Suzanne Slick, Collection Information Specialist
Our visitors often ask us how we choose the art that we collect and how we know that it’s authentic. We don’t have any major known scandals in our closet, but we have learned that a few prints we own were not actually printed and signed by the artist. They were probably not created as forgeries, but were made after the artist’s passing. This left enough doubt, however, that we, in good faith, can’t attribute them to the artist.
Recently, quite a few news stories have documented several art forgeries, faked documents, and looted art resulting in millions of dollars scammed from unwitting buyers. Forgeries and fakes are nothing new, and the unscrupulous are always looking for ways to fool the art world. Buyer beware!
One of the best defenses against being fooled is the buyer’s thorough, due diligence, defined as “action that is considered reasonable for people to be expected to take in order to keep themselves or others and their property safe”.
When buying art, the more knowledge, the better.
Knowledge of the artist’s history, media, subject matter, and style can be invaluable for authentication. If available, check the artist’s catalogue raisonné, a comprehensive catalogue of known works by the artist. Establish provenance when possible by asking for known documentation on the artworks history of ownership. An evaluation of the work’s condition by a qualified appraiser may be a valuable investment as well. And, if in doubt, check for legal compliance with cultural heritage laws. This may also prevent the acquisition of looted objects, objects protected by antiquities laws, or sacred objects.
When there is doubt about a work of art’s origins, museums may employ technology that can provide answers. Non-intrusive methods like UV-induced fluorescence imaging can estimate the age of paints and varnishes. Optical microscopy can produce highly magnified images of the surfaces of art, revealing clues in brushstrokes. X-rays may reveal images beneath the surface or identify materials that were not yet in use at the time the work is dated. Infrared imaging can detect sketches below a painted surface and also cracks that were faked to simulate age. Invasive techniques are sometimes needed for conclusive answers – these often involve removing a bit of material from an edge of the work and performing mass spectrometry analysis of the molecular structure of the material. Sometimes the absence of a commonly used material, like lead white paint that was widely employed until 1910, will indicate forgery. Technology can also reveal much about an artist’s processes. The Center for Scientific Studies in the Arts, a collaboration between Northwestern University and the Art Institute of Chicago, a leading organization in advancing the role of science in art history, recently discovered a painting beneath Picasso’s “La Miséreuse accroupie” that shows he repurposed canvases that others had painted.
Faking documentation has also been a forger’s trick – and in at least one case, was the forger’s downfall. Eric Ian Spoutz, a once trusted gallery owner, was sentenced to serve 41 months in the Federal Correctional Institution in Morgantown, West Virginia for wire fraud related to his sales of forged Willem de Koonings, Picassos, Chagalls, and Joan Mitchells. The evidence that tipped the scale was an old typewriter. The FBI Art Crime Team found that Spoutz had used the same typewriter to create many of the false provenance documents for the estimated $5 million worth of works from a multitude of sources that he forged. He wasn’t as clever as Lee Israel, forger and author of Can You Ever Forgive Me?, who used several vintage typewriters to create the fake authors’ letters she sold to collectors and archives. Her career as a forger ended, however, when the thefts of the original letters were traced back to her. Incidentally, she also worked as a copy editor for Scholastic magazines.
A 1920s scam was also derailed because of carelessness in research and document production. The Minor Affair was an attempt by a mother/daughter team who hoped to profit from a cache of faked Lincoln letters and other “historic” documents. In this case, it was not a museum that was victimized by con artists, but The Atlantic, the staid and respected pursuer of truth founded in Boston in 1857. The journal’s editor had fallen for the charming owner (and author) of the letters and had published some of them, much to his later regret. The letters and other documents were handwritten by the same person – her mother! They also contained inaccurate references that were quickly pointed out by Lincoln scholars including Louis A. Warren, director of the Lincoln Historical Research Foundation, Fort Wayne, Indiana. It took several months of damage control to restore The Atlantic’s reputation. Publishing a myth-busting rebuttal helped!
Sometimes eagerness to acquire specific objects sets a collector up for fraud. The Green family learned that the hard way when it was found that several objects in their Museum of the Bible were fake. The Greens were known as avid buyers of religious objects and were exploited for their enthusiasm by peddlers of fake Dead Sea Scrolls fragments. Ultimately, these objects were permanently removed from the museum’s displays.
And then there are the happy outcomes that result from authenticity investigations like that of the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, who were ecstatic to learn that their contested Van Gogh painting, Fruit with Chestnuts, was, indeed, painted by Vincent, probably in Paris in 1886. The authentication was based on advanced imaging that revealed another Van Gogh work beneath the still life and on the painting’s provenance that traced its ownership to known associates of the artist.
Even the most respected and established museums have been victims of art crime. The curators of the Palace of Versailles were duped into spending millions on counterfeit Louis XV furniture just a few years ago. They were alerted of the “Acquisition Dangereuse” by a Parisian antique furniture dealer who had tasted the licorice used as a finishing agent on the counterfeits! The scandal spread far and wide in the French antiquities community and resulted in the reform of acquisition processes in French national museums. It also resulted in several arrests, including that of venerable art historian Bill Pallot.
We do seem to love the scandal and gossip that erupt from these cautionary tales of fake art, forged documents, and counterfeit treasures. And now there is a museum just for that – the Museum of Art Fakes in Vienna where fakes are not exactly celebrated, but do inform us about the art of forgery. The good thing is, the more we know, the harder it is to be fooled!