Imitation, as the old cliché goes, might indeed be the sincerest form of flattery. But it certainly can create incredible headaches for appraisers, auction house professionals, gallery dealers, authenticators, art historians, collectors and all those who deal with art and stake their careers or fortunes on the correctness of artwork attribution. Of course, copying of style in art has a long, well-documented history. The Romans admired Greek culture so much that they incorporated much of Greek art and architectural style into their own production. The two styles have become so entwined in our minds that the term ‘Greco-Roman’ was coined in order lump together the Roman production and innovations in with their Greek predecessors.
The teaching method at traditional art academies, at least until the second half of the 20th C., was heavily based on requiring students to learn the drawing, sculpting and painting methods of preceding generations. Copying directly from a well known piece was encouraged as a way to perfect the artist’s skills. Museums routinely allowed art students to sit in front of masterful works and produce copies. These “honest copies” were not intended as forgeries. Normally, if they were signed at all, the inscription would clearly point to the fact that the piece was a copy after the given artist. Plus, even if the art student was taught to grind and mix his own paints in the manner of the master, there was usually no attempt to match the panel or canvas and stretcher style of the master. Of course, these copies have made their way onto the art market over the years. But, even after time has aged the copies somewhat, the anomalies between the known artist’s works and those copied from them are readily apparent to those who routinely handle works of the master artist’s period. Well-honed connoisseurship skills are essential to anyone in the business of valuing or selling artwork.
But what of those pieces that were actually created in order to deceive? How does the forger get away with his deception? How is he eventually caught? How can those in the business protect themselves from being duped by a fraudulent piece or an entire fraudulent collection? A look at the modern-day history of known forgers, their motivations, their working methodology and the reasons they got caught can be instructive.
One might think it odd to consider the forger’s motivation and might assume that the vast sums of money he might make would be the main motivating factor. Surely, ill gotten financial gains are one factor that turns a talented painter toward forgery. But it is usually not the main factor. When interviewed after their ouster, most forgers have railed against the disrespect their own original work had been subjected to by critics and the collecting public. Others have become embittered by what they see as a system that is set up to enrich art professionals, historians, critics, dealers and collectors while exploiting individual artists.
The story of Han van Meegeren and the cache of new “Vermeers,” “Frans Hals” and other supposed old master paintings that he created just before WWII is, by now, a well known tale. It is instructive in many ways. Van Meegeren graduated from the Royal Academy of Art in the Hague in 1914. He began to show his work in 1917 and met with some early critical success. However, by the mid 1920’s, the critics had soured on his work. The cutting edge of art at the time had moved toward cubism and surrealism, styles that were more about an alternate approach to seeing reality. Van Meegeren was still working in an extremely traditional style that valued realistic representation of three dimensional subjects on the two dimensional plane. Critics decried his work as derivative and dismissed him. In 1923, van Meegeren divorced his first wife. At about the same time, he began painting a few copies of known old master paintings in order to supplement the income he made from his portrait paintings. At first, these were done and sold as honest copies. Perhaps it was the snubbing of the art world combined with the financial pressure brought on by a divorce and a new marriage in 1928 to an actress named Johanna Theresia Oerlemans that led him down the path toward forgery. Once on the path, he became quite determined to develop the skills necessary to succeed at his newly chosen profession. Producing a copy of a well known painting that is already held in a public collection doesn’t fool anyone or make a forger rich. After all, a collector will not pay much for a copy. In addition to the working methods, materials, brushstrokes and other techniques innate to a given artist, a seasoned forger studies the biography of the artist. A forger must know how to invent a piece close to the style of the copied artist, with an invented history and provenance that is plausible in light of known biographical details for the artist. In the case of Vermeer, there were only thirty-five known and accepted pieces within his oeuvre and the details of his biography were somewhat sketchy.
