This exercise brings to light the widely-held belief that we all (experts included) are easily fooled and that many of our art galleries contain works that aren’t what they claim to be. Are experts and the general public being duped in large numbers? A recent spate of high-profile art cases has brought this question to the forefront in the world of art.

The most notable of these cases is that of Wolfgang Beltracchi, who created a large number of fake works by artists of the early 20th century, such as Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, and several German Expressionists. The fakes were sold with false provenances, claiming to be from his ancestors’ supposedly distinguished collection. In 2011, he was sentenced to four years of imprisonment. This seems a small punishment for such a major fraud.

It’s amusing to see experts misled, and not just because it punctures the bubbles of self-proclaimed connoisseurs. We enjoy an added level of excitement when the experts are curators at one of our most important museums or galleries.

German art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi

We’ve heard some lurid estimations of the number of fakes in public collection. The Independent published an article last year entitled “The big question: how many paintings are fakes in our public museum?”. Michael Glover said:

In 100 years, at least 20% of the paintings displayed by major museums, both on the wall and in the vaults, will not be attributed to the same artist.

This might lead the reader to believe that 20% of paintings are fakes. However, this is not being claimed. The fact that a photograph is now attributed to “a Rembrandt follower” instead of “Rembrandt,” for example, does not make it a fake. Early copying and studio practice rarely involved forgery. It is not impossible to have 20% of the attribution changed, even if it’s a minor change.

Advice for forgers

The number of fakes that are not recognized in the major collections of old masters will be very low, especially with the scientific tests available today. It would be foolish to say that a forgery of an old master painting with many layers and complex details would not be detected, but it is probably not worth a forger’s effort to try to avoid the tests. It’s better to choose more recent paintings if you are an aspiring forger.

We can see this by the large number of recent fakes of Russian art from the 20th century. As wealthy Russian buyers flood the market, prices are surging. The pigments used, and the supports are similar to what is available today. The paint was applied directly and in many cases, quickly, without complicated underlayers. The paper trail is less, as much documentation was lost during the Soviet period. There is a lack of expertise in this area among collectors and historians.

A thin, simple painting will be much easier to paint than a Vermeer.

Drawings are the best way to create an old master. You can easily obtain old papers and recreate old drawing materials such as iron-gall. Choose a drawing style that is least dependent on the “handwriting” of the artist.

Leonardo: Outwitting the ‘Leonardo”

This was something I noticed at work when, a few years ago, I received a call about a sheet of double-sided mechanical studies from “Leonardo”. The provenance was cleverly fabricated. The drawing was found on the endpapers of a book from the 18th century that was being rebound. The studies were similar to those found in the Madrid Codices and only discovered in the 1960s. Leonardesque was the mechanism that lifted a heavy load on the front. The notes and writing sounded exactly like Leonard’s.

The back, however, was not as good. There were many mistakes made in the mechanical parts and notes written in slanted angles. As is often the case, I then began to notice the problems with the front mechanism, including a thin axle that could not support the load. This was not something Leonardo would do. As soon as you notice something is wrong, it opens up a world of problems. The forgery was not successful, but it came close.

Our eye-based judgment is very malleable. I co-authored, a study that shows that we react differently if you tell us that a “Rembrandt” is real or not. We need to get all the support we can from documentation, provenance and supporting historical evidence.

We are shamefully inept at weighing different types of evidence. As long as this situation continues, forgers will be able to get away with much more than they should. It matters. It is not a game. A forgery, no matter how enjoyable or convincing it may seem, is a lie. Although the replica at the exhibition is not a true fake (studios alter the size slightly from the originals), it will make me nervous to visit Dulwich.