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section heading icon     art forgery

This page considers forgery and fraud relating to the fine arts.

It covers -

The following pages consider forgery of antiques and contemporary collectibles.

section marker     introduction

In introducing a 1999 Australian Institute of Criminology conference on art crime AIC Director Adam Graycar commented that

Irresponsible and distorted claims of fraud in the popular media have threatened the major multi-million dollar art industry in Australia. Art crime is often a hidden crime as many public galleries do not report theft which would show their security as being inadequate and private collections may not wish to call attention to their collections. The legitimate art market often unknowingly passes on stolen art, and the criminal art market operates in quite a different way to the general market for stolen goods.

US curator Theodore Rousseau offered a different view, commenting that

We should all realise that we can only talk about the bad forgeries, the ones that have been detected; the good ones are still hanging on the walls.

Does a forged work (or even an incorrect attribution) matter? Those questions are considered in Sandor Radnsti's The Fake: Forgery & Its Place In Art (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield 1999), Ian Haywood's Faking It: Art & the Politics of Forgery (New York: St Martin's Press 1987), Ken Polk's 1999 Who Wins and Who Loses When Art is Stolen or Forged (PDF), Bruno Frey's 1999 Art Fakes? What Fakes: An Economic View (PDF), Why Fakes Matter: Essays on problems of authenticity (London: British Museum Press 1992) edited by Mark Jones and The Deceivers: Art Forgery And Identity in the Nineteenth Century (Ithaca: Cornell Uni Press 2006) by Aviva Briefel.

Fake?: The Art of Deception (Berkeley: Uni of California Press 1990) is a splendid catalogue, edited by Mark Jones, of the landmark British Museum 'fakes' exhibition, complemented by Arnau's The Art of the Faker and Exhibiting Authenticity (Manchester: Manchester Uni Press 1997) by David Phillips.

A point of entry into the literature is Faking It: An International Bibliography of Art & Literary Forgeries 1949–1986 (New York: SLA 1987) edited by James Koobatian.

A perspective is provided by Violin Fraud: Deception, Forgery, Theft & Lawsuits in England and America (Oxford: Clarendon Press 1997) by Brian Harvey & Carla Shapreau.

section marker     varieties

As with much fraud, art forgery is a function of the forger's ingenuity or skill and what the market will accept.

Mechanisms for forgery include -

  • fake signatures - adding a recognised artist's signature (often considered to be a valuable indicator of originality) to an unsigned work not executed by that artist or by deleting an existing signature in favour of one from a more recognised artist
  • completing unfinished works - 'restoring' an incomplete work from an earlier period (with the requisite signs of age), particularly in a way that 'improves' it
  • misrepresentation - deliberately selling a retouched work by a master's protege (or merely from the corresponding period) as that of the particular master
  • reproduction - reproducing an original and selling that copy as the original
  • pastiche - copying details from different work by a particular artist for amalgamation as an unrecorded unique work by that artist
  • drafts - simulating drafts of a major work, such as an oil painting or sculpture, by concocting sketches of figures.

section marker     gatekeepers?

In introducing this profile we suggested that in practice there is an a price threshhold for collectibles - whether the used socks of Australian cricketing greats or a Mantegna canvas - beneath which there is little concern for provenance or forensic analysis. In the world of fine arts there is recurrent concern about the gatekeepers concerned with forged works priced above that threshhold.

Perceived poor performance by gatekeepers such as leading auction houses, curatorial institutions and authenticators reflects

  • the subjectivity in aesthetic judgements
  • the absence or incompleteness of information regarding provenance
  • conflicts of interest among appraisers, with high profile examples including connoisseur Bernard Berenson (1865-1959), Ludwig Burchard (1886-1960) and Anthony Blunt
  • the reticence of curatorial institutions to admit mistakes or embarrass donors
  • what one critic characterised as 'auction house ethics', with leading outlets recurrently alleged to have misled customers, actively breached regulations regarding fair trading and imports/exports or failed to meet claims regarding authentication.

Henrik Bering claimed that

What makes the swindles of the art world so unpleasant is that while you would expect this kind of behavior from a used-car salesman, you do not expect it from people who kiss you on both cheeks and play Mozart in the background.

