9 February 2023

The museums putting fake art on display

Some of us might like seeing experts duped – while, for others, it’s about self-validation. Clare Thorp looks at the museums intentionally showing forged masterpieces.

A new Johannes Vermeer exhibition is always an event in the art world, such is the enduring allure of the 17th-Century Dutch artist. But visitors to a current show dedicated to the painter will find that only half of the six works on display were created by the hands of Vermeer himself.

Shortly before Vermeer’s Secrets opened at Washington DC’s National Gallery of Art, the museum revealed that a work in their collection previously attributed to the artist, Girl with a Flute, was not by him. “For years there’s been a question mark over it,” says curator Betsy Wieseman. The assumption had been that Vermeer started the painting but it was finished by someone else. Yet scientific research undertaken when the museum was closed during the pandemic showed that there was nothing in the under-layers of the painting that was more skilled than anything on top. “At every stage in the painting there was some sort of misunderstanding on the part of the artist, whether it was how finely to grind the pigments or the proper proportions of the materials to use, that created some inherent defects,” Wieseman tells BBC Culture.

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The painting was likely done by an associate of Vermeer, someone who worked closely with the artist – but wasn’t quite able to match his technique. “It’s an honest production, made by someone trying their hardest to imitate a given artist, but there’s no intention to deceive,” says Wieseman. “It’s not a fake, it’s not a forgery.” That isn’t the case with two other paintings included in the exhibition.

A National Gallery of Art team used pigment analysis to find that Girl with a Flute (1665-1670) was not painted by Vermeer (Credit: National Gallery of Art)

A National Gallery of Art team used pigment analysis to find that Girl with a Flute (1665-1670) was not painted by Vermeer (Credit: National Gallery of Art)

Looking at The Smiling Girl and The Lacemaker now, it’s hard to imagine how the stiff, awkward figures and heavy-handed brushwork ever passed for the Dutch master. Vermeer, famous for his brilliant use of light and colour, which gave his subjects a trademark luminosity, would surely be aghast to be associated with them.

But when they came to the market in the 1920s, they caused a flurry of excitement among collectors – especially Andrew Mellon, who snapped them up, before donating them to the NGA in 1937. They hung next to the gallery’s other European masterpieces, but doubts soon grew about their authenticity – and in the 1970s, scientific research confirmed the paintings used materials that didn’t exist in the 17th Century. The works are thought to be by Theodorus van Wijngaarden, a Dutch painter, restorer and dealer – and friend of the now infamous Vermeer forger Han Van Meegeren.

So why have they returned to prime position on the gallery’s walls now? “As we’ve determined that this painting Girl with a Flute was not by Vermeer, one of the first questions people have is: ‘Well, is it a fake? Is it a forgery?’,” says Wieseman. “No, turn around and look at some forgeries on the opposite wall, and we’ll walk you through some of the differences.”

Girl with the Red Hat is attributed to Vermeer; the painting (1669) is believed to have inspired the painter of Girl with a Flute (Credit: National Gallery of Art)

Girl with the Red Hat is attributed to Vermeer; the painting (1669) is believed to have inspired the painter of Girl with a Flute (Credit: National Gallery of Art)

The subject holds a particular interest for Wieseman. In 2010, while working at the National Gallery in London, she co-curated an exhibition called Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries. “They’re fascinating documents about the history of taste, and of certain artists and their flow and popularity. I’m also fascinated by the tricks that a forger uses, the ways they devise to make their forgery look like something that’s centuries old.”

In the spotlight

The NGA isn’t the only gallery choosing to put fake artwork on display. Currently running at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio is an exhibition called Fakes, Forgeries and Followers, a collection of paintings and works of decorative art that aren’t what they first seem. “Some of these works have been in storage for three decades or more, and we thought it would be interesting to bring them out and tell their stories,” curator Tamera Lenz Muente tells BBC Culture. “The stories of what they were thought to be originally, when Charles and Anna Taft purchased them in the late 19th and early 20th Century, and what science and scholarship goes into determining a piece is not authentic, or not what it was believed to be.”

