The secrets of the world's art treasures

The secrets of the world's art treasures

Expert Reports  

The presence in Western museums of fakes belonging to all historical epochs and types of fine art, without exception, is the secret of Polichinelle.
The question of how many fake valuables are on display in museum exhibitions arises whenever the public becomes aware of the results of another investigation or scandal involving the detention of forgers.


It may seem incredible, but according to various estimates, the share of fakes circulating in the global market of museum valuables ranges from 30 to 40%. "There is a problem as such, but it is not possible to confirm the accuracy of these figures," the UNESCO press service commented.
For his part, Jan Walter, director of the Geneva Institute of Fine Arts Experts (FAEI), claims that at least half of the works of art circulating on the art market, the scale of which was estimated in 2014 at 45 billion US dollars, are fake.
As for expert opinions confirming the authenticity of cultural values, the share of falsifications reaches 80%!
"The wave of fake works of art is directly related to the appetites of a growing number of owners of large fortunes. They blindly trust the sellers, without questioning the authenticity of the creations and thereby opening a gap for counterfeiters," says Walter.
Until all dealers, museums, auction houses and collectors are ready to pay for scientific analysis, research and expert opinion, it is not possible to rid the market of fakes.
"In addition, many commissions for verifying the authenticity of artistic values and art historians are increasingly refusing to verify the authenticity of works for fear that they will be sued for incorrect attribution," the FAEI pointed out.
According to experts, even the largest museums in the world have a considerable number of fake exhibits in their collections.
"The former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Thomas Hoving, estimated that about 40% of the works he examined were either fakes, or were so poorly restored or incorrectly attributed that they could be equated with fakes. Not all directors have Hoving eyes. There are many, many undisclosed fakes in museums," says Michelle Geiji, an art gallery owner and art consultant from Santa Fe.
According to the British newspaper Independent, in the UK, up to 20% of the works of art stored in the leading museums of the kingdom can be fake.
According to Noah Charney, professor of art history and founder of the Association for the Study of Crimes against Art, after spending a lot of time studying and writing articles about the history of art forgeries, he learned an important lesson: although the ability to imitate is admired, no one wants to feel deceived. This applies equally to both specialists and the general public.
"Belgian restorer Bart Devolder told me that when he was examining the engravings in one of the museums in Prague, he saw many copies there, but nothing was said about it on the museum labels. The doubts that arose spoiled the expert's impression of visiting the museum," says Charney.


According to Jean-Louis Gaiman, honorary lecturer at the University of Paris-Sorbonne and author of the book "Too Beautiful to be Authentic", it is very difficult to get an accurate idea of the number of fake art values in the exhibitions, primarily because only those facts that have been made public are known.
"We can assume that this is actually just the tip of the iceberg. Another reason is the "death" of the museum institutions themselves," the expert says.
If full-time art historians, Gaiman argues, admitted that they were the victim of deception when purchasing an exhibit, this would cast doubt not only on their professional reputation, but also negatively affect the prestige of the art treasures themselves.
As for the fake creations identified by the museums themselves, they are usually removed from the exhibition and placed in storerooms, says Gaiman.
For his part, Daniel Buttafuoco, an expert in forensic art criticism, draws attention to the fact that it is often difficult for a museum to recognize the presence of a fake work of art and remove it from the exhibition for fear of offending the donor or becoming the object of accusations of incompetence.
"There are fakes in every museum, just like in every private collection. Sometimes they are outright fakes, sometimes they are excellent copies of a later era, and sometimes they are simply misclassified," says Buttafuoco.


The City Council of the commune of Elne near the French city of Perpignan has been acquiring paintings by the local impressionist artist Etienne Terrus (1857-1922) for 20 years.
In April 2018, Eric Forcada, a well-known French art historian and exhibition curator, came to the conclusion during an inspection of the museum in Elna that most of the paintings, drawings and watercolors in the exhibition did not belong to the artist's brush. 82 out of 140 works by Henri Matisse's close friend turned out to be fake.
A specially created expert commission found that some of Terrus' paintings depict the buildings of the Eln, built after his death. The total amount of funds spent by the municipal authorities on the purchase of works by Terrus amounted to about 200 thousand euros.
According to Forcada, "at the local level, the gangrene of falsifications covers the entire art market: from sellers serving private collectors to antique shops and trading halls."
The expert explained the problems with authenticating the origin of works of art, including the lack of copyright holders.