Clive Thompson commented in 2004 that in the art world, crying 'fake' is surprisingly difficult -

Even when a dealer spots a clear forgery, few people are willing to burn bridges by speaking out. One might imagine that dealers are manic about authenticity and would be quick to publicize any possible chicanery. But when million-dollar reputations are on the line, openly claiming that someone else has been suckered - or complaining that you have been - can get you slapped with a libel suit. Even when a dealer spots a clear forgery, few people are willing to burn bridges by speaking out.

Christopher Mason more succinctly described one villain within a leading auction house as "slippery as a jellied eel in a bucket of snot".

Others have suggested that crying fake - or criticizing a dead colleague, particularly a dead colleague - is too easy. 2006 saw claims that Ludwig Burchard, one of the most respected art scholars of the 20th century and animator of the Corpus Rubenianum, provided certificates of authenticity for commercial gain. In 1950 he reportedly characterised Rubens' Gideon Overcoming the Midianites as "a compilation by a contemporary of Rubens", missing the expected "transparency of shadows". Four years later - whether he had changed his mind or been persuaded by a certification fee, he advised a London dealer of its authenticity, proclaiming "the vigour of the design, the brilliance of the vivid colours, the concentration of movement".

Questions of attribution are explored in Ronald Spencer's The Expert Versus the Object: Judging Fakes and False Attributions in the Visual Arts (New York: Oxford Uni Press 2004). Beth Houghton's Art libraries as a source of false provenance (PDF) highlights aspects of manufacturing documentation to substantiate forged works.

For the trade in 'old masters' on which the paint is still wet see in particular Sotheby's: The Inside Story (New York: Random House 1997) by Peter Watson, Sothebys: Bidding for Class (London: Little Brown 1998) by Robert Lacey and more perceptive The Art of the Steal: Inside the Sotheby's-Christie's Auction House Scandal (New York: Putnam 2004) by Christopher Mason. From Monet To Manhattan: The Rise of the Modern Art Market (New York: Random House 1992) is an excellent overview by Peter Watson.

Misbehaviour regarding modern masters is highlighted in The Legacy of Mark Rothko (New York: Da Capo 1996) by Lee Seldes and in Tod Volpe's confusing Framed: Tales of the Art Underworld (Edinburgh: Cutting Edge 2002).

For Berenson and colleagues see Ernest Samuels' two volume Bernard Berenson (Cambridge: Harvard Uni Press 1979, 1987), Colin Simpson's expose Artful Partners: Bernard Berenson & Joseph Duveen (London: Macmillan 1986), Duveen - A Life in Art (New York: Knopf) by Meryle Secrest and Bernard Berenson & the Twentieth Century (Philadelphia: Temple Uni Press 1994) by Mary Ann Calo.

section marker     incidents

Han van Meegeren (1889-1947) concentrated on forgery of Vermeer, with his Christ at Emmaus being acclaimed as authentic by art historian Abraham Bredius in 1937 and then sold for the equivalent of US$6 million. Bredius commented

It is a wonderful moment in the life of a lover of art when he finds himself suddenly confronted with a hitherto unknown painting by a great master, untouched, on the original canvas, and without any restoration, just as it left the painter's studio! And what a picture! ... what we have here is a - I am inclined to say - the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft

Van Meegeren had earlier been dismissed as

A gifted technician who has made a sort of composite facsimile of the Renaissance school, he has every virtue except originality.

He was exposed after his arrest for selling a 'Vermeer' to Hermann Göring, defending himself by painting another 'Vermeer' in his prison cell - thereby escaping a conviction for collaboration but gaining a sentence for forgery and confiscation of proceeds equivalent to US$40 million. He had happily spent another US$20 million on champagne, morphine, fast cars and accommodation. Göring was apocryphally told that his painting was a forgery while awaiting execution, with a contemporary remarking that he "looked as if for the first time he had discovered there was evil in the world".

Contemporary Joseph van der Veken (1872-1964) - best known for his The Just Judges, a commissioned copy replacing the stolen panel from Van Eyck's Adoration of the Mystic Lamb in Ghent Cathedral - is now associated with a fake Memling Mary Magdalene and other Flemish Primitives.

