Forgeries in Museums: Failures of Collective Expertise

March 2024

Forgeries have and continue to circulate through major museum exhibitions and collections. Forgery remains a major risk even at the highest echelons of the art market.

A Liubov Popova forgery of 'Painterly Architectonic' (left) is displayed next to the authentic version from 1918 (right) in the Ludwig Museum exhibition 'Russian Avant-Garde at the Museum Ludwig: Original and Fake'.
Giacomo, Researcher & Business Development Manager

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  • There are countless examples of museums acquiring and displaying forgeries throughout the history of art. 
  • The Courtauld Gallery and the Ludwig Museum have recently held exhibitions displaying forgeries that had been acquired and displayed throughout each institution’s histories. 
  • These issues invariably lead one to ask the question: if the collective expertise of a major museum can be fooled by a forger, how can private collectors protect themselves from this major risk?

Forgery isn’t a new issue in the art world, it has existed for millennia. The roots of forgery can be traced back to Ancient Roman sculptors in the fourth century BC and the reproduction of ancient Greek sculptures. What might be surprising, however, is the strong extent to which major public institutions have been, and continue to be, implicated by issues of forgery. 

The Ruffini Scandal

A well-known contemporary example of museums, auction houses and dealers all being implicated by issues of forgery is the Ruffini scandal which became widely known after Portrait of a Man, attributed to Frans Hals, was sold in a Sotheby’s private sale in 2011 for a reported £8.5m (pictured below). Before the private sale at Sotheby’s, which was brokered by The Weiss Gallery, the French government had issued an export ban on the work in an effort to acquire the painting for the Louvre. The Louvre Conservation Centre even had pigment analysis conducted on the picture, to which no anachronistic pigments were found.

Five years later, in 2016, however, Sotheby’s stated that technical analysis of the picture "showed the presence of modern materials used in the painting in a way that meant it could not have been painted in the 17th Century”. The difference between the technical analysis conducted at the Louvre and Orion Analytical, which was purchased by Sotheby’s in 2016 in light of the scandal, is that Orion Analytical tested underneath the surface paint layers of the work. It was here that titanium white was identified and the painting was unequivocally declared a forgery. 

The Frans Hals was connected to a much larger network of forgeries circulating the market and museums originating from Giuliano Ruffini. Ruffini has been embroiled in long-running accusations of selling forged works by artists including Hals, El Greco and Cranach and, in December 2022, he was charged with fraud and money laundering in Paris.

Other works associated with the Ruffini scandal include an Orazio Gentileschi painting depicting David Contemplating the Head of Goliath which was loaned to the National Gallery, London by its current owner in 2013 and placed on display in the museum until March 2016. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, and the Galleria Nazionale in Parma were all also embroiled in the saga as each institution had borrowed, displayed and, in turn, authenticated artworks originating from Ruffini. 

Art Forgery and Museums

Two recent exhibitions at the Courtauld Gallery, London and the Ludwig Museum, Cologne have foregrounded each institution’s history of acquiring and displaying forgeries. 

The 2023 Courtauld exhibition Art and Artifice: Fakes from the Collection showcased the histories of some 30 disputed works in the collection. This included 11 drawings that the museum was informed to be forgeries produced by the notorious forger Eric Hebbord after an anonymous phone call in 1998. 

A highlight of the exhibition is a forgery of Botticelli’s ‘Madonna of the Veil’ which was hailed as a masterpiece when it was ‘rediscovered’ in 1930 and sold to Viscount Lee of Farhan, co-founder of the Courtauld, for around US$20,000. Although it wasn’t until the 1990s that EDX analysis confirmed the presence of anachronistic 19th-century pigments, the art historian Kenneth Clark did note that the picture had a striking resemblance, not to fifteenth or 16th-century ideals of beauty, but to the modern silent movie actress Jean Harlow. In addition to this evidence, even a simple examination of the picture under the microscope revealed that the Madonna’s lips are outlined with black paint, even though Botticelli is widely known to have painted lips with a madder lake pigment. 

The overwhelming wealth of evidence now available makes it difficult to believe that such a ‘poorly’ executed forgery, brimming with now-obvious anachronisms, fooled the specialists. Even today, many museums only employ imaging technologies and pigment analysis from a technical point of view to identify forgeries in the collection; forms of analysis that can be easily reverse-engineered by an enterprising forger.

The same logic applies to the 22 falsely attributed Russian avant-garde paintings identified in the Ludwig Museum collection after 49 paintings underwent technical analysis. The museum has avoided describing the paintings from the collection, included in the 2020 exhibition as forgeries because the word ‘forgery’ implies an intent to deceive that cannot be known solely on technical and art historical analysis. 

A key difference between the Courtauld and Ludwig Museum exhibitions was that the Ludwig Museum show juxtaposed known fakes from the collection with bona fide authentic pictures on loan from major European institutions, whereas the Courtauld exhibition exclusively displayed known or highly suspected fakes. To the surprise of Petra Mandt, the conservator who led the Ludwig Museum’s scientific team, there was an enthusiasm from other major institutions to loan their paintings to the exhibition. Aptly, Mandt claimed that this showed “there is a real tidal change: people are willing to openly broach the subject [of forgery and authenticity] that has been taboo until now”. 

While the full extent of forgery will always be masked by the level of undiscovered forgery, what remains clear is that museums have historically, and continue to be at risk from issues of forgery. Another example discussed by Martin Bailey in his recent weekly Van Gogh Art Newspaper Column was a Van Gogh forgery that the Tate Galleries almost purchased in 1953. As recorded in correspondence between John Rothenstein and the seller, he noted, “I am afraid that the picture in question would be altogether beyond the resources of our trustees”. It was the cost of the painting that prevented its acquisition by the Tate, not the fact that the picture is a forgery. 

Returning to the question: if the collective expertise of a major museum can be fooled by a forger, how can private collectors protect themselves from this major risk? This problem is precisely what Hephaestus' art authentication protocol and authenticity insurance product solves, eliminating the risk of forgery and misattribution for collectors.

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