Understanding Forgery

May 2023

Forgery is a complex phenomenon that has plagued the market for millennia. What is it, why does it matter, and who is affected?

Key Takeaways:

  • Art forgery is a pervasive issue, involving the creation or alteration of artworks with the intent to deceive.
  • Understanding the motivations and techniques of forgers is crucial for advocating ethical practices and a transparent art market.
  • Forgeries undermine the integrity of the art world, defrauding buyers, tarnishing artists' reputations and distorting art history.
  • Psychological factors drive forgers, while societal demand contributes to the allure of counterfeit artworks. Fostering transparency and valuing authenticity are essential in addressing this issue.

Art forgery is a complex phenomenon that has plagued the art world for millennia. It involves the creation or alteration of artworks with the intent to deceive, presenting them as genuine masterpieces by renowned artists. From Renaissance masters to modern icons, no artist or era has been immune to the spectre of forgery.

To safeguard the integrity of the art world and protect the interests of artists, private and institutional collectors, and the wider public, it is imperative that we delve into the motivations and techniques employed by forgers. By investigating their world, we gain valuable insights into the methods they employ to replicate the works of renowned artists. Equipped with this knowledge, we are empowered to champion ethical practices, advocate for stricter regulations, and foster a more transparent art market.

In order to embark upon this exploration with clarity and purpose, it is essential that we define certain terminology. The boundaries between authenticity and deception, between a genuine original and a fraudulent copy, often become blurred in the realm of forgery. Traditionally, forgeries are recognised as creations crafted with the intent to deceive, a definition rooted in the domain of criminal law. However, art forgery operates on more nuanced and fluid terrain.

The Man with the Golden Helmet (c. 1650) was formerly attributed to the Dutch painter Rembrandt and today considered to be a work by someone in his circle.

Consider, for instance, a painting displayed in a museum that, for many years, is erroneously attributed to Rembrandt until scientific tests cast doubt upon its authorship, leading to its reattribution as the work of a copyist in the eighteenth century. In this scenario, the painting could be deemed a fake or even a forgery, even if the artist had no intent to deceive. Furthermore, the meticulous replication of another artist's work has long been an integral component of the training regimen for young artists. Thus, deceptive intent at the point of creation cannot serve as the sole criterion for categorising an artwork as a forgery.

Renowned American philosopher Nelson Goodman, celebrated for his contributions to aesthetics, offered an insightful perspective on navigating this quandary. He defined a forgery of a work of art as "an object falsely purporting to have the history of production requisite for the (or an) original of the work." This definition shifts the focus from deceptive creative intent to the assertions made about the work of art that render it fraudulent. It recognises that artists, curators, experts, and dealers possess the power to manipulate the historical records or provenance of an artwork, effectively transforming a painting into a fake at any point in its history.

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

Embracing this broader conception of forgery, we come to realise that creating a forgery does not necessarily require starting with a blank canvas. Modifying a painting's provenance or adding a signature can give birth to a convincing counterfeit. Intriguingly, intervening in a pre-existing painting crafted with aged materials increases the likelihood of evading scrutiny or technical examinations.

Throughout the annals of history, numerous instances of forgery have captivated and shaken both art enthusiasts and experts. From masterful reproductions of iconic paintings to entire bodies of work fabricated in the style of revered artists, forgers have persistently tested the discerning eye of even the most astute connoisseurs. Today, with advancements in technology, detecting and preventing art forgery has become a more arduous endeavour. AI-powered art authentication, scientific art examination, and advanced fraud detection tools are now essential in the art authentication solutions against forgery.

Art forgery not only defrauds unsuspecting buyers and collectors, resulting in substantial financial losses, but also tarnishes the reputations of artists and distorts the tapestry of art history. The intrinsic value of artistic creations lies in their authenticity and originality, and the presence of forgeries undermines the integrity of the entire art market. Therefore, comprehending the motivations and consequences of forgery becomes paramount in our quest to appreciate and safeguard genuine artistic creations that enrich our cultural heritage.

The impact of art forgery extends beyond the art market and reverberates within the realm of academia. Within the field of art history, the study of paintings that enter the canon, yet may or may not be authentic, poses significant challenges. The presence of forgeries frustrates the ability to unravel the intricate context of art history. A striking example can be found in the Russian Avant-garde market, where forgeries have permeated museum collections and shaped narratives for years. The prevalence of these forgeries not only distorts our understanding of the movement but also raises questions about the expertise and reputations of art historians who have authoritatively accepted these works as genuine. The inclusion of forgeries in academic discourse undermines the pursuit of truth and erodes the foundations upon which art history is built. As scholars strive for accuracy and integrity in their research, the issue of art forgery serves as a constant reminder of the importance of meticulous scrutiny and a critical approach to the artworks that form the basis of our understanding of artistic movements and cultural heritage.

An El Lissitzky forgery at the Ludwig Museum, revealed by an earlier painting in an X-radiograph

In the world of art forgery, the motivations and mindset of forgers are as diverse as their deceptive creations. At the heart of this intriguing phenomenon lie a multitude of psychological factors, intertwining ambition, desire for recognition, financial gain, and even artistic passion. For some, the allure fortune propels them to recreate masterpieces and deceive unsuspecting collectors and experts. While for others, the desire for validation and acknowledgment also plays a role.

At the same time, societal factors contribute to the demand for counterfeit artworks. The allure of owning a prestigious masterpiece at a fraction of the cost appeals to collectors with limited means and those yearning for status symbols. Understanding the complex interplay between individual motivations and societal pressures sheds light on the allure of forgery and emphasises the importance of fostering transparency and valuing authenticity in the art world. The widespread issue of forgery makes clear the vital role that conclusive analogue scientific and digital AI-based art authentication tests play in the achievement of a more transparent, liquid art market.

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