O, what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”- Sir Walter Scott. Art forgery has been around for hundreds of years, and only in the last three hundred or so have we really begun to discover them. Journey through the dark world of the history of art forgery; the minds and the works of their creators, how they made them, why they did what they did, and how the experts uncovered them.
Bad artists copy, good artists steal.” Picasso. In the Renaissance era, artists were prolific. Copies from their students looked almost identical to their masters. That made it easier for the forgers. Forgery was common, even in the old days. Romans used to copy Greek masterpieces and sell them as that. When Renaissance work began to be in demand, the forgers supplied what the people wanted. And people for a very long time believed that what they owned was the real deal, since they had no way to detect it. But nowadays, the works of forgers do not last more than a generation.
Bastianini was a well known Italian forger that faked a convincing Madonna and Child. His works were so well made that even after the forgeries were discovered, they still fetched high prices. Ironically, even the greats fake art. Michelangelo created a statue of Cupid, selling it as a genuine Greek work of art. When his buyers discovered it was a forgery, they still wanted it because it was so good! Hans Van Meegren was another famous forger. He painted Vermeers and sold them to Nazis for high prices. When WWII was over, he was charged with assisting the Nazis, a crime punishable by death. To avoid that, he asked the judged to switch his charge to forgery by painting a Vermeer right in the courthouse. The sentence for forgery was only 6 months. Unfortunately, he died before he could serve his sentence.
Most forgers are great craftsmen. They need to be, to create masterpieces that mimic the best. They are also wily and witty. To make a forgery that appears old, they will sometimes stain the canvas with tea to make it look yellowed and brittle. To escape carbon dating tests, they will paint with paints made from natural substances. Some of the best forgers, such as Van Megreen, baked their paints in the oven.
With the invention of computers, detecting forgeries just got a whole lot easier. Forgers are smart, but people will go very long way to see that their ‘authentic’ painting is just that. To prove a sculpture, X-Rays can be used to check for nails and other metal attachments that are not supposed to be there. Carbon dating examines the artifact to see if it is indeed from the said era. The only drawback from carbon dating is that you have to destroy a small portion from the painting, so it is usually used as a last resort. Lastly, chemical analysis is used to check for materials like titanium dioxide, a whitener used in most modern paints. If any of these materials are used in the artwork, it is quickly declared a forgery.
The minds of forgers are often deep and twisted. But there are a few things they have in common. The apprentices of the art masters will often turn to forgery, seeing how lucrative it is. The public is happy to accept the next new Rembrandt or Michelangelo, and it disapproves of anyone who tries to question it. Despite popular belief, forgeries are almost never made to substitute for another painting. People are generally sympathetic to forgers because they fooled the experts and succeeded, at least for a little while. Conclusively, some forgeries are not made for power, money, revenge, or fame, but simply for fun.
In its essence, forgery is “The art of telling lies skillfully.” You have seen the forgers and their works, motives, the final detection of their criminal masterpieces, and how long it has been going on for. Ultimately, it is how they are discovered and brought to light which is really the most important, because if we never found them out, we would still be deceived into thinking that the forgeries are real. It is hard not to be amazed at the men who created these great fakes.