By Darla McCammon
The art world was shaken by the ease with which forgeries had been accepted and acclaimed. Museums, galleries, auction houses, and art experts had all been rather easily fooled with an assortment of fake and forged artworks.
Some of those same institutions had been complicit in the negotiations to approve certain works due to the phenomenal sums of money involved. When France was occupied by the Germans in World War II, for example, the highest bid for any painting went for a fake Cezanne. How careful was Drouot, the auction house, in screening the work that would bring them such a large income?
Shown is an example of a forgery that was detected. Discovery was due to two things: one, the supposed wormholes in the wood were drilled and straight rather than crooked as a real worm would have worked it; and two, the robe of the Madonna was painted in Prussian blue, a color which was not available at the supposed time of the forger’s work.
Through this series, we have shown many of the techniques used by forgers to pass off a fake masterpiece. For years the only thing experts had to work with was called “documents of provenance.” These are documents created by the original artist of the work detailing the work, the date it was made, and so forth. This was not always to be relied on, however; fake documents were also forged and sometimes fooled the experts.
Other techniques are becoming useful in detecting false work. The ink used in banknotes are providing some authentication as the artist uses magnetic signatures and that ink for verification. In other modern work by sleuths, a painting titled Portrait of a Woman was discovered to be fraudulent.
It was claimed to be by Goya but certifiers checking on the work used X-ray technology and discovered several clues leading to forgery. First, a second portrait was found beneath the first. Second, that painting had zinc white which was not invented until after Goya was deceased. Third, that paint had been used to make the craquelure of the older, but amateurish, painting visible on the supposed masterpiece painted over it. Craquelure (pronounced krakloor) is the development of very fine interwoven cracks, like a mesh covering a painting from the aged paint or varnish in an old piece of art.
Today multiple methods are used to increase the ability to authenticate work and thwart would-be artists from perpetrating a fraud on art lovers. Among those methods are more complicated X-ray techniques (diffraction and fluorescence) along with ways to tell more about the pigments or even reveal the illegal artist’s fingerprints.
Carbon dating can verify the age of a painting, along with white lead methods of dating. Other very sophisticated techniques such as Atomic Absorption Spectrophotometry (AAS) Pyrolysis-gas chromatography-mass spectrometry will show elements not used during the period the painting supposedly represents. Another new method is called stable isotope analysis. This lets scientists discover where the marble used in a sculpture came from.
We live in the digital age; thus, it is no surprise that the analysis of digital images of paintings has come to the forefront in detecting fake art. Things called wavelet decomposition using frequencies are cleverly catching imitation artwork. The success of this technique has been proven several times over.
This has been a fascinating study about the history of forgery and fraud in the art world. I hope you have enjoyed the intrigue and stories as much as I have in researching it all. See you next week!