Van Meegeren knew that the key to getting his first fake accepted into the art world was to win over the acknowledged expert on Vermeer’s work, Abraham Bredius. He also knew Bredius’ Achilles’ heel, his desire to discover a Vermeer with religious subject matter. Although such a Vermeer had never been uncovered, Bredius had postulated in his writings that such paintings might exist. In light of the times in which Vermeer lived, it seemed a bit unnatural to Bredius that all his known works were secular. Van Meegeren took this into account and produced “Christ at Emmaus,” an interior scene of Jesus sitting at the supper table with his disciples breaking bread. It shows the wonder of first recognition on the disciples’ faces as they have just realized that this stranger at the table is none other than their Lord, Jesus. The subject matter was based on a painting by Caravaggio and fed into the belief that Vermeer had spent time studying in Italy. It was, of course, painted on a canvas and substrate that were of the correct age and using many of the same materials that Vermeer would have used. Bredius was quite captivated by the painting and enthused profusely and publically about it. With the blessing of the known authenticator, this painting was sold quickly and the door for further discoveries of religious Vermeers was opened wide. Further, after this painting was accepted into the fold of known Vermeer work, any new religious Vermeer paintings were tested against “Christ at Emmaus” for signs of similarity to it. Thus, the forged piece became the exemplar. Throughout the 1930’s and 1940’s van Meegeren introduced twelve newly discovered “Vermeers” into the art world, seven with religious subject matter. He became a very wealthy man along the way. He lived a luxurious lifestyle and acquired lots of real estate and many legitimate paintings that he offered into the marketplace along with the fakes. His wealth and his large collection helped legitimize the fakes he offered into the market.
The international upheaval of WWII served to perpetuate the hoax longer than it otherwise might have gone undetected. However, the circumstances of the war also eventually unraveled the lies and unmasked the forgery career of van Meegeren. During the German occupation of the Netherlands, one of van Meegeren’s agents sold a Vermeer forgery, “Christ with the Adulteress” to a Nazi banker who later sold it to Reichmarshall Hermann Göring for a rather large sum, the equivalent of $ 7 million in current value. Late in the war, Göring’s art collection was moved to an Austrian salt mine for protection against Allied bombing. When the Allied troops discovered the cache of looted art in May, 1945, an investigation was begun. The investigation on the “Vermeer” led back through the Nazi banker to his source for the painting, van Meegeren. Because Vermeer paintings were considered cultural patrimony, Van Meegeren was accused of collaborating with the enemy, was arrested and brought to trial. A conviction on these charges could have resulted in a long prison sentence. Under such threat, he finally confessed to having forged the painting and several others by well known 17th c. artists. He proceeded to prove his case by inventing two new “Vermeers” while in prison and under public scrutiny, “Jesus Among the Doctors” and “Young Christ in the Temple.” The charge of collaborating with the enemy was dropped and van Meegeren was convicted of a much lower charge of fraud. He was sentenced to only one year in prison, but died at home before his sentence began.
One lesson that can be gleaned from this tale is the weight that the art world puts on the connoisseurship of the accepted expert authenticator for a given artist and the effect that that person’s endorsement has on the marketplace. On the strength of the Bredius’s authentication of “The Supper at Emmaus” an entire forgery career was born. Once the concept of Vermeer as a painter of religious paintings was accepted by the art cognoscenti, the idea was reaffirmed with each new discovery. No one stopped to wonder why ten new pieces had come to market in a short ten-year period for an artist who only had 35 paintings in his oeuvre until the 1930’s. No one closely examined the provenance of these new discoveries, likely because of the war raging at the time. Investigations of ownership history might have uncovered that a painting had been looted from its last owner. In the questionable ethics of the time, buyers willingly turned a blind eye to a painting’s past.
Scientific testing of pieces that had passed through the hands of van Meegeren was not done until years after the forgeries had been discovered. These pieces appeared to be on the correct substrates. They appeared to have been painted with age appropriate materials. They had craquelure typical of 17th c. paintings and they had been vetted by the acknowledged expert on the artist. These were commonly accepted methods for authentication at the time. Late 1940’s technology for scientific study of paintings was rather rudimentary. However, in the mid 1950’s when tests were run on suspected pieces, it was discovered that a 20th C. hardening agent had been added to the paint. Van Meegeren mixed this chemical into the paint and baked the canvases in order to quickly dry the pigments and give the surface appropriate-looking craquelure. Chemical analysis of the lead white in the van Meegeren works revealed that it was of a type not available during Vermeer’s lifetime.
