Art Crime: As Forgers Gallop Ahead, Are We Falling Back?

I want to draw your attention, gentle reader, to this rather lengthy, but fascinating article in The Guardian about the increasing problem of art forgery, and how some are addressing this issue.

Although much of the piece focuses on the rather surprising situation of an art forger joining the ranks of legitimate art experts, which is perhaps not unlike how hackers are co-opted by government authorities to go after other hackers, there are deeper, more complex issues raised by the piece as well. The article reveals, as I’ve written about for quite some time, how a decline in the technical quality of works of art created over the past century has made it increasingly easier for forgers to create and sell fakes. At the same time, when it comes to pre-Modern works of art, a corresponding decline in art scholarship has made the faking of such works a somewhat easier affair as well, since there are fewer people around capable of disputing their authenticity.

The astronomically high prices being paid for Modern and Contemporary works of art are a natural draw for the criminal classes. In addition, because the materials used by Modern and Contemporary artists are more readily available than the materials used by artists in previous centuries, there is a greater possibility for the forger of Modern and Contemporary Art to escape detection. Moreover, as The Guardian almost, but not quite, admits in the article, this type of crime has become easier because the common criticism of much of 20th century art – “My kid could do that” – has a ring of truth to it.

“…many forgers are sensibly choosing to falsify 20th-century painters, who used paints and canvases that can still be obtained, and whose abstractions are easier to imitate. “The technical skill needed to forge a Leonardo is colossal, but with someone like Modigliani, it isn’t,” she said. “Now, scholars will say it’s easy to distinguish, but the fact is that it’s just not that easy at all.” In January, in a celebrated Modigliani exhibition in Genoa, 20 out of 21 paintings were revealed to be counterfeits.” [emphasis added]

When it comes to those who study, but do not produce art themselves, the situation is arguably far worse. For every 100 artists turning out works that demonstrate little or no understanding of artistic technique, there is still at least one working artist who knows how to employ time-honored methods to create a piece that will stand the test of time. People like my friend Rupert Alexander still produce stunning, painstakingly created paintings that can hang comfortably alongside works created centuries earlier.

Yet among art connoisseurs, the pool of knowledge is rapidly shrinking, since no one is interested in studying old, dusty things. As Bendor Grosvenor explained in the Guardian piece, “In British art now, for a major artist like George Stubbs, there’s no recognised figure that we can all go to and say: ‘Is this by George Stubbs or not?’ Because various specialists have died recently, and there’s no one to replace them.”

Anyway, some things to think about while reading this article; I leave it to the reader to decide my arguments have any merit.


5 thoughts on “Art Crime: As Forgers Gallop Ahead, Are We Falling Back?

  1. Thank you for pointing out the Guardian article. Sounds like science will be helpful with old masters in at least dating the works and keeping the connoisseurs honest. The loss of old school connoisseurs is certainly a problem. However, I think technology will help mitigate the loss as museums digitize their collections and put them online although the best digital images will never be able to show brushwork. It’s all interesting to contemplate.


  2. I have never developed a taste for ‘mainstream’ art much more modern than Klee, say, whom I find very entertaining indeed. Beauty is certainly in the eye of the beholder, as are gullibility and willingness to own certain items which may be frankly rubbishy by many objectives standards but which are trendy and costly for whatever reasons. To me, there needs to be some feeling of good-naturedness in there, especially if the technical skill is lacking, or else I find nothing to attract me. *shrug* Best wishes to all!


  3. The story of the talented art expert James Martin could be made into a film ( a wonderful documentary).
    However, I did not appreciate the author’s description of this incredible person. “Consummate nerd” and “boy scout” were unnecessary demeaning descriptions of a very intelligent man doing honourable work.
    He is an exceptional person.


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