Art Forgery: Criminal? Or Impressive?
By Izzy Turner
We commonly associate art forgery with the explicit intent to deceive for the purpose of financial profit. This has often been the case in high profile forgery cases, when a skilled painter has forged numerous works by famous artists, where they then get taken for genuine works and sold sometimes for thousands, even millions of pounds. However there is often much more of a grey area between what is a fake and what is genuine work of art, which art dealers, museums and auction houses all take into account when evaluating a work of art.
It was during the Renaissance that art became a high value commodity, and the artist became increasingly more important in valuing works of art as buyers wanted the very best. Therefore knowing who painted the work of art suddenly became increasingly significant, and measures such as artist’s signatures were used for identification. Nevertheless, forgery occurred, and even then developing sophisticated techniques to deceive buyers. Even the great Michelangelo was found to have created a sculpture of a sleeping Cupid and treated it with acidic earth to make it look older in order to sell it on to a cardinal.
But copying works of art was not always the contemptible practise of deceitfully forging. Forgery as we know it now didn’t entirely exist before the Renaissance as a copy could perfectly well stand in for the original. Roman sculptors often copied older Greek sculptures, and often we would not know about the originals if we did not have these copies. They were not attempting to deceive as the buyers presumably knew they were not genuine, but instead created for numerous reasons such as aesthetic inspiration or as a historical referent. Many later artists would work in the style of earlier artists and to copy a work of art was considered an act of flattery to the artist rather than deceit. Similarly, works produced from the workshops of the Renaissance masters could be considered to be copies and therefore fakes. However this is generally only if they have been misattributed and usually these workshop pieces are still works of art in their own right.
Then there are the high profile cases of artists deliberately painting in the style of another to pass it off as someone else’s work of art, which often results in the court cases and the embarrassment to art specialists, connoisseurs and galleries alike. The methods of dating works of art have become more advanced with scientific technologies such as carbon dating, x-rays and infrared analysis, as well as examining the type of paint used to see if it is of the right period. Connoisseurship is also relied upon to see if the brushstrokes look correct, as well as identifying the provenance of a work of art to see if there is a reliable paper trail of documents to prove its authenticity. However as techniques of dating have become more sophisticated, so have the techniques of forgers. Sometimes it is so well done that it comes down to just one great connoisseur looking closely at the brushstrokes to see if it “feels right”.
However whilst deliberate art forgery is a crime, high profile art forger’s have become infamous in their own right because of the skill of deception and their artistic ability in imitating some of the greatest and most expensive artists of all time. Wolfgang Beltracchi, the German forger, copied some of the most reputable twentieth century artists including Pablo Picasso and Max Ernst. His work appeared on the front page of a Christie’s catalogue and hung in galleries around the world unbeknownst to the art world for years. He was described as a genius in the way he could imitate any artist by getting inside their mind-set and filling a gap in their collection. He and his wife’s elaborate plan, which included faked photographs and aged canvases, fooled the art world for years until 2008 when a discrepancy in the paint used led to Beltracchi’s imprisonment for 6 years. However since his release, he has exhibited his own work in an exhibition and celebrities have lined up to have their portrait by him, making millions as an artist himself.
Art fakes and forgeries could still well be hanging in the world’s most prestigious galleries and museums today. It is of the upmost importance that when buying or selling art, that the exact provenance is known. Yet these works can still be admired for works of art in their own right. The criminality arises from pursuing profit deceitfully, but to be able to copy a revered artist takes an enormous amount of artistic skill. Although court cases and prison sentences will attest that it is probably best to pursue your artistic interest honourably.