Friday, October 21, 2016

Art Forgery

Phony artwork has been around for centuries--probably millennia. Quite a few artists in the Renaissance, including Michelangelo Buonarotti, produced forgeries. In fact Michelangelo's fake was a marble cupid (destroyed in the 17th century) that was sold to a cardinal as an ancient masterwork.

Han van Meegeren, "The Disciples at Emmaus."
There have been quite a number of famous art forgers over the years. One of the best known is Han van Meegeren who produced audacious fakes, including a fraudulent "Vermeer," he called "The Disciples at Emmaus." He was prosecuted for collaborating with the Nazi occupiers of Holland during World War II, and his fakery came out during the trial. The painting, left, is stiff and dull to the eye, with little in common with Vermeer's genuine works except the lighting. It is odd to think that several experts believed this plodding picture was a real Vermeer.

The decades since that war have provided a cast of characters who have drawn or painted or sculpted works intended to look like ancient relics, or like the work of a known master. In the United Kingdom, the very prolific forger Shaun Greenhalgh produced a large but still unknown number of forgeries that he and relatives sold.
Shaun Greenhalgh, "Faun" (attributed falsely to Gauguin)
Included in Greenhalgh's oeuvre were fake Egyptian antiquities, paintings, sculptures and other works attributed to many different artists. According to at least some accounts, he was motivated more by a fierce pride in his talent and  anger at his obscurity than a desire for profit. Indeed, he recently suggested that he was the true author of "La Bella Principessa," the drawing attributed to Leonardo (by some), although experts have vigorously refuted his claim. When arrested there were said to be literally dozens, perhaps several hundred paintings, sculptures, art objects and other works in Greenhalgh's living quarters. So it's likely there are many Greenhalgh fakes still circulating.

Wolfgang Beltracchi "Fake Campendonk"
Another famous art forger in recent years is Wolfgang Beltracchi, a German who with his wife sold his paintings as newly discovered works by famous artists of the early 20th century--Max Ernst, Georges Braque, and others. Caught and eventually imprisoned, he admitted to forging at least 14 such works which he sold for millions. Left is an imitation of the style of Heinrich Campendonk, a minor painter of the Blaue Reiter group of pre-WWI German painters, that Beltracchi cheerfully admits forging. 

Discovering fraud in artworks is becoming easier and easier these days, but even so art forgery continues unabated. Indeed, some have suggested that half or even more of the works currently on the market are fake. Not too long ago the well-known Knoedler Gallery was brought low by a ring of forgers. Led by a Long Island woman the ring sold the gallery fakes attributed to luminaries like Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko. She had commissioned the works from a Chinese painter in Queens who is said to have painted them in his garage. As the entire story unfolded, the gallery closed, multiple lawsuits and criminal charges resulted, and the painter fled to China.

Unknown, "Venus with a Veil," attributed to Lucas Cranach
Unknown, "Portrait of a Man," attributed to Franz Hals
Most recently, a fake Hals and "Venus with a Veil" (sold as an original by Lucas Cranach) were revealed to be forgeries. Each had been in the possession of a man named Giulano Ruffini, who seems to have possessed both at one time or another. He denies knowing they were forged. Instead, he says he simply offered paintings he owned for sale and others made the attributions. In any event, Sotheby's disavowed the "Hals," not long ago, which they had reportedly sold for $10 million. The "Cranach" was seized by authorities last spring. The forger of the works remains unknown.

Looking at these two paintings, it's easy to see why someone  might mistake them for work by each of the two masters. In particular, the "Hals" has the fresh and loose style of the master, although to my eye the background doesn't fit. The "Cranach" looks a great deal like that artist's work, as well.

So who really knows if the high number of fakes reported is true? Perhaps it's even higher.
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