Published: May 30, 2017
By Karla Klein Albertson
WINTERTHUR, DEL. – Fakes and forgeries in the art world long have been a source of inspiration for caper films and escapist fiction. Think of Oceans 12 and its “holographic” Fabergé Easter egg. The investigator is chic Catherine Zeta-Jones and the guilty guys are all leading men. Or How to Steal a Million. Audrey Hepburn’s father is the accomplished art forger and Peter O’Toole is the detective she falls for. From the Lovejoy mysteries to BBC’s Fake or Fortune?, people love to hear stories of intriguing deceptions and detections. Likely to be a major draw for visitors, “Treasures on Trial: The Art and Science of Detecting Fakes” is on view at Winterthur Museum through January 7. The exhibition features more than three dozen studies of famous forgeries and copies, in many cases presenting the fake and genuine examples side by side for comparison.
The show was organized by Linda Eaton, the John L. and Marjorie P. McGraw director of collections and senior curator of textiles at Winterthur, and art investigator Colette Loll, founder and director of Art Fraud Insights, LLC, in Washington, DC.
A major factor in the show’s appeal is the way in which the curators have broadened their object choices beyond the world of art and antiques into the realms of fashion, musical instruments and sports memorabilia. The lesson underlined throughout is that demand often gives rise to suspect supply, whether Old Master paintings or designer handbags. Eaton says, “We’ve got everything in this show from Abstract Expressionist art to baseball bats – something for everyone. We wanted to have exhibits with which a wide variety of people could identify.”
The curator continues, “I’m hoping people will understand that the identification of fakes and forgeries is not a black and white kind of thing. We want to complicate that issue. I want viewers to gain an awareness of the relationship between the market and the passion of collecting. Passionate collectors maybe should take a deep breath and ask a few questions. We all need to be very humble about this. A lot of very smart people have been fooled. Fakes and forgeries have been in the marketplace for centuries. Some of them are really good. People should keep an open and questioning mind.”
To help visitors understand the issues at stake, the exhibition is divided into four distinct sections: “Intent,” “Evidence,” “Proof” and a “You Be the Judge” test at the end where viewers can use what they have learned to make their own decisions on an object.
“Intent” is at the root of all legal issues connected with fakes and forgeries. If someone paints a landscape in the style of van Gogh and hangs it in the living room, no one cares. But if they sell the painting to a museum, that could be the start of a path to prison. Eaton says, “We have examples where things aren’t what people might have thought they were. We’ve got examples where it’s completely obvious that someone was defrauded. It’s a fake and the intent was malicious. But we also have examples where things have been misunderstood, people might have paid a lot of money for them, but nobody intentionally tried to do anything wrong. When people are buying at the top of a market, they should be aware that they are buying at the top of the market. That’s what drives the market for fakes, the financial value.”
She continues, “The meat and potatoes part is the ‘Evidence’ section, where we go into detail on a number of different types of objects using a combination of provenance, research, connoisseurship and scientific analysis. It’s so interesting that now scientific analysis and technical art history is coming to the fore. But we do have examples in the exhibition where scientific analysis was not what identified something as being a fake. We’ve got a weathervane that was made out of old, naturally patinated copper, but it was the connoisseurship that made it clear that it was a fake. Old-style connoisseurship has been really damned, but knowing comes from experience. When I trained the guides, I told them, no one is going to have the resources and the time to analyze all the objects in every museum. That’s where that trained eye and connoisseurship come in. Somebody just has to say, ‘You know, there’s something funny about this.’ Somebody has to ask that question before you start bringing all of those resources to bear.”
In organizing the show, Eaton had the help of art sleuth Colette Loll, expert on the evidence used to expose forgeries and fakes. Loll was instrumental in arranging the loan of a number of important exhibits. Loll says, “I’m an investigator – that’s what I do. What started me on this path, I was doing my master’s in decorative arts, and I was fascinated by fake hallmarks on silver and fake maker’s marks on porcelain. I became intrigued with what people would do to increase the monetary value of an object. I went to Italy and did postgraduate work in international art crime. At the same time, my brother was running the FBI office in Rome, so he connected me with some of his colleagues in the FBI and Homeland Security.”
Loll continues, “When I moved back to Washington, I did some training in the State Department’s Cultural Heritage Center protection program, and I actually trained federal agents in forgery investigation. I opened a small boutique firm called Art Fraud Insights. That set me on an interesting path. I work with governments, collectors, institutions and insurance companies. I work with technology companies that are trying to provide a solution to the prolific problem of fakes and forgeries. I am particularly interested in scientific analysis, which I believe will play a greater and greater role in attribution. While connoisseurship is a very important part of the attribution process, it’s also highly subjective and sometimes connoisseurs get it wrong.”
Loll had organized a traveling exhibition called “Intent to Deceive,” which focused on a psychological and criminal profile of five famous forgers. She contacted Linda Eaton at Winterthur because the curator had done an earlier fakes and forgeries exhibition about 20 years ago. Together, they decided to create a more inclusive show that would attract a broader spectrum of visitors with tales of fake wine, couture and signed sports memorabilia.
For a major draw in the fashion aisle, she pointed out, “We have a real Birkin and a super-fake Birkin, lent by a celebrity sports wife. She went to sell it and discovered it wasn’t authentic. It had actually passed through Spa Hermes to be professionally cleaned and they didn’t discover that it was a fake. We have the handbags side by side with all the little hallmarks of how you tell the difference. We also have real and fake Dior sunglasses and Chanel suits. With fashion, you have authorized and unauthorized copies, which leads to a spiraling decline in quality as you move down the food chain from the original design.”
The exhibition led to new investigations in the fine arts. Loll notes, “Science can be used to prove that something is unauthentic, but it can also be used to prove that something is authentic. We have a wonderful de Kooning portrait in the exhibition that, because of the analysis we did, we could prove to be authentic. There are also several objects in the exhibition where Winterthur conservators were able to prove definitely that something was inauthentic. The show really covered the spectrum. It could be fake, it could be a mistake, it could be a misattribution, it could be a mystery. Sometimes, there wasn’t enough information available in the past. The science wasn’t advanced enough to give us the information it can give us today. Or maybe it was simply an optimistic misattribution. That happens a lot when collectors get involved, they get overly optimistic.”
Loll says in conclusion, “Many of the stories are actually tied to court cases and actual prosecutions. The FBI was one of our lenders. Some of our objects came right out of the evidence storage room. We talk about the evidence presented and what happened to the perpetrator. What was the penalty? A fine or jail time? In some cases, we still don’t know all the answers. We’re just presenting all the pieces of the puzzle. Sometimes they all fit together and sometimes we’re left scratching our heads. The market for fakes and forgeries follows collector trends and mirrors what the art market is doing. The gap between supply and demand is where the forger lives. He sits in that gap and supplies the market with what it’s looking for. We end with a quote from Henry Francis du Pont to the effect that it’s so much pleasanter to hear about these fakes before purchasing them than after.”
Winterthur Museum, Garden and Library is at 5105 Kennett Pike (Route 52). For more information, www.winterthur.org or 800-448-3883.
Journalist Karla Klein Albertson writes about decorative arts and design.
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