The exhibition includes paintings once believed to have been by Rembrandt van Rijn, John Constable and Francisco Goya. Some works were on view as recently as 2004, says Muente, and not all are deliberate forgeries by the artist themselves. “We have a legitimate painting by Frederick Watts, who was an admirer of Constable. He made works that were about very similar subjects, and he exhibited at the Royal Academy and other exhibitions as his own work. Some dealer very likely added the signature J Constable in the corner of the painting at some point, and it was shown as a Constable in multiple exhibitions like in the 1880s.”

The Taft exhibition includes Man Leaning on a Windowsill, probably early 1700s, by an imitator of Rembrandt van Rijn (Credit: Taft Museum of Art)

The Taft exhibition includes Man Leaning on a Windowsill, probably early 1700s, by an imitator of Rembrandt van Rijn (Credit: Taft Museum of Art)

For Muente, fakes can play a valuable role in art history. “They can tell us about the art market at different periods,” she says. “When you have objects that are in such high demand, of course, you’re going to have people who are trying to cash in on that – not only artists mimicking other eras of art, but also dealers willing to do shady things to pass off something as something that it’s not. I also think understanding what isn’t real can help you learn more about the real thing.”

It might seem brave for a gallery to admit they’ve been duped, but the proliferation of fakes throughout history means most museums have items that aren’t what they first thought. “It creates a kind of patina of humanity,” says Gareth Fletcher, lecturer and seminar tutor in Art Business at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, who leads a course on Art Crime. “Not only do the people that acquire things get it wrong sometimes, but they’re owning up to it and reflecting on what they’ve learnt in the process. I think we might see more exhibitions opening up the skeletons in the closet.”

In plain sight

So, how many fakes are actually out there? “The fundamentally wonderful aspect of that question is that we just don’t know, because some people are clearly doing a very good job,” he tells BBC Culture.

Earlier this year, the FBI seized 25 paintings “purported to be by artist Jean-Michel Basquiat” that were on display at the Orlando Museum of Art. Suspicions were raised when it was discovered one of the paintings was painted on a Fed Ex shipping box. A brand expert told the New York Times that the typeface imprinted on the box was not used by Fed Ex before 1994 – 12 years after the paintings were said to be created, and six years after Basquiat’s death.

In June, a planned exhibition at the National Museum of Slovenia was cancelled over concerns that some of the featured works – apparently by Pablo Picasso, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse – could be forgeries. In 2018, the Terrus Museum in Elne, Southern France – dedicated to the works of painter Étienne Terru – discovered that 83 of its 140 paintings were counterfeit.

Van Wijngaarden worked with Van Meegeren on forging Vermeer in the 20th Century, with paintings like The Lacemaker (Credit: National Gallery of Art)

Van Wijngaarden worked with Van Meegeren on forging Vermeer in the 20th Century, with paintings like The Lacemaker (Credit: National Gallery of Art)

Stories of fakes continue to make headlines – and continue to fascinate us. Real-life tales of fakes and forgeries in the art world can be as gripping as any detective drama – just see the popularity of the BBC’s Fake or Fortune, where each episode determines whether a work is real or counterfeit, as its owner waits in the wings to see if they’re in possession of a lost masterpiece, or just a cheap imitation.

A 2020 Netflix documentary, Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art, was an engrossing account of the biggest art scandal of recent times, in which New York’s prestigious Knoedler gallery was accused of selling $80 million worth of forgeries – including works purporting to be by Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock. The paintings turned out to be the work of one man, Pei Shen Qian, who created them in his garage in Queen’s.

Three methods are used to assess a painting’s authenticity – its provenance (documents detailing its history of ownership), connoisseurship (expert opinion) and technical analysis. The last of these, especially, can providing some compelling “gotcha” moments – in the Knoedler case, forensic tests on a supposed Jackson Pollock painting, Untitled 1950, showed a yellow paint not available until 1970.

The stiff figures; clumsy brushwork; and lack of attention to anatomical proportions meant critics doubted the authenticity of The Smiling Girl (Credit: National Gallery of Art)

The stiff figures; clumsy brushwork; and lack of attention to anatomical proportions meant critics doubted the authenticity of The Smiling Girl (Credit: National Gallery of Art)

Wieseman thinks it’s more than the detective process that has us hooked on these kinds of stories. “I’ll be honest – I think a lot of people just want to see the experts fail,” she says. And if not the experts – then perhaps the people who are wealthy enough to buy these pieces in the first place. It’s the flipside of feeling thrilled for the old lady on The Antiques Roadshow who discovers her dusty heirloom is worth thousands and can now afford her dream holiday.