For whatever combination of circumstances, in the late 20th C., Great Britain has been a hotbed of faked paintings and drawings. One forger was discovered by attentive members of the best auction houses. In the fall 1970 season, London art auctioneers were stunned to notice thirteen very similar offerings. All were watercolors by a 19th c. British artist named Samuel Palmer and all were variations on the same theme, the town of Shoreham. The unusually high number of pieces by one artist offered simultaneously was suspicious enough. That they were all the same subject was impossible. The authorities were called in. The investigation that followed uncovered the maker of all thirteen to be Tom Keating, a professional art restorer who took great pride in exploiting the insiders of the art world who, he believed, prospered at the expense of artists who most often died in poverty. When Keating was finally arrested in 1977, he confessed to having produced over 2,000 fake pieces of art in the styles of about 100 various artists. He proudly claimed that his goal had been to undermine the system. On an amusing note, Keating often injected his pieces with clues to their forgery. On some canvases, before he began a painting, he would paint a cryptic note like “This is a fake” or “Ever Been Had?” in lead white, knowing that if they were ever examined in x-ray, these phrases would leap out at the examiner. He sprinkled coffee onto his paper to simulate foxing and sprinkled dust from his vacuum cleaner onto the surfaces of paintings to simulate age. Keating published an autobiography entitled Fake’s Progress and later went on to host a short-lived television show demonstrating the painting techniques of the old masters.
In 1978 the forgery career of Eric Hebborn, a Londoner living and working in Italy was uncovered by a curator at the National Gallery of Art (Washington, D.C.) named Konrad Oberhuber. Hebborn specialized in new inventive drawings in the style of old master artists done on genuine old paper. Hebborn had various sources for the old paper. The fly sheets of rare, old books was a favorite source. When Oberhuber discovered that two drawings by two different 15th c. artists that he had recently purchased for the museum were executed on matching paper, he became suspicious. In a time where paper was hand-made for a given buyer, two artist’s papers should not have matched. Oberhuber did further research and uncovered other pieces the museum had bought from the same dealer were all on the same paper. The pieces were purchased from a well respected dealer of such material, the Colnaghi Gallery-London, UK. Oberhuber reported his discovery to the gallery. However, the gallery dragged its feet about public disclosure. From the time of first discovery until Hebborn publically confessed to the ruse in 1984, at least 500 fake pieces had been produced and sold into the art market. Far from any feelings of guilt about his participation in such affairs, Hebborn boasted in the press about how easy it was to dupe the art world. He wrote an autobiography entitled Drawn to Trouble and another entitled the Art Forger’s Handbook in which he laid out the Old Master’s techniques and how to reproduce them and held the art world up for ridicule.
In the early 1990’s the team of John Drewe, a con man who claimed to be a college professor, a physicist and art collector and John Myatt, a financially struggling painter, were finally brought to justice by the detectives at Scotland Yard. Drewe had initially found Myatt through an ad he had placed in a small community paper offering to do fresh copies of old master paintings. This sort of thing is perfectly legal as long as there is no intent to fraud and the resultant products are marked in such a way to make their status as copies apparent. Until he met Drewe, Myatt’s clients were most often those seeking a fun new version of a favorite painting with some novelty twist. Occasionally, a close replica of a legitimate piece would be made to hang in the stead of the original. This foiled the plots of potential thieves and kept the owners’ insurance rates lower. Drewe first commissioned Myatt to do a few paintings for his own personal collection. He tested Myatt’s abilities at fakery over a period of several months, buying paintings copied from many well-known 20th C. European artists from him. Drewe slowly revealed the true nature of his scheme to Myatt and drew him into the forgery plot with promises of large pay-offs.
While Myatt was a talented painter, the twist that Drewe brought to the game and that helped them evade detection for quite some time was a massive assault on the archive materials housed in London’s biggest and best-known art museums. Drewe ingratiated himself with the director of the Institute of Contemporary Art. The archive at the ICA contained a treasure trove of original letters, gallery information and other material written by and about some of the 20th C.’s well known artists. The archive of the ICA was underfunded and was in sore need of updating. Drewe promised to computer scan the documents and completely update the archives. On the strength of that promise alone he was allowed to walk out of the ICA archives with boxes full of these first-hand, original documents. He ingratiated himself with a curator at the Tate Gallery-London by making a large donation and socializing with key individuals. He used his friendship to get unfettered researchers’ privileges to the Tate’s archives. Drewe doctored and manipulated the papers he took from the ICA to build provenances for the fake pieces he was offering into the market. He used his access to the Tate archives to add faked materials into their files so that attempts at provenance research would be tainted with his materials.
Provenance is the history of a piece of art from the time it leaves the artist’s studio to present day. It includes ownership history, exhibition history, gallery records, inclusion in catalogues, inclusion in a catalogue raisonné of an artist’s work, etc. Provenance research is one of the time-tested methods that art historians use to establish authenticity when it is called into question. One of the functions that a museum usually serves is to be the repository of the historical records of the artists included within its collection. These are kept in archives. The job of an archive is to house and safeguard the original historical documents and to allow access to them by legitimate researchers working on historical research. Once Drewe figured out how to manipulate the archives, he could provide his faked pieces with legitimate-looking provenance materials that would gain them acceptance by dealers and auctioneers.