Fakes are not a product of the modern world. Fake Greek sculptures were created in ancient Rome due to their high cost, and in the Renaissance, falsification was even considered evidence of the skill of its creator.
"Fakes have always existed – ever since the artifacts themselves appeared. This applies to all genres and all eras, because art objects have always been appreciated. The ancient Romans copied Greek sculptures and sold them as authentic, because it brought them twenty times more than one copy," says Gilles Perrault, a forensic art expert.
According to the UNESCO expert, Marc-Andre Renold, Professor of international law in the field of protection of cultural property at the University of Geneva, despite the fact that the results of scientific analysis suggest that the work is fake, authenticity is still difficult to prove.
"Therefore, many specialists no longer want to associate themselves with the risk of recognizing or not recognizing the authenticity of a work of art. Several expert committees to verify the authenticity of artists' funds have chosen to dissolve themselves in order to avoid the legal procedures involved. So, in 2011, the Warhol Foundation announced the termination of its activities, and its president explained this by saying that he did not intend to spend $ 7 million a year to pay for the services of lawyers to prove the validity of an expert verdict," says Renold.
Some forgers even dare to present their creations to experts just to find out if it is possible to detect fraud, says Gilles Perrault, an independent expert in the examination of works of art.
He regrets that there is some sympathy in public opinion for forgers, who are welcomed by the media and the general public despite the fact that they are only scammers.
For her part, Emanuela Cangiari, an employee of the Foundation for Scientific Research at the University of Louvain, argues that forgers are not always driven by the desire to make money from deception and sometimes work to ridicule the art community and thus achieve their own recognition.


"When we analyze some large transactions for the acquisition of valuables, we find that behind this there is often such a phenomenon as rivalry between museums. There is fierce competition for the primacy of opening or buying an outstanding exhibit, especially if it is known that colleagues also want to purchase it," says Jean-Louis Gaimen, honorary lecturer at the University of Paris-Sorbonne.
An example of this is the story of the fake crown of the Scythian king Sitafern, which resulted in the loudest scandal of the late 19th century.
The tiara was made by the Odessa jeweler Rukhumovsky by order of some antique dealers Gokhmanov, and then as an archaeological find "on excavations" it was sold to the Louvre in Paris for a huge sum of 200 thousand francs at that time.
Since the jeweler himself did not participate in the fraudulent scheme, they did not judge him and even awarded him a gold medal from the Salon of Decorative Arts for exceptional work. It was not possible to reach the Gokhmanovs themselves.
According to Gaiman, in the case of the fake crown of the Scythian king, the Louvre rushed to this historical rarity partly because the merchants forced the museum administration to believe that they intended to simultaneously offer it to the British Museum, which was a competitor to the Parisian repository.
Forgers skillfully use this kind of "psychological spring", profiting from the rivalry between the world's largest museums searching for rare exhibits. "During the opening of the museum on the Quai Branly (the third largest museum in Paris, opened in 2006 on the initiative of French President Jacques Chirac - ed.), many fake objects of foreign art were thrown on the market. Also, a large number of fake artifacts came from the Middle East. The reason for this was the sharply increased demand of collectors for rare works of art, which gave rise to the so-called "unicum", says Anne Bouquillon, head of the objects group in the research department of the Center for Research and Restoration of Museums in France.
According to her, there is nothing more difficult than identifying and establishing the time of creation of the "unique". At the same time, the absence of objects of comparison as such is the Achilles heel of researchers whose task is to create databases that exclude the acquisition of suspicious cultural artifacts.
An example of this is the situation with fake ceramics by Paul Gauguin. The artist gained worldwide fame thanks to his paintings, and his early works on ceramics and wood were in the background due to the fact that art historians have not been able to compile a list of them. No expert can say how much ceramics passed through the hands of the artist's wife and close friends.
For their part, the forgers proceeded precisely from the fact that the register of Gauguin's works was far from incomplete.
So, a ceramic sculpture by Gauguin called "Fawn" was sold at auction by Sotheby's in 1997 for 125 thousand US dollars. The Art Institute of Chicago acquired Gauguin's "work". And if it hadn't been for the arrest of British forgery virtuoso Sean Greenhalgh, experts and visitors would still be studying the work of Paul Gauguin on a fake exhibit in one of the most prestigious museums in the United States.
The story of Sean Greenhalgh, who produced and sold 120 art fakes, deserves a special mention. Among those who bought into the creations of the master of falsifications were large galleries, famous auction houses and museums of world importance.
In particular, in 2003, Greenhalgh offered the Bolton Museum (Northern England) to buy a statuette of an Egyptian princess from him. The twenty-inch figurine (according to legend, one of the daughters of Pharaoh Akhenaten) was expertly made by Sean from alabaster in three weeks, and to achieve the necessary color and aging effect, he soaked it in tea and rubbed it with mud.


