Art forgeries: does it matter if you can’t spot an original?
Some argue that it is irrelevant who painted a picture, it’s the quality that counts. But, as a fascinating new exhibition sets out to explore fakery in art, Martin Gayford begs to differ.
By Martin Gayford
Published: 1:59PM BST 17 Jun 2010
After decades of admiration, ‘The Faun,’ supposedly sculpted by Paul Gauguin, was revealed as a fake
A certain collector amassed a large array of paintings by Walter Sickert, or so the story goes. One day he decided to present what he owned to the artist himself. Sickert examined each before announcing that he was afraid not one of them was his own work. Then he added genially: “But none the worse for that!”
Does it matter whether works of art are really by the people or cultures that are supposed to have created them? It’s a good question, without a very clear answer. Later this month an exhibition at the National Gallery, Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries, will examine the whole question of mistaken identities in art – not just outright fakes but works that in various ways are not quite what they seem.
In the first category is a group portrait, bought by the National Gallery in 1923 as 15th-century Italian and displayed for a quarter of a century before the museum shamefacedly admitted it was a forgery. An example of the second, not a fake but not precisely genuine either, is a painting in the style of the 15th-century Italian master Perugino that turns out to be a copy executed by the 17th-century master Sassoferrato.
Some hold that such details do not matter at all. The important question, they argue, is how good a picture is – not who happened to wield the brush. I disagree. The identity of the person who made what we look at is a matter that deeply affects how we feel about it. Unfortunately, we can’t always be sure about that.
Take the case of Gauguin’s little ceramic sculpture, The Faun. This work appeared on the art market in the Nineties and was purchased by the Art Institute of Chicago. Subsequently it was included in one of the great exhibitions of the last decade, Van Gogh and Gauguin: The Studio of the South (Chicago and Amsterdam, 2001-2).
It was seen by hundreds of thousands of people, virtually every art critic in the Western world (myself included) and all major experts on Gauguin. Nobody raised the slightest doubt. Then in 2007, it was revealed that far from having been fashioned by Paul Gauguin in Paris during the winter of 1886, it had in fact been moulded in the late 20th century by a forger named Shaun Greenhalgh in South Turton, near Bolton. In a way, this changed nothing. The faun remains the same pointy-eared, hook-nosed fellow that he always was.
In other ways, everything altered. A lengthy passage in the catalogue had discussed the faun’s lack of a crucial bodily part. Its parted legs, the text remarked: “reveal the absence of the often flaunted sign of a faun’s virility, resulting in an air of impotence”. There follows a discussion of what this may suggest about the state of Gauguin’s marriage, and his jealousy of a libidinous Danish writer named Edvard Brandes.
Obviously, all that art history became instantly inapplicable. The absence of the faun’s virile member is a mystery that can only be explained by Greenhalgh (who was later sentenced to four years in prison for his efforts). Perhaps it fell off in his garden shed – the workshop where he produced an enormous range of forgeries – while the sculpture was being confected.
The point of this story is not that art experts are foolish. In fact, the Faun is a very clever forgery. Its brilliance in part is that there actually was a Gauguin sculpture of a faun – it’s listed in an old inventory and may still exist in a cupboard somewhere. The lesson is that now we know it’s not a Gauguin, it ceases to be part of a larger whole: Gauguin’s art. At that point, even if it is still quite an attractive statuette, it loses an enormous amount of meaning. Discovering a work is a fake is like discovering a friend has been lying to you for years.
The trouble is that we don’t know how many other works are deceiving us in this way – and in some cases it is impossible to be sure. The National Gallery show demonstrates how technical examination can reveal forgeries, fakes, old copies and all the other ways in which art can be not quite what it seems.
In some cases, science has actually revealed a work is more genuine than it appeared: thus what had always been assumed to be an old copy of Raphael’s Portrait of Pope Julius II turned out, in 1969, in fact to be the original. Alternatively, removal of old falsifications may reveal what a work really is. One picture in the show, Portrait of Alexander Mornauer had been changed in the 18th century to make it look more like a Holbein – leading to suspicions that it was a fake. With the old retouching removed, it was revealed as a perfectly genuine painting from the late 15th century.
A more amusing case concerns an early 16th Italian painting, Woman at a Window (1510-30). When this was first bought in the 19th century it had a distinctly Victorian look, the subject’s gaze was demure, her hair brown. Cleaning revealed her to be a blonde with a come-hither look – and in all probability a courtesan.
Apart from science, the other main way in which art is tested is by the expert eye. Unfortunately, neither of these is infallible and sometimes they don’t agree. At the beginning of his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of the Getty Kouros. The sculpture of a naked youth was bought by the J Paul Getty Museum, Malibu in 1985 for $7million as a masterpiece from the 6th century BC. Initially it passed scientific tests, but immediately struck a number of specialists as “not right” – art world jargon for not the real thing. There were suspicions, for example, about “mechanical” treatment of the sculpture’s hair. Subsequently scientific analysis suggested the surface might have been aged artificially.
Gladwell chalks this episode up as a victory of informed intuition – the theme of his book. Actually, the lesson to be drawn is more complicated. The fact is that we still don’t know the truth about the Kouros. Although it’s possible the surface was faked, the process involved would be difficult, time-consuming and perhaps impractical.
That various aspects of the Kouros look “wrong” doesn’t necessarily mean they are. Other works have had the “look” of fakes, but turned out to be perfectly genuine according to scientific tests. The Fortune Teller by the 17th-century French artist Georges de la Tour was accused of being a fake in the Seventies but has since been exonerated. It still has the qualities that make it looked suspect – bright colours, awkward poses – but they turn out to be part of the genuine style of de la Tour.
The same might be true of the Getty Kouros. It doesn’t resemble other comparable Greek sculptures in some ways, but perhaps that just shows what we don’t know about ancient art. Currently it’s labelled, “Greek, about 530BC, or modern forgery”. That’s unsatisfactory but inevitable. Sometimes we can’t know what we are looking at.
Even with “authentic” works it is tantalisingly difficult to be sure about what one is looking at. Close Examination points out that the subject of Giorgione’s early 16th-century painting The Sunset – one of the National Gallery’s greatest possessions – is always going to be unclear because some of the vital details are actually guesswork inserted by restorers. That’s not unusual with an old painting.
Not surprisingly, there is a misgiving that fakes lurk undetected in the great museums of the world. One of the great forgery detectives of recent times was the late Hubertus von Sonnenburg, chairman of the paintings conservation Department at the Metropolitan Museum, New York. In his book False Impressions, Thomas Hoving, one time director of the Met, recalls how Von Sonnenberg admitted to him that his dream was to organise a show of really outstanding forgeries. “When it comes down to it,” he said, “people find it almost impossible to admit that there are any great fakes at all. Oh, how wrong they are.”
• Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries is at the National Gallery, London WC2 (020 7747 2885) from June 30