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.

Stubbs

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Thought-Pourri: Mergers and Acquisitions Edition

Very exciting times at the Fortress of Solitude of late, since I’ve recently acquired several new works for my art hoard and one of them I believe to be…if not by an actual Old Master whom we can name, at least a piece dating from the mid- to late-17th century. The interesting part is going to be having it cleaned, as it is absolutely filthy from years of dirt, grease, smoke, and who knows what else. However this is the only teaser you’re getting so far, gentle reader, as I’ll probably write up the experience of the reveal for The Federalist if all goes well. Now to find an art restorer who doesn’t charge me museum-level cleaning costs…

In the meantime, on to the art news we go.

Seeing Santander

The massive HQ of Banco Santander, located in the Spanish city which gave it its name, will soon become a major new private museum. The bank, which is the largest in Spain and has become far more visible internationally (including in this country) in recent years due to a number of significant mergers and acquisitions, was founded in 1851; its leadership has called the rather grandiose Pereda Building along the city’s waterfront promenade home for about a century. The financial giant is now moving into a new building, where it will consolidate many of its operations, and turn the older HQ and a neighboring building into a museum and cultural center.

British architect David Chipperfield recently won the competition for the museum portion of the project, although no estimated completion date has yet been announced. Over time, Banco Santander has accumulated a massive art collection of works dating from the 16th century to the present. Holdings include pictures by El Greco, Picasso, Rubens, Van Dyck, and Van Gogh, among many others, as well as sculpture, furniture, porcelain, tapestries, and other decorative arts. Most of these are currently held at an exhibition location maintained by the bank in suburban Madrid, which to be honest I had never heard of until this press announcement.

Once completed, the museum will certainly become a major stop on any cultural tour of Northern Spain. While somewhat uneven, as institutional rather than personal collections tend to be, there are some real gems here, particularly of turn-of-the-century art being produced in Barcelona and Madrid around the same time. One examples is this 1899 portrait of an unknown gentleman by the great Joaquín Sorolla (1863-1923). Current scholarship suggests that this is the lawyer, art historian, and one-time mayor of Madrid Manuel Escrivá de Romaní, Marques of Alginet and Count of Casal, since Sorolla inscribed the painting, “A mi amigo Manolo”, and “Manolo” is a nickname for Manuel.

Sorolla

Found Fountain

More than 70 years after it ended, the Nazi looting of Europe for art treasures continues to yield bizarre stories of loss and recovery for art historians, governments, and individuals to wrangle over. This lengthy, fascinating article in Smithsonian Magazine chronicles the creation, fame, disappearance, and rediscovery of a major work of German Art Nouveau sculpture, “Drei tanzende Mädchen” (“Three Dancing Maidens”), created by Walter Schott (1861-1938). It won the Gold Medal at the World’s Fair in Brussels in 1910, and copies were acquired by several cities and institutions; in fact, one is located in Central Park in Manhattan. The fate of the original, as you will see, is a bit murky, and the article does not resolve the question of its fate.

fountain

Getty Grief

The deep pockets of the Getty Museum and its mandate to study, inter alia, classical Greek and Roman art continue to cause problems for the Los Angeles institution. Recently, the Getty acquired the magnificent 2nd century AD bust of an unknown Roman, possibly one of the Antonine emperors, such as Antoninus Pius or Marcus Aurelius. Meanwhile, an Italian judge has recently issued a decision against the Getty involving a long-standing dispute over the museum’s famous Ancient Greek bronze “Victorious Youth”, which may have been created by Lysippus, personal sculptor to Alexander the Great.

The Getty has always claimed that because the piece was recovered from international waters, the fishermen had every legal right to sell it. However the Italian government has successfully persuaded the courts up to now that, because the piece was brought to shore in Italy, and was first sold there by its finders without an export license and without notice to the Italian government of their treasure find, the Getty must return the sculpture. It seems that Italy is arguing that the Getty has possession but no title, which any of my readers who are fellow lawyers will recognize is a classic problem in tort law with respect to tangible property ownership. Appeals are expected to continue for some time, as this will be a fight to the death, given the exceptional importance of this sculpture to art history.

Victorious Youth (Greek, 300-100 BC) - detail

 

 

 

Making The Most Of Mackintosh

The architect, designer, and artist Charles Rennie Mackintosh (1868-1928) is someone whose work may not be known to you. Perhaps his relative unknown on this side of the pond, as compared to, say, the earlier William Morris (1834-1896), comes from the fact that Mackintosh’s style evolved greatly over time, and bears the hallmarks of various styles from Historicism to Art Nouveau to Art Deco. His comparative obscurity in the U.S. may also be because the bulk of his output has remained in the UK, particularly in his native Scotland, making it somewhat physically inaccessible to the average museum-goer.

