Art fraud isn’t a victimless crime, and it’s not a simple one to solve. While the criminals are often motivated by money, the victims are often motivated by love. And when we look at a piece of art, what we’re seeing isn’t just the work, but also all that is associated with it: the artist’s story, its physical history, its representation of whatever we take art to represent.
Trying to sort out fact from fiction is hard enough when the good guys aren’t trying to mislead you; when they are, it’s almost impossible. In art especially, there’s no way to tell just by looking at a work whether it’s real or fake. Forgers have gotten so good that even experts have been fooled. More importantly, fakes can be very convincing even without great skill. Even an obvious fake can fool someone who doesn’t know much about art.
Clues can deceive us as easily as help us. The National Gallery of Art in Washington has a 17th-century painting by Giambattista Tiepolo called “Apollo and Daphne.” It used to hang in the gallery’s West Building, but in 2002 it was moved across town because it was thought to be too fragile for the security measures
Art fraud is a complicated issue with many underlying causes. There is no simple solution.
Art is beautiful, but it is also an investment and something that can be used to gain power and prestige. This makes it vulnerable to abuse by those who have no regard for the artist or the art form, regardless of how they acquire it. And when art is acquired through illegitimate means, the victim is usually someone else in a less powerful position. It’s a form of theft that occurs without the perpetrator ever reaching inside someone’s pocket.
It’s easy to get away with art fraud because it is rarely reported on or prosecuted. How many people know that their favorite paintings are most likely fakes? How many even suspect that their Warhol might be real or fake? The fine line between fakery and forgery makes it easy to overlook fraudulent works altogether, despite all the issues and questions surrounding them, especially when one considers the rarity of authentication before auction.
Tens of thousands of artworks are being sold each year at auction houses worldwide that are either completely fake or have serious doubts about their authenticity or provenance. Many will not ever come up for sale again, so how do we know how widespread this fraud really is? And how do we prove otherwise when these works are
It’s not just that the world of art is full of scammers. It’s that the very nature of art makes it such an easy hunting ground for them.
In recent years, I’ve talked to a lot of people who have tried to report theft or forgery in the art world. And I’ve talked to a lot of people who work in the art world and are aware of these things but don’t want to talk about them because they don’t want to create a scandal or lose business or whatever. And from everything I hear and read, it seems like the problems are at least as bad as any other part of the artistic world: worse than Hollywood, worse than publishing, worse even than journalism. People have trouble believing this because they have an image in their mind of museums and galleries being these bastions of high-minded ideals and unimpeachable integrity. But that’s just not true. Everything is corruptible, even something as seemingly pure as the arts. They can be corrupted by greed, yes, but also by vanity and incompetence and all sorts of other things.
I’m not saying art is irredeemable or that we should throw up our hands and give up on it altogether. But it needs more honest people in it if we’re
We have become accustomed to the fact that there is a lot of fraud involved in the art world and so many people seem to be willing to look the other way. It has almost become part of the culture.
Art is one of the most valuable asset classes in the world. People will buy anything, they will spend millions of dollars on paintings, without even checking to see if it is real. If a painting comes up for auction and no one knows who painted it, it doesn’t matter much. It doesn’t even matter much if it looks like a Pollock or a Picasso. Even if it looks exactly like an authentic Pollock or Picasso, and you know what an authentic Pollock or Picasso looks like, you might not be able to tell whether this painting is real or fake.
The risks are huge, but few people in the art world seem to care about them.
Who is the real artist, and what is the real art? It’s a question I’ve been thinking about lately because of one of my favorite artists, and one of my favorite scandals.
I’m talking, of course, about Han van Meegeren. Van Meegeren was a Dutch painter who specialized in Old Master-style genre scenes: taverns, harlequins and whores. He also dabbled in forgery; he claimed to have faked Vermeer’s “The Supper at Emmaus.” Not only that, he sold his fake paintings as real ones — not just once or twice but dozens of times.
Telling the two apart proved impossible for art experts of the day. And why not? The fakes looked real. They had all the right brushstrokes and pigments. Only after the war did it become apparent that van Meegeren had used some unusual techniques; he had used a traditional seventeenth century recipe for producing oil paints that was known but had been lost to modern science.
He painted under a variety of names — Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Frans Hals — but most famously as Johannes Vermeer, which opened up a whole new can of worms. Van M
I’m going to assume you have a basic knowledge of art history. With that in mind, I’m going to assume the painting you’re looking at is the real thing.
Is it really too much to ask for all the elements to be right? You know, stuff like:
1. The artist has to be either dead or not living in exile. This one is important, even if you don’t care about the work itself, because it’s hard to know what kind of person forged something until you know which kind of person did the forging. For example, an art thief will forge something so he can sell it on the black market for a lot of money. Or a forger might forge something that he thinks will give him credibility with collectors and dealers, who will then buy his other stuff from him at a higher price. And then there are forgers who are just crazy and do it because they like doing it. Only one of those reasons is good (the art thief), and they’re all bad (the crazy person and the art thief).
So you need to know if your potential purchase was made by someone who is motivated by profit or someone motivated by vanity. Is there an inscription on the back of a painting that reads: “Painted by