Picture this: you think you’ve just found the very last lost painting of a Master, and thoughts of money and fame are now clouding your mind. Perhaps you are a museum director or board member, or maybe you’re a passionate art collector – the point is, you’re looking for a piece of the puzzle that is missing from your collection to make it whole and, well, perfect. Now imagine you have someone who approaches you with just the right piece. How would you react? Would you believe that ‘this is it’, or would you feel overcome with fear that this missing ‘perfect’ piece is a worthless forgery?
It is telling that many respected museums and collections have seen fakes hanging on their reputable walls at one point or another. In 2014, Switzerland’s Fine Art Expert Institute estimated that up to 50% of all artwork that circulated the market was indeed fake, aka misattributed (thus having a significant impact on value) or simply forged. This figure is, of course, disputed, but the implication of even a partial truth to this assertion is unsettling, to say the least.
A fake, by definition, is a copy, a replica or a misattributed piece of art.
A forgery, on the other hand, is a work that was created with misleading (and sometimes criminal) intent. The person behind the forgery is keen to make the viewer of the piece believe that a true master was behind the creation. Art forgers are usually motivated by how much they can sell their ‘pieces’, revenge or simply because they get a kick out of showcasing their intellectual superiority.
There are many reasons why professionals shy away from doing a full authentication and prefer instead to focus on identifications. Once again – what is the difference (and why should we care)?
Identification is the scientific determination of quantitative or intrinsic elements. Identification relates to the act of determining the artwork’s core nature, which is all about characteristics, dimensions, materials, techniques, conditions, etc.
Authentication, on the other hand, has more subtleties and is the scholarly determination of qualitative or extrinsic opinions. The professional that evaluates an artwork’s authentication needs to verify that the art piece in question is genuine and that its origins are undisputed.
Let’s take a moment and look back on the night of November 15th, 2017 and remember the not-so-insignificant price tag of $450.3 million that the “Last Leonardo” fetched at an auction. Still, it has not been seen since but has nonetheless attracted the attention of scholars, journalists, and the general public. The piece attracted over a dozen articles, at least one book and one documentary. Whether or not we believe it to be an “undisputed” Leonardo, it is certainly not the only work of art that (could) hang in a museum or a gallery and be scrutinised for its authenticity. Copies and replicas are all too frequent, especially ones from certain periods in which masters would have taken on apprentices or have workshops and assistants. Then, there are also the followers, who studied the masters and mimicked their styles. Perhaps, the dots have simply not been connected, and the “original” can be found in another museum halfway across the globe.
The lack of provenance, as well as incomplete historical records, are both gems for art forgers. Some fakes are certainly easy to spot since they simply just do not feel right. In recent years, many scientific advancements – X-rays, infrared scans, radiocarbon dating, mass spectrometry, microscopy, and more advanced scientific testing – have been instrumental in uncovering forgeries. If most of us would not buy a home without fully inspecting it first, why do we see cases of buyers still eager to purchase pieces that lack documentation or have holes in their provenance? Is the attraction of scoring a “bon coup” just too good to be true?
If you want to know more about the lengths that some forgers go to in order to make their creations come across as authentic – here are some captivating documentary and movie recommendations to help you learn more about fakes and forgeries.
Art and Craft by Sam Cullman & Jennifer Grausman
This documentary is a good place to start if you are dipping your toes into the treacherous waters of fakes and forgeries for the very first time. There is something so profound and atypical about Mark A. Landis, the forger at the heart of this affair. Spoiler alert: he is the only forger who’s been “caught” but not prosecuted… You can be more hubristic (or maybe more delusional) if you donate your forgeries, but not if you sell them!
Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery by Arne Birkenstock
This documentary exposes the biggest art forgery scandal in post–war Germany (see The Last Vermeer for the one that happened during the war). There is something so compelling about the extent to which Beltracchi and his wife went to pass their forgeries for the real deal: from staging portrait sessions to painting canvas by laying them down on a bridge, this 90-minute documentary is going to bring you closer to the forger that dabbled in the style of more than 50 world-renowned artists like Max Ernst, Heinrich Campendonk, Fernand Léger and Kees van Dongen. If this alone doesn’t quench your thirst, the Beltracchi affairs also there are three additional books and a CBS news to dive into
Made You Look: The True Story About Fake Art by Barry Avrich
This documentary is one of the most recent on the list, and it looks at one of the most contemporary scandals in the art world: one that shut down Knoedler & Co. (a gallery with more than 150 years of history in art dealing) — an institution of the New York Art scene. Barry Avrich impressively managed to get many of the central figures of this FBI investigation on camera. If you were unaware of this story, the documentary will blow your mind thanks to its mix of everything you want from a suspense movie: a super-rich collector, a Chinese forger (also math professor), the possibility of extradition and flight risk. It will make you wonder…. where all those people really NOT aware of what was going on? You might end up more puzzled than when you started watching it, but you will definitely be entertained.
There Are No Fakes by Jamie Kastner
Norval Morrisseau, aka Copper Thunderbird, was often referred to as the Picasso of the North. This Anishnaabe artist signed his painting with Cree syllabics, he was a self-taught painter, and he created his own visual language based on ancient legends, myths, traditions and beliefs of his people as well as what came to him in his dream and his visions. It doesn’t sound too strange up until this point, right? Where the story takes an unexpected turn is when a rock star, Kevin Hearn (his band the Barenaked Ladies are behind the Big Bang Theory theme song), decides to buy one of his pieces. What follows will bring you incredible stories, a rich array of characters and the desire to get down to the truth – Are There no Fakes?
The Last Vermeer by Dan Friedkin
This is the only screen depiction of a forgery that isn’t a documentary. While the story it presents is well-known and very real, it is also one of our first known exposures to forgery. With Guy Pearce and Claes Kasper Bang (who is no stranger to art movies) taking on central roles, the plot is simple but far from simplistic. An obsessive collector who wanted a gem, an artist that was a talented painter but didn’t achieve the fame he was craving, and all the twists and turns of the historical events that came with WWII. If you prefer reading, head over to your local bookshop and grab a copy of The Forger’s Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century by Edward Dolnick or The Man Who Made Vermeers by Jonathan Lopez.
And if you prefer to read rather than watch a film or documentary, here are some literary favourites on the topic:
A Forger’s Tale: Confessions of the Bolton Forger by Shaun Greenhalgh
Directly from the hand of the forger, Shaun Greenhalgh takes you behind the scenes of his love for art-making and fooling people. For more than 17 years, Greenhalgh created a wide array of counterfeits and forgeries, so much so that Scotland Yard and the Metropolitan Police titled him as potentially the most diverse forgery team in the world. The story might not give you the level of excitement of other books and documentaries, but it will bring you closer to understanding how the mind of a forger really works.
Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Aly Sujo and Laney Salisbury
This book will certainly hold your interest. It is a captivating read, and it brings with it a fast-paced, elaborate con story. It is a brilliant collaboration between an artist who was trying to make ends meet and a master chameleon liar who knew how to spin a story. The forgery doesn’t stop on canvas: it infiltrates the system by going through records and provenance. Indeed, this story will sometimes seem so incredible that you will be tempted to classify it as fiction, and it surely will give you goosebumps, too. Highly recommended!
The Art of the Con by Anthony M. Amore
Amore tells many stories in his book, brushing the surface relating to cases of fakes, forgeries, frauds and misattributions. Art scams are both deeply entertaining to read about (when you aren’t the victim of them, of course). This informative book will keep you on the edge of your seat by uncovering less well-known cases and pursuing some of the more famous ones. Nevertheless, the head of security at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (yes, the same museum that is having a BIG moment on Netflix right now) will make your thoughts spin as fast as some an unbelievable art scam ploy.
The Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of the Master Forgers by Noah Charney
This book starts boldly its introduction, which showcases the words: “The World Wishes to Be Deceived”. It explores the reasons why forgers and cons do what they do: from pride to money, to fame, opportunity or power. Spanning back from antique cases to ones closer to today, this book gathers a wide array of art crimes and delivers them to you in a fascinating timeline.
Hopefully, our article has helped you gain some insight into the world of art forgery, and you’ll now be able to be more on your toes when it comes to evaluating whether a piece is authentic or not. Is there a book or documentary that you enjoy that isn’t on our list? Let us know!