The true art historical heroine of the misadventures of this con and fraud team was Mary Lisa Palmer, the long-time director of the Giacometti Association in Paris. Ms. Palmer worked directly with Giacometti’s widow, Annette, had an intimate knowledge of the artist’s work and direct access to his personal files. She was the one accepted source of authentication for Giacometti’s work at the time. Without her blessing, most of the better auction houses and dealers would not attempt a sale of an unknown Giacometti. Ms. Palmer also recognized the danger inured to an artist’s reputation and the damage wrought in the art market when even one piece of fakery is warranted as authentic. She took her job very seriously. When enquiries and requests for authentication came in from auction houses and collectors, Ms. Palmer investigated each one thoroughly. In the mid 1980’s she began to get enquiries on works that she knew to be fake but which came with enough provenance information to appear legitimate. After checking the provided information against the original documents in the artist’s collection, she confirmed her opinion regarding the pieces—that these were fakes with faked documentation. Because many of the faked documents came out of London, Ms. Palmer made several trips to the Tate and other institutions. She went to the archives personally and asked for access to the suspected documents. She was the first to closely inspect documents and find that the archives had been breached, that documents had been added into them. She alerted Scotland Yard and was a key player in the investigation that finally brought Drewe and Myatt to trial.
Of course, America has had its own sensational stories of art fakery. In the late 1980’s several art dealers in Hawaii, California and New York got caught up in the selling of fake prints based on the work of Salvador Dalí. The artist only muddied the waters and hurt his own reputation by reportedly signing thousands of sheets of blank paper for a flat charge per signature. And rather than destroy the fake pieces that had been seized as part of the legal case, the United States Postal Service offered over 12,000 fake print for sale to the public in October of 1995, putting the fakes back out into the marketplace. Accusations and legal cases involving the sale of fake prints and originals by Salvador Dalí continue to fill the dockets of courts to this day.
In each of the cases of art fraud discussed above, it took years for the forgers to be caught and brought to justice. In each case, many knowledgeable art professionals were duped. Seasoned collectors, gallery owners, auctioneers and in some cases even authenticators fell for the fraudulent art. In every case discussed, many faked pieces were left in the marketplace, in some cases several hundreds of pieces. Some of the forgers, once caught, bragged about the pieces they made and helped authorities identify their productions. Others remained silent, leaving the faked artworks as unidentified time bombs for future generations to sort out. There are several lessons that appraisers can take from these tales.
There are indeed numerous forged pieces out in the marketplace. Some of them have fooled professionals for years. Because of the intervening years since their production, more layers of believability may have been added to provenances as the pieces pass through legitimate dealers.
It is incumbent on an appraiser to be aware of the general history of faked art, to be aware of which artists are known to be the biggest targets for forgery and to be alert to the signs of forgery. Wherever there is enough money involved, there might be fakes. So, particular attention must be paid to higher valued items. Certain technological advances have blurred the lines between authentic and inauthentic works of art and have spread the sale of forged art farther and faster than ever before in history. The use of high resolution digital printing for the production and reproduction of artwork has made forgeries easier to produce and harder for the novice to spot. High resolution digital prints, a.k.a. ‘giclees,’ can be printed onto good quality art paper, canvas, almost any support. These prints are sometimes ‘highlighted’ with actual brushstrokes of paint in given areas to give the surface depth and the feel of a real painting. Sometimes these prints are sold as honest reproductions of an artist’s work. Other times, these digital prints are passed as original pieces. The rise in popularity of internet dealers and on-line auction sites makes it much more likely that a client will buy a piece before he has physically inspected it. The appraiser’s inspection might be the first time someone has taken a good critical look at the piece of art and the appraiser must be diligent to correctly identify the work before appraising it.
Connoisseurship is still the appraiser’s first and best tool. One must thoroughly examine each piece. Is the piece in the known style and known media of the artist? An appraiser must be completely comfortable with attribution of a piece before valuing it. A signature or attached tag are wonderful clues to authorship, but matching the style of a given artist is even more important than matching his signature. Do the pigments and the substrate appear to be of the appropriate age? Is amount of wear and subsequent conservation believable? Is the quality of the restoration work good? How much restoration has a piece had? What do you find with such simple field tests as black light examination? Does the signature appear to be the same age as the piece or a later addition?
