Decoding the Canvas: A Brief History of Forgery and Copying

November 2023

Forgery not only intervenes and distorts the history of art, it has its own unique histories and traditions. Stylometric algorithms are able to conclusively distinguish the hands of seemingly exact copies or works created in a faithful emulation of a master’s style.

It is uncertain whether this coastal landscape painting, once attributed to Paul Signac, was produced as an intentional forgery or if the fake Signac signature was added later in the hopes of amplifying the painting’s commercial value.

Key Takeaways:

  • Forgery not only intervenes and distorts the history of art, it has its own unique histories and traditions.
  • Artworks now considered as forgeries were not always produced with the intention of being a forgery.
  • Pictology serves as a powerful means of authenticating artworks. Hephaestus’ stylometric algorithms are able to conclusively distinguish the hands of seemingly exact copies or works created in a faithful emulation of a master’s style.

Art forgery is, by no standards, a new phenomenon; its roots can be established in the context of Ancient Roman sculptors in the late fourth century B.C, when craftsmen began to produce copies of Ancient Greek sculptures. However, the process of copying a known masterwork for Romans was motivated by ideals of historical reference, aesthetic pleasure and divine inspiration. This is in opposition to the practice of artistic piracy being used as a way of misleading viewers and collectors as to the authorship of the work for fraudulent, personal and, most often, monetary gain. Roman copies often adapted the material of the original, the Met’s Marble Statue of a Wounded Warrior (ca. 138-181 CE), for example, copying a bronze original, the shift in material signalling to the entirely divergent motivations of copying to the associations of contemporary forgery.

Definition: Forgery: an object falsely purporting to have the history of production requisite for the (or an) original of the work.

The rhetorical concept of emulation or aemulatio in Latin, meaning to imitate, perfect and ultimately surpass another artist assumed particular significance in the Renaissance when artists began to be taught through apprenticeships in masters’ studios. Copying in artists’ studios enabled apprentices to familiarise themselves with the technique, style and mannerism of established masters and thus develop their own skills. This practice continued throughout the early modern period, illustrated not least by the seemingly impossible task of differentiating between the hand of Anthony van Dyck and Sir Peter Paul Rubens, Van Dyck working as Rubens’s most able pupil and assistant between 1618 and 1620. A similar case is the oftentimes indistinguishable hands of Canaletto and Bernardo Bellotto, with Bellotto experiencing his earliest training as an artist with his uncle, Canaletto. As discussed in our previous insights article, Hephaestus is able to distinguish between these two artists with 99.2% accuracy. These examples are also useful insofar as they illustrate the strong extent to which copying and emulation are not necessarily connected to forgery.

The issue of two artists working in seemingly indistinguishable styles highlights the importance of digital AI tests in art authentication, of which Pictology represents the highest standard. While a connoisseur’s mental dataset could be confused with wrongly attributed works and unknown forgeries, Hephaestus is able to curate the training data of proprietary stylometric algorithms to include only bona fide authenticated works.

A binary distinction between a copy and a forgery, however, begins to fade in circumstances where an unscrupulous collector fraudulently attributes known copies to the master themselves – the most common tactic in what we have often described as ‘garden variety’ forgeries. An example of this is the University of Delaware Museum’s Portrait of Theophilia Palmer (n.d.), originally thought to be painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, which the museum re-attributed to being of the hand of an unknown copyist, made after an original work of the same subject in 1771 (1). In the same collection, a pointillist depiction of a coastal landscape likely had the signature of Paul Signac added retroactively in an unscrupulous collector's hopes of bolstering the market value of what would have otherwise been a commonplace treatment of an ordinary subject.

Mistakenly or with mal intent, copies have been increasingly attributed to the hand of established artists since the concept of the individual genius artist took hold in the sixteenth century with the writings of Giorgio Vasari and his Biographies of Italian Masters. While a painting historically attributed to an artist might pass due diligence tests in the field of provenance research, it will invariably fail the additional steps of Hephaestus’ scientific and AI authentication protocol.

(1) https://exhibitions.lib.udel.edu/things-arent-what-they-seem/home/art-forgery/

Other Posts