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Art Forgeries

Updated on May 5, 2010

Forgery, in art, is a fraudulent imitation of an artist's work or style. Such works are also called fakes. The term "forgery" does not apply to paintings, sculptures, or other works that are admitted to be imitations. For example, young artists sometimes make copies of the old masters as part of their training.

However, these works are not forgeries, because no one pretends that they were actually produced by the old masters. To protect himself against buying a forgery, an art collector should insist, whenever possible, that the dealer give him a provenance. This is a written account of the history of the art object, including its previous owners and sales.

Famous Art Forgeries

The number of art forgeries has greatly increased since World War II because of the growing scarcity of originals and the enormous prices that collectors are willing to pay. Most modern forgeries have been of works by highly popular Impressionist and Postimpressionist painters, such as Renoir, Van Gogh, Cezanne, and Matisse. The painter who has probably been most forged is Corot, of whom it is said, "Corot painted 2,000 pictures, 10,000 of which are in the United States."

Forgeries are sometimes sold at public auctions to unsuspecting buyers. However, even the most respected experts have been fooled, as in the notorious case of Hans van Meegeren, the most famous art forger of modern times. Van Meegeren sold more than 2 million dollars worth of "original" works by the 17th-century Dutch master Jan Vermeer. To fool his buyers, who were mostly experienced private collectors and representatives of museums, he bought inexpensive 17th-century paintings to give his frames and canvases an antique appearance. He then painted over the 17th-century pictures, using hand-mixed pigments that did not appear to contain any modern colors or chemicals. He further "aged" his works by applying a certain resin and by heating the canvases in an oven to produce cracks.

Van Meegeren's mastery of Vermeer's style was so complete that he was able to invent a "lost" Vermeer, which he called Supper at Emmaus and which authorities pronounced a masterpiece. It was only by confessing his forgeries and executing a "Vermeer" while in prison that Van Meegeren convinced the experts that the supposed Vermeers were not genuine.

In contrast with Van Meegeren's intentional forgeries, in the 1920's an Italian stonecutter, named Alceo Dossena, innocently executed dozens of sculptures in the ancient Greek, medieval, and Renaissance styles. Unknown to Dossena, however, unscrupulous dealers sold his imitations as originals for high prices.

Methods of Detecting Forgeries

The problem of forgery is especially difficult in the case of modern works. If the original artist is alive, he may be called on by a suspicious collector to verify the work in question. If the artist is dead, the suspected work may be closely compared with known originals to point out similarities or differences in style. Bernard Berenson, a famous expert on Benaissance art, was able to identify forgeries simply by discovering an inconsistency in the style that the forger used in painting such apparently insignificant details as an ear or a cloud.

However, there are occasions when forgeries can be detected only by scientific methods. On Feb. 13, 1961, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City announced that three terra-cotta sculptures that it had prominently displayed as Etruscan works of the 5th century b.c. had been exposed as fakes. As in the detection of most forged antiques, the museum based its conclusion on scientific analysis. Chemical tests revealed that the glaze on the sculptures contained manganese dioxide, a substance first used in the 19th century. A supposedly Etruscan sarcophagus in the British Museum was proved a forgery because of the same inconsistency. Modern techniques of detecting forgeries also utilize X rays, ultraviolet and infrared rays, and high-power magnification.

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