Daily Archives: July 8, 2011

Fake or Fortune?

‘Selling at 95 million dollars’.  The auctioneer’s hammer falls and a painting is sold.

It is a clip from the opening sequence of Fake or Fortune? a four part series on BBC 1 which investigates the mysteries behind  paintings.  The investigation is led by Fiona Bruce (the newsreader and journalist) and Philip Mould (the art expert, borrowed from the Antiques Road Show).  They have been styled by one critic ‘the Emma Peel and John Steed of the art world’.

Bruce sets the scene:  ‘The art world  –  glamour, wealth, intrigue. Beneath the surface there’s a darker place  –  a world of high stakes and gambles’.

We are certainly in territory where unbelievably large sums, ten of millions of pounds, are paid for art works.  Inevitably the art market provides a magnet for fraud, theft and corruption.  The Art of the Heist series on Sky Arts demonstrated the risks thieves are prepared to take.

In 2000 two Renoirs and a Rembrandt worth 80 million dollars were stolen in an armed daylight raid on the national Museum in Stockholm.  And in 1990 up to 500 million dollars of art was ripped from the walls of the Isabella Stewart Garner Museum in Boston in a single night.  The haul included works by Vermeer and Rembrandt.

Big names mean big money, and much of the present series focuses on authenticity  –  on establishing that the painting in question is actually by the artist whose name is on the canvas.

Forgery, and also misattribution, has been a constant thorn in the side of scholars and art dealers.  For centuries it has been an essential feature of art training for the student to analyse, copy and imitate the style of acknowledged masters.  Some become particularly proficient in the skill and become outstanding copyists without necessarily demonstrating a corresponding level of originality in their own work. A few channel their abilities to meet the demands of the illegal art market. 

 At its best such forgery is difficult to detect.To establish authenticity art experts have traditionally relied upon a mixture of connoirseurship, gut-feeling and provenance.  But in recent years advances in forensic science have provided far superior techniques for analysing materials and researching beyond the surface image.  The detailed examination of a fake Vermeer, created by the master Dutch forger Van Meegeren, illustrate this development perfectly.

The introduction of such scientific analysis has influenced the choice of targets for copying.  The forger of the twenty-first century tends to copy contemporary or modern works  –  they are less likely to attract close scrutiny and the materials are more easily matched.

The scale of forgery activity is staggering.  According to the Head of the Arts and Antiquities Squad at Scotland Yard, some law enforcement agencies suggest that between 40-50% of the art market could be fake  –  though no evidence was offered to explain how this estimate was reached.

Fake or Fortune? is an interesting and informative series.  My disappointment is that it concentrates almost exclusively on the symptoms of the chaos and pays little attention to the causes.  For example, I would like to ask:

  • Why is anyone prepared to pay so much money for a work of art?  Is it genuine love of art?  Greed?  Investment?
  • Why is the artist’s name so important?  If the experts have difficulty in determining authenticity there is presumably little discernible difference in quality.  Why should the name have such a dramatic affect on the valuation?
  • Who are the forgers?  Should skills of high quality be more publicly respected and recognised?  Vermeer was master painter:  Van Meegeren was a master forger.  Would such recognition attract these ‘artists’ away from illegal activities?

See also What’s in a name?  What is it about Neighbours? Show me the Monet!


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