The History of Art Forgery and Modern Consequences

Art forgery has been prevalent for centuries, ranging from cheap knock-offs to elaborate copies almost undistinguishable from the original.

Through the decades, several notorious art forgers have appeared, including Han van Meegeren, a mid-level Dutch artist active during the avant-garde movements. Critics disregarded his original works, igniting a fury that drove him to dupe them.

He discovered the ideal artist to copy in Vermeer. With him being a famous Old Master, there was little information about his life available, and it was thought possible that the artist made many more pieces than were already known about or recognised. Van Meegeren spent years in Nice perfecting the perfect replica, acquiring the correct paint, canvasses, wood panels, and even recreating a home-made brush comparable to the one Vermeer used.

Wolfgang Beltracchi was another prominent figure within the art forging scene. Starting from a young age following in his father’s footsteps, Beltracchi would replicate a painting every couple of months to fund his lifestyle of traveling the world. He would purchase old canvases and strip the paint so the forgeries would go unnoticed, duping even the best appraisers.

Despite the criminal labelling of these modern art forgers, some of these artists sadly fell into the business due to having no patrons, therefore needing an alternative way to support themselves using their skills. One example is from the 1400’s, where a young artist couldn’t secure a patron for his works. He instead created a statue titled ‘Sleeping Eros’ that replicated a Hellenistic artifact. It was sold to Cardinal Riario through an art dealer, who after initially trying to get a refund on his investment, became the young artist’s first patron due to his evident talent. The artist in question was Michelangelo, who despite his beginnings became one of the most celebrated artists of the Renaissance period.

Psychological research has indicated that authenticity influences how we perceive artworks on a neurological level. The viewer’s reaction changes not just when he sees a legitimate artwork, but also when he sees one that he has been informed is not; essentially, our perspective alters when our brain is told whether we are looking at a ‘real’ or ‘fake’ artwork.

The main reason for the success of many art forgers is the lack of science behind checking for real artworks against the fakes, as well as the dealers and auction houses that sell these works. Even in the past decade, many forgeries have been sold unknowingly by dealers, from small houses to bigger ones such as Christies. In 2011, Knoedler, an established gallery for works by the old masters found itself in trouble. By 2012, the FBI was looking into scores of questionable paintings sold by Knoedler over the years, including forgeries labelled as unknown Jackson Pollocks or Mark Rothkos, among others. Both the art and banking worlds were buzzing when it collapsed in 2011, amid lawsuits for counterfeit.

There is no doubt that forgeries will continue to weave their way into the art market in the future. Without proper methods of distinguishing real and fake works, can the art dealer and auction houses really be held responsible for selling such art? In some ways, art forgery has become its own category, as some have argued that these high-quality copies are masterpieces in their own right.

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