The counterfeiting of works of art has acquired unprecedented proportions due to the emergence of large private collections and the opening of a large number of art museums.
A favorable climate for the spread of fakes developed back in the 19th century, the era of the heyday of archaeology and the emergence of a large number of sites for excavations.
In 1870, during the study of graves on the territory of the ancient Greek city of Tanagra, polychrome terracotta figurines were found, which were called Tanagra figurines.
Their exquisite aesthetics were so in line with the tastes of the time that the success was stunning, and the influx of fakes was so massive that for a while the statuettes were even forbidden to exhibit so that counterfeiters could not reproduce them.
More than a century later, museums were forced to "sift through" their collections. The Louvre in Paris turned out to have less than 10% of fake Tanager statuettes, whereas the German royal museums purchased mostly fakes.


Frenchman Camille Corot is the forerunner of Impressionism and the author of three thousand paintings. Meanwhile, according to Professor of art history and Corot expert Gerard de Vallance, up to 10,000 works of the artist have been sold in the United States alone.
In order to protect Corot's works from forgeries, de Vallens said, a catalog of his paintings was published at the end of the 19th century. However, this had the opposite effect – the forgers used the appearance of the prospectus as a guide to action and created thousands of copies of Corot's paintings.
"The artist worked surrounded by students and followers, which further complicates the task of the experts. Dishonest merchants simply wiped out the autographs of these artists and signed Corot. Therefore, the myth of the presence of fake Corot works in large museums, passed off as originals, persists, although in fact there are not so many of them," says de Vallens.


For this purpose, museums resort to modern technologies.
Today, the authenticity of works of art is determined through laboratory research. Methods of X-ray fluorescence, infrared reflectography and radiocarbon analysis 14, as well as thermoluminescence and 3D scanning technologies are used.
The cost of such studies can reach 15 thousand euros.
Experts analyze the gestures of the artist and the mechanics of the materials used by him, which makes it possible to simulate the process of cracks appearing on the varnish or paint layer. It is their inconsistency with the craquelures that eventually formed on the original itself that often betrays the work of forgers.
Faced with the growing threat of counterfeits in the art market, Sotheby's auction house acquired the Orion Research Laboratory in 2016 to conduct examinations and research on the origin of works of art that may exceed 4,000 years old.


For those collectors who do not want to become victims of forgers, four major Italian museums - the Uffizi Gallery, the Pinacoteca Brera, the Ambrosian Library and the Palazzo della Pilotta – offer to become owners of digital facsimile copies of outstanding paintings from their collections.
Copies in NFT format of six famous paintings by Leonardo da Vinci ("Portrait of a Musician" and "A Woman with Loose Hair"), Caravaggio ("Fruit Basket"), Raphael ("Madonna with a Goldfinch"), Francesco Hayes ("Kiss") and Modigliani ("The Head of a Young Girl") are available in editions nine pieces each. Each copy will cost collectors from 100,000 to 250,000 euros.
The paintings are digitized using encrypted digital art creation technology developed by Cinello and known as DAW.
Together with the NFT tokens, the buyer receives a certificate of authenticity from Cincello and the museum where the original painting is stored. At the same time, museums retain the copyright to create digital versions of works from their own collections.