Why are we asking this now?
The National Gallery is about to mount a major exhibition on counterfeiting in art. He reveals throughout the exhibition that the gallery itself has been duped many times in the past. A so-called Botticelli work, for example, one of a pair purchased in the third quarter of the 19th century, was later discovered to be the work of a pasticheur, painted in the style of Botticelli. The works of other Old Masters have been proven to be those of studio assistants, friends of the artists, or even forgers who may have lived hundreds of years later.
Is it easy to fake a masterpiece?
Not as difficult as you might think, although some would be more difficult than others. A forger should focus on the present – or the relatively recent past. Tom Keating, the most famous forger of our time, did just that.
For example, it is much easier to reproduce a work by Picasso than a major work by a Renaissance painter. Picasso is much less delicate. Moreover, he often worked very quickly, painting a single painting – or even several paintings – in a day. His paintings are relatively easy to characterize and caricature. Technically, many of the approximately 10,000 he produced in his disproportionately long life would be relatively easy to replicate. They rarely get bogged down in onerous details. Additionally, the types of paints he used – or their equivalents – are still widely available today.
Does the gallery world’s eagerness to promote culture as a hobby encourage counterfeiting?
Undoubtedly. And especially in America. This is where forgery and counterfeiting begin to merge and blend into the restaurant world almost seamlessly. There are few things more dazzling than a well-restored painting, and the Met in New York and the National Gallery in Washington are full of them.
That’s how people want to see them. The public, having paid its money, expects perfection. Thus, old dull paintings, little by little, are repainted, with painstaking love. It happens all the time. When, in 1994, the Sistine Chapel was restored to the state it would have been in when Michelangelo painted it, was it still by Michelangelo? Or is it now a modern fake – or almost? This is a moot point. The Chinese are much more honest about these things. If you go to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, you will find that the plaque on the wall of this splendid wooden structure will read: first built in 1420. Why pretend otherwise?
Why is it important that a painting is a fake?
This is very important for the institution that owns it. In the case of a painting newly reallocated to Michelangelo at the National Gallery in Washington – Saint John the Baptist Bearing Witness – the difference between 400,000 and 150 million pounds counts. It is the difference between its value when attributed to Michelangelo and its value when attributed to his somewhat older friend, Francesco Granacci.
And why did this tremendous jump in value suddenly occur? Because Everett Fahy, former head of European paintings at the Met, had a “eureka moment” as he put it, when he looked at the painting again. It’s that simple.
Is it so important for the average gallery visitor?
Much less. For the most part, we know most of the paintings we like by looking at them in reproduction. These are images of these reproductions that we carry in our heads, and if coming face to face with the originals gives us a qualitatively different experience, so much the better. Moreover, the very fact that a painting has been restored and re-varnished several times means that the authentic historical object has withdrawn from us. What we see is an object given a new life by loving restorers.
So are there a lot of counterfeits in our museums?
This is too crude and unseemly a question; it is better to ask the same question in a more nuanced way. As the forthcoming National Gallery exhibition will demonstrate, many works were purchased because they were, at the time of acquisition, believed by harumph experts of the day to be by Painter X, no doubt my dear boy.
When the next generation experts arrive, they may be inclined to disagree. So the real question is this. Of the paintings that belong, for example, to the National Gallery, how many of them are no longer of the person they were thought to belong to in the first place? What’s more, it will be easy for a large gallery to smack us of the dust as most of these dubious attribution paintings will now be in store, so they won’t be on the gallery walls for us to scrutinize. .
But exactly how many are wrong?
A reasonable estimate might be that at least 20% of the paintings held by our major museums, some on the walls, many others in the vaults, will no longer be attributed to the same painter in 100 years. Another thing to keep in mind is this: the less money the institution has to spend to restore its paintings, the more likely it is that the paintings will be in a condition that looks like they once would have. You see evidence of that in many of our smaller provincial museums. Suddenly you find a seedy Blake. It hardly seems worth a second look. Look anyway. It may be untouched and neglected Blake, as authentic a specimen as you are likely to see.
Is the fake on the rise?
Undoubtedly. It is flourishing, especially in the field of architecture. But this is not called by the crude name of trickery. Go to Saint Petersburg or Dresden where great buildings were destroyed during the Second World War, buildings that had helped define a nation – the Frauenkirche of Dresden, this large baroque church which was rebuilt stone by stone; or Catherine the Great’s Palace, with its recently recreated Amber Room, just outside St. Petersburg. They look so impetuous and so brazen, these monstrous and shining edifices, that they must be fakes. And they are. But in a sense, they are not. They are also the past, brought back to miraculous life, a past that a people desperately seeks to save from oblivion and the terrible depredations of war.
Is it possible to limit the fake?
* Museums should be stricter in their attribution policies
* If in doubt, do not buy. This may discourage fake peddlers
* Educate the public to buy new art and hate copies and the problem will be solved
* Fakery has been an easy way to make money through the ages. It will continue to be so
* There will always be a demand for copies of masterpieces, whether they are considered fakes or not
* Copying masterpieces has long been considered a form of learning