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The Milton Measure

Forgery Scandal Highlights Art Industry’s Authentication Problem

by Pierce Wilson on Friday, October 21st, 2016

Art collectors spend millions of dollars each year on ‘authentic’ paintings. So, I’m sure you can imagine their reaction upon discovering that a piece they paid $10 million for wasn’t even the real thing…

Sotheby’s Auction House is an old auction house, currently headquartered in New York City and owned by the larger Sotheby’s corporation. At the 2016 Frieze Art Fair held in London, a Frank Hals painting, which sold for $10 million at Sotheby’s, was declared a fake. Interestingly, until two weeks ago, no authenticators had detected that the painting was a fake; a competent forger tricked Sotheby’s and now the art world may be in peril. Sotheby’s forgery scandal shows how the ‘art’ of art forgery is evolving faster than authenticators can keep up.

According to the Daily Beast, until the 20th Century or so, making “fakes” of paintings and sculptures was a common practice. An artist might make one painting, sell it, and have a skilled faker remake the painting so the artist would have a copy. In modern times, these “fakes” often sell for as much as their original counterparts, as they were crafted in the same time period, created with the same materials, and replicated with permission from their original owners.

However, forgery, defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, refers to the crime of “falsely making or copying a work in order to deceive people.” Forgers almost always commit their deed many years after a fine work has already become well-renowned. These criminals wouldn’t bother to falsify something that they could not make decent money scamming collectors with. Business Insider reports that, in one of the most famous examples of forgery, Han van Meegeren sold $60 million worth of falsified Vermeer pieces to several collectors, including the Netherlands’ government.

In the past, forgery was done simply by looking at a work and replicating it as best as possible. Usually, skilled artists who were having difficulty making a name for themselves would get into forgery to make some easy money. Nowadays, people still pursue forgery in the same way, but the techniques for creating modern forgery have come a long way. Forgers can now use modern advances in chemistry, art history, and technology to best replicate the canvas, dimensions, and medium of the original painting, sometimes even recycling materials.

With up to $200 million worth of Sotheby paintings now being investigated for forgery, many people are left wondering how authenticators can be so sure, seeing as it took years for the Frans Hals’ fake to be discovered. Authentication has essentially been done in the same way since the Renaissance; an art critic, or panel of art critics, sits down and eyeballs the work. The critics then compare the work with what they know about the style and other attributes associated with works from that time.

According to The Daily Beast, authenticators did, at least for a short time, adopt carbon-dating, to authenticate materials. But, if a work was passed around a lot, or recently restored, carbon-dating can be very inaccurate. For these reasons, carbon-dating never picked up as an authentication method. Simply looking at pieces has, to an extent, endured the test of time — as forgers often miss things. However, as forgers evolve their techniques, authenticators need to begin to do the same.


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Posted by Pierce Wilson on Oct 21 2016. Filed under Arts & Entertainment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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