Icilio Federico Joni (1866-1946), the D'Annunzio of forgers and author of the self-promoting 1932 Le memorie di un pittore di quadri antichi, was responsible for a Madonna and Child with Angels by Sano di Pietro in the Cleveland Museum of Art collection (exposed in 1948), a Triptych in the Courtauld Institute Gallery and a Madonna & Child, Saint Maria Maddalena and Saint Sebastiano in the style of Neroccio di Bartolomeo Landi in the Lehman Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

Umberto Giunti (1886-1970) was more reticent as he moved from Siennese fresco forger to discoverer of lost Botticellis. Louis Marcy (aka Luigi Parmeggiani, 1860-1932) faked medieval and Renaissance caskets, jewelry and reliquaries when not penning articles for anarchist magazines reviled the propertied classes. He was rivalled by Giovanni Bastianini (1830-1868).

Otto Wacker (1905-1976), a Berlin cabaret performer turned art dealer, unloaded some 33 previously unknown 'Van Gogh' canvases - supposedly painted 35 years before - from 1925 onwards, convincing authorities such as Julius Meier-Graefe and Jacob Baart de la Faille, author of the Van Gogh catalogue raisonne.

Elmyr de Hory (1905-1976?), subject of a biography by Clifford Irving (the basis for Orson Welles' 1975 film F is for Fake), claimed that he had successfully forged almost a thousand paintings by contemporaries such as Chagall, Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso.

English artist Tom Keating (1917-1984) is reported to forged over 2,000 paintings by around 100 artists, starring in a television program after confessing in 1976. Eric Hebborn (1934-1996), sometime protege of brilliant scholar and KGB agent Anthony Blunt, admitted to forging over a thousand Old Master drawings attributed to Poussin, Bruegel, Rubens, Van Dyck, Pontormo, Castiglione, Mantegna and Tiepolo.

More recently UK artist John Myatt (1945- ) created works attributed by associate John Drewe to Chagall, Giacometti and Ben Nicholson.

In the 1994 'Canyon Suite' case 28 'undiscovered' Georgia O'Keeffe watercolors were sold for US$5 million after reported endorsement by the O'Keeffe Foundation and National Gallery of Art in Washington. They were dropped from the canon in 1999.

In 2004 the Guardian revealed that Sothebys had catalogued a landscape by Marinus Koekkoek (estimated value £5,000) as a work by 19th century Russian realist Ivan Shishkin with a tag of £700,000. Euphrosyne Doxiades has controversially claimed that the UK National Gallery's Samson & Delilah (acquired for several million in 1990) is incorrectly attributed to Peter Paul Rubens and indeed may not be from his era. The Cleveland Museum of Art' paid US$1 million 1974 purchase for a St Catherine supposedly painted by Matthias Grünewald. The work was subsequently attributed to restorer Christian Goller.

In May 2000 Sothebys and Christies embarrassingly realised that they were both offering the one and only Vase de Fleurs by Gauguin, with the FBI tracing the forgery to dealer Ely Sakhai (PDF). Sakhai had supposedly bought authenticated minor works by figures such as Chagall, Renoir, Gauguin, Monet and Klee. He allegedly sold copies of those works to buyers in Asia, accompanied by genuine or forged certificates of authenticity, and subsequently sold the originals in different markets.

Bronzes, typically issued in small editions rather than as unique items, pose particular difficulties with illicit castings from legitimate moulds competing with works that are copied from originals or merely in the style of a master. Apart from greats such as Rodin and Brancusi, ersatz versions exist of works by/after Degas, Bugatti, Barbedienne, Remington, Fremiet, Arp and Barye. French dealer Guy Hain was imprisoned in 2001 for faking sculpture by Giacometti, Carpeaux, Barye, Brancusi and Arp - an estimated 4,000 pieces for revenue of over US$60 million.

It has been claimed that many signed prints by US photographer Lewis Hine (1874-1940) were in fact created after his death by or for trustees Walter and Naomi Rosenblum. German collecter Werner Bokelberg exposed forgery of Man Ray's most famous images from the 1920s and '30s, such as La Marquise Casati and Noire et blanche. His investigation began when he became suspicious at the increasing availability of an unusually large selection of rare Man Ray photographs

It was too good to be true. I could have any picture I wanted

... a reminder of the principle that if it seems too good to be true it probably is.

famously quipped in 1940 that of the 2,500 paintings Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot (1796-1875) created during his lifetime, 7,800 were to be found in the US - an echo of the barrel load of holy nails, spears and other 'unique' items highlighted earlier in this profile.