“It bleeds into the whole class divide,” says Fletcher. “Not everyone is going to have access to get into this club, so there’s a sort of smug grin you might have when you realise a person that has been in a position of power and privilege and authority has been misled or duped. It’s an aspect of our human condition.”

For the forgers themselves, creating these pieces can be about self-validation. “The motivation perhaps for someone who didn’t quite get [their work] into a museum, or didn’t quite get gallery representation, might be to try and subvert the power hierarchies of the art trade with the intention to deceive from the outset,” says Fletcher. “It’s all about trying to convince someone that what you’ve made is as good as something that they would expect to be from the hand of a ‘master’. It’s a form of cultural validation.”

Landscape with Canal, c 1820-60, by Frederick W Watts – an admirer of Constable, he wasn't attempting to create a forgery (Credit: Taft Museum of Art)

Landscape with Canal, c 1820-60, by Frederick W Watts – an admirer of Constable, he wasn’t attempting to create a forgery (Credit: Taft Museum of Art)

One of the most prolific forgers in US history, Mark Landis, spent 20 years posing as a philanthropist and donating fakes he’d created to over 50 museums, while never profiteering. “I’d never been treated before in my life with so much respect and deference,” he said. “I got addicted to it.” Despite the deception, Landis never made any money from it, so it wasn’t seen as a crime.

Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi profited handsomely from their crimes – passing off their own creations as works by artists such as Max Ernst and Fernand Léger, and selling them for millions, before getting caught out by the wrong pigment. They both served lengthy prison sentences. But when interviewed for an upcoming book they said they “got a kick” out of fooling a “fraudulent” art world. “For some forgers, I think it’s a kind of pathological behaviour,” says Wieseman. “It is a fascinating subculture.”

Tricks of the trade

Crime writer Peter James interviewed real-life art forgers to research his latest book, Picture You Dead, which revealed secrets such as sourcing a genuine artist’s smock from the period so that any fabric fibres that made it onto the paintwork would date it correctly.

Forgers are wily, agrees Fletcher. “Good forgers will have done their research. They’ll know not to use pigments that were made after the supposed date of the creation of the work. That’s the kind of stuff that tripped up forgers 50 years ago.” He’s heard of forgers sending test pieces to laboratories dedicated to determining authenticity to see if they’re along the right lines. Forgers will likely target artists where there is speculation or uncertainty over exactly how many works they created in their lifetime – so to cause less suspicion when a “new”, uncatalogued work suddenly appears on the market.

But if the forgers are getting better, so is the technology that catches them out. “I would hate to be a forger now because I think that the scientific techniques and the imaging techniques have become so sophisticated,” says Wieseman. “It’s possible to pinpoint the location where a particular mineral pigment comes from, for example a region in Afghanistan.”

Scandals like the Knoedler one make the art world extra cautious. “It kind of laid bare that the biggest names in this trade are just as exposed to getting it wrong,” says Fletcher. “And some galleries and auction houses have a lot more reputation at risk than others.”

In 2016, Sotheby’s acquired the specialist research firm Orion Analytical, becoming the first auction house to bring scientific research in-house and “help make the art market a safer place”. But Sotheby’s is just one auction house in an expansive – and expensive – art world, and Fletcher thinks it will be some time before the impact of new technologies filters through to the entire market. Meaning fakes and forgeries will still be out there for many years to come.

Some are so notorious they become collectors’ items in their own right. Last year, a famous copy of the Mona Lisa sold for 2.9 million euros at auction – more than 10 times its appraised value by Christie’s. Fletcher thinks it’s a trend we might see more of in the future. “I reckon the market for fakes will actually start to grow and become more attractive,” he says. “As long as you’re going in eyes wide open and acknowledge the fact that it’s not by who it appears to be. Nonetheless, the people that created these works are talented individuals, and it’s a piece of subversive cultural history.”

And when an artist has the capability to create something so good it’s mistaken for the real thing – should we be so quick to dismiss it?  “I’ve met a few forgers and they are very interesting people. Sometimes slightly peculiar too, but definitely interesting, and they have a skill set,” says Fletcher. “If the forger has a parity of skill with the artist they’re purporting to represent, then you could argue the toss on that and say well, actually, what is the difference?”

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