In the multi-million dollar art industry, a mistake can really cost you. This is evident in the recently discovered forgeries of ‘Old Masters’ paintings that have cost buyers a literal fortune.
The first presumed forgery was Venus by Lucas Cranach the Elder, and was seized in March by a judge in Paris. The painting belonged to the Prince of Liechtenstein, who had bought it years before from a gallery in London for 7 million euros.
Around the same time, David Contemplating the Head of Goliath by Italian painter Orazio Gentileschi at the National Gallery in London was also outed as a suspected fake. And in even more recent news, Sotheby’s seized a fake version of An Unknown Man by painter Frans Hals, reimbursing the buyer with the princely sum of £8.5 million.
The forgers involved are as good as they come and the art world is on high alert, fearing that other high profile paintings by ‘Old Masters’ may also be fakes.
Speaking to Dr Noah Charney, best-selling author of the Art Thief and founder of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, he highlights his previous writings on art forgery. According to him, the art world is less about scientific and forensic checking, and more about gentleman’s agreements and good faith.
“Artwork is rarely subject to forensic tests,” he tells me. “It is neither prohibitively expensive nor necessarily invasive to test the work. But if the artwork looks reasonably good, and – more importantly – if the story behind the work is convincing, then it is very unusual for it to be tested scientifically.”
“The dealer benefits only if the work in question is authentic,” Dr Charney adds. And if the painting’s references and documents prove that, dealers see no reason to investigate further.
When asked why he believes so many fake pieces make it into the art world, Dr Christos Tsirogiannis, senior forensic archaeologist at the University of Cambridge and researcher of the market for stolen cultural objects, also touches on the art industry’s lack of proper testing.
“Everybody claims that they care about abolishing fakes from the market and collections. However, only a few really try to detect them and even fewer have the expertise to do so,” he tells me. “Tests of all kinds may take place, but forgers are always at least one step ahead, to pass them successfully.”
However, art forgeries, specifically objects created with fraud and deception at the forefront, are actually very rare. Dr Charney estimates the number lies well below 1 per cent of public art.
What is even rarer is for us, the public, to be made aware of such events, as the leading dealers and specialists in the industry will go to great lengths to avoid being humiliated in the eyes of their peers.
But this low percentage of forgeries does not mean that there aren’t other ways to deceive art lovers. The authorship of lots of pieces of art, whether on purpose or by accident, is often misattributed and with this the value of said piece changes too, usually increasing dramatically.
Dr Jennifer Mass is a world-renowned museum scientist who founded the Scientific Analysis of Fine Art, LLC. She states that between 50 to 70 per cent of public art is said to be either fake or wrongly attributed, although she emphasises that the exact numbers are still unknown.
“Fakes and forgeries make it into the market so often because many sellers just want to move product, sometimes with very quick turn-around times, and many buyers are reluctant to do their due diligence,” says Dr Mass.
Several years ago a specialist claimed that a painting by artist Francesco Granacci was really by the great Michelangelo. If that had been true the painting’s value would have skyrocketed from £400,000 to £150 million.
Forms of bait-and-switch also occur in the art world, seen recently in the case of Alec Baldwin. The Hollywood star bought a painting he had been in love with for years, only to discover he’d been sold a version of the painting made by the artist in 2010, not the 1996 version that he adored.
Gallery owner Mary Boone, who sold Baldwin the painting, will not be charged, even though the actor claims she told him he would be getting the 1996 version. This is a prime example of how gallery and dealer reputations can shadow many of their attempted deceptions.
Dr Charney tells me that the general public love it when these high and mighty art galleries are shown up, and when the ‘Robin Hood’ forger in question manages to deceive the powers that be. As the art crime expert puts it – ‘It’s a case of Schadenfreude.’
On the other hand, surprisingly, art galleries just don’t seem interested in forgeries and would rather not know. If they believe it’s authentic and make everyone else believe the same, then technically the painting is authentic. A rare painting may be what you see, but words seem to play a much bigger role in determining its true value.
When asked what must be done to combat the fake and misattributed art crisis, Dr Tsirogiannis says: “In-depth provenance research and due diligence should be exercised on the collecting history of every art work in order for fakes to be identified, as well as illicit objects. Everybody in the art world claims that they exercise due diligence, but recent discoveries demonstrate that this is far from true.”
Dr Mass adds: “The art market is doing everything it can to get a handle on this problem. This includes intensive provenance research, marking objects that have either just been made or verified so that their movement through the market can be tracked, and in the case of New York State working to pass laws to protect experts so that they can offer opinions about an object without concern about being sued. Without such protections, it becomes impossible to get an expert opinion, and the forgers continue to have the upper hand.”
So next time you’re at an art gallery checking out your favourite painting, take a moment to think – is it the original or a well crafted fake, and, in the end, does it even affect your appreciation for it?