That quip has been almost as popular as Corot. ARTnews thus noted in 2005 that

Back in 1940 Newsweek reported that out of 2,500 paintings produced by Corot, 7,800 were in the United States. In 1953 ARTnews stated that there was a "saying in France that Corot painted 2,000 canvases, 5,000 of which are in America". In 1957 the Guardian in London noted that Corot painted 5,000 works, of which 10,000 were in the United States. And in 1990 Time magazine let it be known that "it used to be said" that Corot painted 800 pictures in his lifetime, of which 4,000 ended up in U.S. collections.

The aging - and profoundly greedy Salvador Dali (1904-1989) - merrily signed his name to reams of blank paper which associates then turned into lithographs. Others simply copied fake or real Dali prints (and associated authenticity certificates) on a large scale. 2007 saw a repeat of the Dali lithograph scam, with unauthorised prints by anonymous graffiti artist Banksy being illicitly sold on eBay by employees of his printer as limited edition signed works, complete with a forged signature and fake authenticity stamp. Prices for the prints were artificially boosted raised by shill bidding before the scam was exposed by a whistleblower.

Perhaps it is easier to create an artist? Skeptics have questioned the very existence of Pietro Psaier, supposed collaborator of Warhol and Jean-Michel Basquiat, friend of Francis Bacon and artist whose paintings, prints and autographs enjoyed a commercial vogue from the late 1990s onwards.

section marker     memoirs and scams

Insider accounts are provided by Eric Hebborn's The Art Forger's Handbook (New York: Overlook Press 1997) and Drawn to Trouble: Confessions of a Master Forger (New York: Random House 1993), criticised in Art of the Forger (New York: Dodd Mead 1985) by Christopher Wright. Tom Keating & Geraldine Norman collaborated on The Fake's Progress (London: Hutchinson 1977).

For Vermeer and van Meegeren see Jonathan Lopez' persuasive The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren (New York: Harcourt 2008), Anthony Bailey's Vermeer: A View of Delft (New York: Henry Holt 2001), John Godley's Van Meegeren, Master Forger (New York: Scribner 1967), Frank Wynne's I Was Vermeer: The Legend of the Forger Who Swindled the Nazis (London: Bloomsbury 2006), Edward Dolnick's The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis & the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century (New York: HarperCollins 2008) and Hope Werness' 'Han van Meegeren fecit' in The Forger's Art: Forgery and the Philosophy of Art (Berkeley: Uni of California Press 1983) edited by Denis Dutton.

For de Hory see Clifford Irving's gonzo-ish Fake: the story of Elmyr, de Hory, the greatest art forger of our time (New York: McGraw-Hill 1969) and Affairs of a Painter (London: Faber 1936) by his predecessor JF Joni. Dali's 'auto-forgery' is described in The Shameful Life of Salvador Dali (London: Faber 1997) by Ian Gibson and Lee Catterall's The Great Dali Art Fraud & Other Deceptions (New York: Barricade 1992). In 2004 Finnish police announced that they were investigating a fraud in which dozens of high-quality photocopies of works by Dali were passed off as originals and sold for up to €10,000 each. In 2008 attention turned to lrge-scale production of 'Dali' sculptures.

There are accounts in The Modigliani Caper: Fraud, Fun, Fiasco and Remorse in Modern Italy (San Francisco: Austin & Winfield 1995) by Jon Bruce Kite and Fake, Forgery, Lies & eBay: Confessions of an Internet Con Artist (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson 2006) by Kenneth Walton. Max Friedlaender's Genuine & Counterfeit: Experiences of a Connoisseur (New York: 1930) offsets Berenson.

Authenticity in the Art Market: A Comparative Study of Swiss, French & English Contract Law (London: Sweet & Maxwell 2006) by Carolyn Olsburgh offers a point of entry to the literature.

section marker     Art forgery in Australia

Australian artists and the local market have not been immune from forgery.