Mackintosh

Fortunately for us all, to mark the 150th anniversary of Mackintosh’s birth, a number of exhibitions, books, and articles are on tap for those who want to learn more about this highly inventive figure. For example, the Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow is hosting “Charles Rennie Mackintosh: Making the Glasgow Style” through August 14th of this year, while the Willow Tea Rooms in Glasgow, which were designed and decorated by Mackintosh himself, will be reopening to the public on July 2nd, following an extensive renovation. An accompanying visitor center which will be used for exhibitions and events related to Mackintosh and his work will be opening in September. A site listing these and many other events associated with the celebrations surrounding the designer is also worth a click through.

Willow

Mackintosh is really difficult to pin down, when it comes to his designs, since they are both historical and a-historical at the same time. As Douglas Murphy points out in this overview of Mackintosh’s career, when designing the Glasgow School of Art, “Mackintosh was somehow able to weave together a work of incredible richness and sophistication, partly through composition and decoration, partly through allusion and reference, and partly through groundbreaking spatial imagination.” The school evolved in form as Mackintosh continued to work on it for almost 30 years, mixing Scottish baronial with industrial elements, using the typical heavy stone of the area mixed with enormous, multi-paneled windows that were highly unusual in such a northern, cold, and damp climate.

Glasgow

Just this month the National Trust for Scotland, which preserves many of Scotland’s historic sites for future generations, began a major restoration program at Hill House, one of Mackintosh’s most important buildings. Located on the Firth of Clyde, an inlet of the Atlantic Ocean near Glasgow that has a relatively warm year-round climate thanks to the Gulf Stream, the house was built for a Scottish publishing magnate between 1902-1904. Like his American contemporary Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959), Mackintosh was somewhat obsessive-compulsive about the house, not only designing the building and everything inside it, but even specifying the color of flowers which Mrs. Blackie ought to place in the living room.

Hill House

Because of Mackintosh’s innovative building techniques and the residence’s location, Hill House has been falling into disrepair for some time now. Like Wright’s most famous house “Fallingwater”, built three decades later, the building is located in a beautiful spot, but the materials used for its construction were not ideal for such a damp environment. To stabilize the deterioration and reduce moisture penetration while preservation is underway, a temporary, giant glass box is currently being built around the structure, which will better protect it from the elements while still allowing workers and visitors access to the structure. It’s a terrific idea, and one that, while not inexpensive, allows for potential lighting effects at night through the clear covering, much as occurred in DC during the renovation of the Washington Monument.

In addition to buildings and furniture however, Mackintosh was also an artist, something that often gets lost in the shuffle when his work is reviewed and considered. Earlier in his career he produced images such as these, which were much appreciated internationally, particularly by the Vienna Seccessionists. Not quite Art Nouveau, not quite Art Deco, works such as “The Wassail” (1900) are more akin to the work of the Catalan Modernista movement than to what was going on in the fluffy, flowery drawing rooms of Paris and Prague at the same time.

Wassail

Later in life, as his interest in and commissions for architectural projects began to dry up, Mackintosh turned increasingly to landscape painting, particularly in watercolors. It is here that we can really see how his understanding of and appreciation for architectural massing was turned from the design of buildings to the painterly observation of them. He spent a good amount of time in French Catalonia, visiting small fishing towns and castellated villages of the interior, so much so that you can organize tours of the places he visited and painted.

Take this view of Collioure for example, painted in 1924; note how he stacks horizontal planes, one on top of each other, as he builds the strata that form the city, from the shoreline right up to the roof of the fortress.

Collioure

A similar horizontal theme predominates in his depiction of the town of Bouleternère, painted sometime between 1925-1927, but is radically altered by the vertical thrust of the church on the top of the hill:

Boule

And finally this piece, with its strikingly odd yet almost hyperreal representation of the buildings reflected in the water, depicting the Rue de Soleil (“Street of the Sun”) in the town of Port Vendres around 1926.

Rue

When you consider that, right around the same time, Joan Miró is showing the slightly younger Salvador Dalí around the concepts of Surrealism, it’s remarkable to consider that an artist-designer who began by building classical, Beaux Arts office buildings ended up his career by painting works which would have looked just as much at home in an exhibition of the early work of the two great Catalan Surrealists.

So if unknown to you prior to today, take some time to seek out information on this fascinating talent, who is lesser-known in this country than he really ought to be.