They are undoubtedly the work of a genius, art experts admit. But police are now investigating a spate of brilliant Old Masters forgeries which have fooled the world’s leading auction houses and museums.
The authorities are seeking to crack the ring, thought to be the work of a highly sophisticated modern forgery workshop, based in Italy.
Around 25 “fake” Old Masters, bought and sold for £200m after bypassing expert scrutiny, are believed to be in circulation.
“Whoever has been making them is an artist of extraordinary skill” Forgery expert Dr Bendor Grosvenor
The scandal threatens to undermine faith in the authentication process of those institutions which presented them as genuine works.
A painting of Saint Jerome, sold in 2012 for $842,500, attributed to the 16th-century artist Parmigianino, is the latest work to be sent for technical tests by Sotheby’s in New York, amid concerns that it is a modern forgery.
The painting was displayed by the Metropolitan Museum in New York in 2014.
Sotheby’s was previously forced to reimburse the buyer of an £8.4 million painting, An Unknown Man, supposedly by Dutch master Frans Hals, after forensics company Orion Analytical determined that it was a fake.
Traces of 20th century synthetic materials were discovered under the paint, leading Sotheby’s to conclude that the painting was “undoubtedly” forged.
The forger is suspected of responsibility for a painting thought to be by Italian master Orazio Gentileschi that was loaned by a private lender to the National Gallery.
Painted on the semi-precious stone lapis lazuli, David with the Head of Goliath, displayed from last April, supposedly dates from 1692.
Dr Bendor Grosvenor, the BBC Fake or Fortune art expert, concluded: “For what it’s worth, I believe it is a forgery. But it took me a long time, and a flight to Berlin to see an undisputed original Gentileschi for comparison, to figure it out.”
No reason to doubt says National Gallery
The National Gallery said it performed “due diligence research” on the work, which arrived with no published provenance after being bought by a London dealer, and had “no obvious reasons to doubt” that it was authentic.
The scandal broke when Venus, a painting by German Renaissance master Lucas Cranach and bought by the Prince of Liechtenstein for £6m was seized by authorities at an exhibition in the South of France, following a criminal investigation. It was sent to the Louvre for testing.
Italian dealer named as the link
The link between the paintings is that they have passed through the hands of a previously unknown Italian, French-based dealer, Giulano Ruffini, who appeared to have discovered a string of Old Masters. “I am a collector, not an expert,” claimed Ruffini, 71, who said it was other experts who deemed the paintings to be authentic.
Richard Feigen, a leading Old Master art dealer in New York, called the affair “one of the biggest scandals in my memory”, which should make institutions “very wary about things they are offered and the sources of those things.”
However Dr Grosvenor cannot disguise a sneaking admiration for the “Moriarty of the Old Master.” “Whoever has been making them is an artist of extraordinary skill,” he wrote.
“Equally skilful is the ability to age these modern creations in such a way as to make them look centuries old. Sadly, we don’t yet know who this genius is.”
The scandal was unearthed by an investigative art journalist, Vincent Noce.
Fake or fortune?
Orazio Gentileschi – David contemplating the Head of Goliath (1692)
The “rarest and most bizarre object” in the National Gallery’s Making Colour show, the painting on a panel of semi-precious blue lapis lazuli stone creates a spectacular sky behind David. The Gentileschi was “discovered” in 2012 and sold to a private collector, who loaned it to the National Gallery. It has been returned to its lender.ADVERTISING
Frans Hals – An Unknown Man
Authenticated by a senior curator at the Louvre, the newly-discovered painting was sold to London dealer Mark Weiss, who also handled the Gentileschi, and sold in good faith through Sotheby’s in New York for $10m in 2011.
“An in-depth technical analysis established that the work was undoubtedly a forgery,” concluded Sotheby’s which rescinded the sale and reimbursed the buyer.
Lucas Cranach – Venus with a Veil (1535)
Sold in 2013 to the Prince of Liechtenstein for £6m, Venus had been authenticated as a Cranach by scholars. Seized by French police, a new analysis suggests artificially-aged paint on a panel crated 200 years too late for the German Renaissance painter. A link to the Hals prompted Sotheby’s to investigate its own sale.