There have been recurrent exposures of works attributed to Whiteley, Streeton, Dobell, Drysdale, Heysen, Nolan, Lindsay and Conder. Artist Will Blundell gained attention in 1998 for claims that his 'innuendos' (works in the style of artists such as Streeton) had entered major collections, with or without the addition by others of fake signatures.

Other embarrassments included the 1993 removal from auction of a 'Russell Drysdale' Boy Feeding the Dogs after Queensland Art Gallery staff questioned its authenticity, removal of a 'Sidney Nolan' Siege at Glenrowan from a Christies auction in 1993 and a 'Brett Whiteley' Lavender Bay in 1988.

Dealer Lauraine Diggins expressed concern in 1999 about the art trade's response to exposure of a 'Tom Roberts' (a snap at $245,000') and 'Arthur Streeton' ($115,000), commenting

I'm not prepared to perpetuate this type of behaviour. I will not do it, and I hope that the person who's responsible for this will be stopped from continuing to pass forgeries and I hope that the industry will change.

[the attitude from trade was] Not supportive at all. Most people don't want to know that it exists, and pretend it doesn't, and a lot of the time it's hushed up and brushed under the carpet.

Ken Polk's 1999 AIC paper Who Wins & Who Loses When Art is Stolen or Forged (PDF) notes concerns about misattribution of Indigenous art, with painter Clifford Possum for example controversially claiming that particular works were not his. Pamela Liberto and Ivan Liberto were jailed for nine months in 2007 after forging works by Rover Thomas, four of which sold for over $300,000.

Other studies such as Christine Alder's Challenges to authenticity in the Aboriginal art market (PDF), Karen Dayman's Authentication: the role of the Aboriginal art centres (PDF) and the 2007 Senate Indigenous Art - Securing the Future report note instances where a major Indigenous artist has 'donated' a signature to a work wholly prepared by other artists or to works that were largely prepared by other artists. Some works have never been near the particular artist - or indeed any Indigenous person - with both the work and the signature being forged.

The extent to which such problems would have been addressed by the proposed authenticity label is unclear.

Estimates on the number of forgeries in circulation and their value are problematical. (The basis for claims that over 15% of the paintings sold throughout the world are forgeries is unclear.) In Australia there have been few prosecutions and even fewer convictions.

Paul Baker's Policing Fakes (PDF) notes that the major recent conviction for art forgery was 1977, with a Melbourne art dealer convicted of five counts of dishonestly obtaining money by selling Russell Drysdale drawings he knew were fake. Drysdale was fortunately available to testify that the drawings were not by him.

In a variation on 'hidden in plain sight' Baker notes the defence counsel's argument that his client must have been innocent because

openly displaying the drawings for the world to see were the actions of an innocent man, not one who thought they were fakes.

His analysis of impediments to detection and successful prosecution, consistent with other observers, features -

  • lack of complainants to initiate charges - law enforcement agencies respond to complaints rather than independently initiating investigations. Few dealers, sellers and buyers have been enthusiastic about revealing their gullibility or their association with a duff work.
  • the reluctance of some dealers, including major houses, to reveal the source of suspected/known forgeries, leading to claims by some observers that some works are deliberately put up for auction in order to gain the legitimacy of a catalogue entry, are withdrawn and are then sold privately
  • low priority - art fraud is perceived as less serious than some other offences, such as the drug trade, and complainants "will more than likely be referred to the relevant Department of Fair Trading"
  • the scarcity of experts able to identify counterfeits, with a difficulty in identifying people who could corroborate the allegations of forgery in court
  • the reluctance of experts to give evidence
  • illicit or unavailable provenance, with authentication often being easier to manufacture than the actual work and some artists (such as Whiteley) known to have secreted or given away works
  • questions about appropriate jurisdiction and relevant legislation, with Baker mordantly commenting that the NSW Crimes Act specifies offences regarding stealing motor vehicles, trees, cattle, dogs and even dead wood but is silent on fraud relating to art forgery or distributing counterfeit artworks.

Perspectives on the Australian market and authentication are provided by Annette Van den Bosch's The Australian Art World: Aesthetics in a Global Market (St Leonards: Allen & Unwin 2004) and Stephen Scheding's A Small Unsigned Painting (Sydney: Vintage 1998) and The National Picture (Sydney: Vintage 2002).

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version of August 2008
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