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.


Thought-Pourri: Windy City Edition

I’ll be heading to Chicago this evening, and on Saturday, May 5th at 11:00 am, I’ll be speaking to the Catholic Art Guild at St. John Cantius parish, on the subject of how a rapidly secularizing culture is becoming increasingly illiterate, with regard to works of sacred art. More details can be found here. Although Catholic in orientation, the problem at hand has wider application for those who care about art, regardless of their particular faith or philosophy. I understand that there will be complimentary donuts and coffee at the event, which some may find a greater draw than yours truly, but I do hope that those of you who are in the Chicagoland area can drop in and say hello.

And now we will have just a quick roundup of some interesting news from the creative world this week.

French Fakery

Étienne Terrus (1857-1922) was a Post-Impressionist painter and friend of Matisse, who spent most of his career painting beautifully dappled landscapes and seascapes in Roussillon, a French province that was formerly part of Catalonia. The museum dedicated to his work in Elne, an ancient town in this region, recently discovered to its horror that nearly 60% of the paintings in their collection are fakes. It’s difficult to understand how so many of these went undetected for so long, given that, as described by the art historian who made the discovery, “[o]n one painting, the ink signature was wiped away when I passed my white glove over it.” Investigations into how and by whom this deception was carried out are ongoing.


Chagall: No Sale

Subscribers may recall my drawing your attention to an effort by the National Gallery of Canada to acquire a rare religious work by the French Neoclassical master Jacques-Louis David (1748-1825) for their permanent collection, by selling off another painting in their collection by the more popular Franco-Russian Modernist, Marc Chagall (1887-1985). The story gained a great deal of criticism in the art press, and social media campaigns were started against the move. Now that effort appears to be scrapped, as the government of Quebec has created a kind of poison pill proviso, mandating that whoever bought the painting would be required to keep it in Canada. The National Gallery still doesn’t have the funds to permanently acquire the work, but at least it won’t be disappearing anytime soon.


Mixed Masters

One of my favorite new resources in the art world is the Colnaghi Foundation, the non-profit educational arm of Colnaghi’s, the venerable Old Master art dealers who have been doing business in London and elsewhere since the mid-18th century. Like yours truly, albeit on a much grander and more beautifully executed scale, they hope to bring new audiences to old art, something which is not at all easy to do when most of the art world seems to be ignoring art created before circa 1900. If you happen to find yourself in New York between now and next Thursday, you can check out “Textura”, a new exhibition which they have launched in conjunction with London Modern and Contemporary Art dealer Ben Brown, juxtaposing works by Spanish Old Masters with Spanish Modern and Contemporary artists. Were my schedule accommodating enough I would go myself, but hopefully one of my readers will see the show and leave us some thoughts in the comments section?


Finding Fakes: New Museum Confronts Old Problem Head-On

Collecting antiquities is fraught with peril, and not just if you are Indiana Jones or Lara Croft. With advances in technology and scholarship, more and more museums and collectors have discovered that some of the prize possessions in their display cabinets are not what they appear to be. Although this kind of bad news is often swept under the rug rather quietly, by institutions or individuals who do not wish to damage their prestige, I want to share an interesting example of how one American museum recently handled this situation in just the right way.

San Francisco’s Mexican Museum was founded in the 1970’s, and over the past 40 years it has amassed a collection of over 16,000 objects, dating from Prehistory to the present-day. For most of its existence the Museum has been somewhat nomadic, lacking a permanent home and with its holdings scattered in warehouses around the city. Beginning in 2019 however, a new high-rise tower currently under construction in the SoMa district of the city will house the Museum on four of its floors.

In 2012, the Museum won a coveted Affiliate Museum status with the Smithsonian Institution, a relationship which allows it to draw upon the resources and expertise of the Smithsonian in areas such as exhibition planning and object conservation. As part of its due diligence in granting affiliate status, the Smithsonian required testing and authentication of the objects in the Museum’s collection. The oldest part of that collection includes a large number of Pre-Columbian artifacts, i.e. objects that were created by native peoples before the arrival of Columbus.

The analysis of these objects has just been completed by the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History and, unfortunately, it turns out that a significant portion of the Museum’s holdings – such as the pot pictured below – are either fakes, or cannot be authenticated“According to the report, only 83 of 2,000 artifacts from the pre-Hispanic, or pre-Columbian, era could be certified as museum-quality by an independent team of museum curators who came from Mexico City to conduct the test. The other 1,917 are considered “decorative,” and will probably be given to schools or smaller museums before the museum moves from its temporary Fort Mason site to a permanent home…”

As an aside, I find it somewhat curious that a “Mexican” museum would be housing (alleged) Inca artefacts. The Inca Empire, even at its fullest extent, did not reach anywhere near Mexico, nor did the peoples of present-day Mexico and Peru share a common language, culture, or religion. It’s a bit like putting objects from Norman England into a museum dedicated to the history of Seljuk Turkey. But there you are.

In any case, it’s anticipated that, as the analysis of the other objects in the Museum’s collection continues, more fakes will probably be found. The Museum expects that the number of red flags will decrease as the relative age of the objects under examination decreases. This seems a reasonable expectation, particularly once the analysis reaches into the 18th-20th centuries, although no doubt there will still be things like fake retablos and reproduction pottery to sort through.

While the findings were rather shocking, the damage here is not ultimately fatal. A collection of over 100 authentic pre-Columbian objects is still a significant one. For our purposes moreover, there are a couple of takeaways for us to consider as part of this story.

First, kudos to both the Smithsonian and to the Mexican Museum for doing their jobs properly. They thoroughly examined the collection under a magnifying glass, using the best experts available, and then publicly addressed the results pf those findings. It’s a breath of fresh air to see public institutions appreciating their duty to the public whom they serve, more than they appreciate their own egos – see, e.g., the current disastrous situation at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Second, this is a very useful cautionary tale when it comes to collecting antiquities, whatever culture they may come from. Most of us are not in a position to purchase large numbers of these things, but there are certainly tempting objects out there for us to acquire. In fact, you could go to an online auction right now, and purchase something that was (supposedly) made centuries ago, by a long-vanished civilization. This story ought to show you why it’s important to be extremely cautious, before acquiring something described as a Middle Kingdom ushabti, a Tan Dynasty bronze, or a Classic Maya pot: even museum curators can be fooled.