Imagine putting on a major art exhibition, only to discover that nearly all the paintings on display are forgeries. That’s exactly what happened in 2017, when 21 of Amedeo Modigliani’s paintings were showcased at the Ducal Palace in Genoa. A handful of art critics expressed concerns about the provenance of some of the paintings, so an expert was called in. When he was finished, he’d found that 20 of the 21 paintings were forgeries. This isn’t a particularly unusual or surprising case.
The art world is filled with forgers. And while it is true that some create fakes purely for financial gain, that’s not the only motive behind these copied works. Some forgers, like Han van Meegeren, are jaded artists frustrated by the ‘experts’, so they set out to fool and humiliate them with fake works. Others use their skills to create fakes that they can swap with the genuine article, leaving museum curators none-the-wiser that paintings on their walls are forgeries. Still forgers create fakes purely for the thrill of it. Mark Landis famously spent three decades creating fake works and giving them out to museums across the United States.
So, how are art forgers able to fool even the best, most knowledgeable collectors and museums? Here are three ways that they’re able to sell fakes for millions and get them hanging in major galleries around the world…
Ignorance of an Artist’s Oeuvre
One of the ways that art forgers have been able to fool collectors is by leveraging a buyer’s ignorance of a particular artist’s work. For example, Wolfgang Beltracchi and his wife forged dozens of works from well-known artists. Many of these works were thought lost or were works that nobody had ever seen before. Because of these cases, art collectors must be extra careful when purchasing a piece of art that has no reliable provenance. New ‘discoveries’ can easily be nothing more than fakes. In fact, that’s one of the reasons there was so much debate over the veracity of da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi when it was discovered.
Art collectors can easily be fooled if they don’t know much (or anything) about an artist before purchasing one of their artworks. Ignorance can be a major problem for collectors — and it can cost big time.
Ignorance of Traditional Printing Techniques
New collectors may not be familiar with traditional printing techniques and how they can differ from digital reproductions. Because of this, forgers may be able to pass off a piece of art as authentic even when it isn’t.
Originals will likely have clear brush strokes and texture. Brush bristles may even be visible, embedded in one of the layers of paint. In addition, layering should be clear when the surface of the painting is examined. And if the painting is turned around and held up to the light, there should be varying levels of translucency. By closely examining a piece of artwork, the chances of being duped by a fake will drastically decrease. So, it’s important not to make a purchase until a total and close examination has taken place.
Ignorance of the Quality of Forgeries
One of the easiest ways to be fooled is to assume that you’ll be able to spot a forgery just by giving it a cursory examination. Hand painted copies can fool even the best collectors and art experts. Some of the best forgers have been able to fool hundreds of people over the course of decades. Sometimes this was because art collectors and museums simply took people at their word. At other times, it was the result of lacking the funds to perform an expensive analysis on the piece. But whatever the reason, it’s something that every art collector should keep in mind: hand painted copies can appear almost indistinguishable from originals.
Art is a multibillion-dollar industry. So, it’s no wonder that criminals see an opportunity to profit from forgeries and fakes. The three things mentioned above are some of the most common vulnerabilities that forgers take advantage of. Therefore, it’s so important for the art industry to do more to safeguard genuine artwork and its provenance. Ultimately, new technologies will be created to put a stop to art forgeries. In the meantime, we simply need to pay more attention to the art that we buy and sell.