The appraiser must know when to call for an authenticator and when to walk away from a project that is beyond his scope of expertise or where a client refuses to get needed authentications. When an authenticator is necessary, the appraiser must find the acknowledged expert or authentication collective for a given artist and must coordinate the inspection of the piece. A true expert on an artist knows that artist’s facture, the signature idiosyncrasies of an artist’s approach to the surface, his brushstroke, and the minute details of his style. The person with extensive first-hand exposure to an artist’s work will not be as easily fooled as someone who does not have deep knowledge of the artist’s style. An authenticator might be a long-time dealer of the artist, an art historian who has recently written a monograph or catalogue of the artist or could be a family member of the artist. Because auction houses offer certain guarantees of attribution to their clientele, they will normally know the name of the most accepted authenticator and might be willing to share such information should the need arise.
The appraiser should have access to good libraries and be willing to take the time to do a provenance search where it is needed. Appraisers should be familiar with the International Foundation for Fine Art Research (IFAR) and the Art Loss Register (ALR). IFAR is a not-for-profit organization that tracks stolen art and conducts provenance research on pieces of art. ALR is IFAR’s private database of lost and stolen art worldwide. The FBI also maintains a computerized index of stolen art, the National Stolen Art File (NSAF). An appraiser does not want to unwittingly contribute to the traffic of stolen goods. This is especially important when the appraised item is of high value and when it was created prior to WWII. Large numbers of pieces were looted from Jewish families during the holocaust and many times provenance research for these war years can be difficult.
The appraiser should keep in mind the fact that art history is not a static field. A new scientific tools become available for art research, new types of tests are conducted, the passage of time gives new insights into an artist’s style and working methodology, pieces will be added to or subtracted from an artist’s accepted oeuvre. The art historian Max Friedländer once said, “Forgeries must be served hot.” Friedlander proposed that most forgeries are discovered within 40 years of production, that 40-year period being the amount of time it takes for the next generation to recognize the modern nuances inserted into an attempted forgery and to be recognized as dated clichés of the period in which the forgery was produced. Therefore, an appraiser would want make sure that he has the most current information regarding an artist’s work.
And lastly, the appraiser must be aware of the fact that very astute experts have been fooled by good forgeries. Although it cannot be used as a covering for lack of skill, knowledge or due diligence, there are sound reasons for inclusion of the ‘readily apparent identity’ clause in the appraisal document.
Brenda Simonson-Mohle, ISA CAPP is an appraiser of fine art specializing in European and American art from 18th C. forward. She appraises paintings, sculpture, drawings, prints, tapestries and decorative arts from the period. She graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a BA in Fine Art. She worked for Newman Gallery from 1981-1984 and for Omni Art Gallery from 1984-1987 as corporate art consultant. In 1987, she opened her own business in Dallas, TX, Signet Art. Signet Art offers art advisory and appraisal services for businesses and select individuals in the north Texas area. Brenda was a docent at the Dallas Museum of Art from 1985-1995. She has been very active in the North Texas Chapter of ISA, serving as Treasurer, Secretary, Vice President and President. At the ISA national level, she has served as Fine Art Chair, Ethics Vice-Chair and Chair, Designation and Review Vice Chair and Chair.
Catterall, Lee. The Great Dalí Art Fraud and Other Deceptions. Fort Lee, NJ: Barricade Books, Inc., 1992.
Dolnick, Edward. The Forger’s Spell – A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis and the Greatest Hoax of the Twentieth Century. New York: Harper Collins, 2008.
Lopez, Jonathan. The Man Who Made Vermeers – Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren. New York, 2008.
Mould, Philip. The Art Detective – Fakes, Frauds and Finds and the Search for Lost Treasures. New York: Viking, 2009.
Salisbury, Laney and Ally Sujo. Provenance – How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art. New York: Penguin Press, 2009.
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Walton, Kenneth. Fakes Forgery, Lies & eBAY. New York: Simon Spotlight Entertainment, 2006.
Eric Hebborn. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eric_Hebborn
Eric Hebborn, Boastful Art Forger, is Dead at 61-Obituary-Biography.
Han van Meegeren. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Han_van_Meegeren
Park West Gallery Proved by Lawsuit Loss to be selling Fake Dalí Prints.
Tom Keating. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Keating
The Case of Han van Meegeren-the Boldest Forger of Old Masters.