More common are large copying studios with their assembly line systems. Interestingly, exporters claim that because the works are handmade, they do not violate copyright laws.
Art squads around the world would disagree.
Scotland Yard has its Art-and-Antiquities Squad, Interpol has the Antiquities Tracking Task Force and Italy has the Command for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, which, according to ARTNews , has sequestered more than 60,000 fakes in the last seven years. In 2004, the FBI created the Rapid Deployment Art Crime Team.
The results of the FBI’s vigilance is made startlingly clear by an oil on board titled “The Cotton Pickers,” rendered in the manner of William Aiken Walker by an unknown artist. The painting was seized in 1995 when the FBI broke up a “fraudulent art scheme” resulting in the arrest and prosecution of Charles L. Heller.
Housed in a clear acrylic case, both the front and back of the forged Walker painting are visible. It is difficult to say which view is more commanding; the depiction of the Old South that one would expect from Walker, or the back †marred with an alarming array of evidence stickers and a business card, held in place by two strips of red and white evidence tape, identifying the FBI special agent in charge.
The illustrated exhibition catalog, Fakes and Forgeries: The Art of Deception, features chapters written by Peter C. Sutton, Nancy Hall-Duncan, Abigail Newman and James Martin. Published by The Bruce Museum, it sells for $45 (hard cover).
The Bruce Museum is at One Museum Drive. For information, 203-869-0376 or www.brucemuseum.org .