Tags: Forgery | museums | collectors | Hoving

Forgeries — The Wizardry of Paint

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Monday, 12 Jan 2015 10:58 AM Current | Bio | Archive

A forgery is something pretending or represented to be anything it isn’t. Cagey knaves worldwide create fakes to trick the eager and the gullible into buying spurious art that often is accompanied with contrived certificates, histories, and phony expert opinions. 
 
Counterfeits have plagued the world since the 4th century B.C. So many wealthy Romans wanted to own authentic Greek statuary that by the 1st century A.D. demand exceeded supply, and forgeries were made and sold to satiate desire and fill the coffers of devious creators. Throughout history, greedy, conniving salespeople have reconstructed the past, made fabrications popular and kept forgers busy to satisfy collector avarice.
 
The work of inventive forgers fools novices and learned scholars. Counterfeit antiquities and paintings posing as indisputable treasures are in many major permanent museum collections.
 
Some museums hang disputed artwork and curators do not seem to care if it causes havoc. In 1997, Boston’s Museum of Science promoted an exhibition billed as “the largest and most comprehensive exhibit ever mounted on Leonardo” (see, “Leonardo on tour: the good, the bad . . . and the phony,” Boston Sunday Globe,2/23/97, p. A4). Critics claimed the exhibition included “dubious and contested works” and scholars begged the museum not to sanction them.
 
The museum director did not remove or relabel questionable attributions because he allegedly feared the show’s organizers would cancel the exhibition and the paintings’ values skyrocketed by virtue of being in the show.
 
Some critics felt Carlo Pedretti (director of the Armand Hammer Center for Leonardo Studies at the University of California) acted recklessly and irresponsibly when he hung questionable Leonardo works; claimed the exhibition served to pad credentials of dubious art; and it did not support accurate scholarship (Boston Globe, 2/23/97, p. A4).
 
Faulty Old Master scholarship and questionable methodology is common and facts that go against a powerful expert’s opinion often are purposely ignored. So-called scholars — who could make a difference — refuse to do the right thing because they fear retribution or do not want someone else to question their scholarship.
 
When art once considered a forgery is exhibited in a museum as authentic, it gives credence to a growing underground counterfeit industry. Thomas Hoving was at the Met’s helm from 1967 to 1977 and confesses in the book "False Impressions, The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes"(Simon and Schuster, 1996, p. 17) that over 40 percent of approximately 50,000 paintings he reviewed at the Metropolitan were problematic. Paintings had significant restoration, or additions to enhance desirability, or were not authentic.
 
Hoving affirms museum directors and curators often think they are a scholar, administrator, fundraiser, gunslinger, “legal fixer” and an “accomplice smuggler.” He alleges museum staffs attempt to take countless treasures from almost every country without getting caught by the authorities.
 
Hoving delights in telling stories of how the Metropolitan Museum, the J. Paul Getty Museum (Malibu, Calif.) and the National Gallery (London) have been duped many times by scam artists and how each museum has spent millions buying fakes. He admits he knew well art counterfeiter Frank X. Kelly and he openly discusses how curator Jiri Frel called Trustees at the J. Paul Getty Museum “intellectual cripples,” and then sold the Getty dubious works for $14m.
 
J. Paul Getty Museum curators have admitted a $1 million 4thcentury sculpture of the Head of Achilles in their collection is a 20thcentury forgery, proving, once again, museum curator-experts make errors in judgment and major purchasing mistakes. 
 
Many factors make it difficult to discern fakes created centuries ago. Since the Renaissance, accomplished artists have copied masters to show off skills and to learn how to recreate past technical and artistic achievements.
 
During the 18thcentury, so many members of the English royal family (and their wealthy friends) wanted to own art treasures, James Christie turned the city into an art and antique trading center. The demand for masterworks was so great by the mid-18thcentury that forgeries were in abundance throughout Europe.
 
As European tourism expanded, so did the purchasing habits of the affluent. By 1860, Americans joined a growing group of insatiable collectors who wanted to fill their mansions with art. By WWI, counterfeiting was a thriving industry worldwide.
 
During WWII, the Nazi regime stole from prominent Jewish families thousands of works of art and sold them with newly created provenance data to museums, dealers, and collectors. Because thousands of people wanted a piece of the action, by 1949 forgery factories popped up all over Europe. Indifferent dealers and their middlemen cared little about clear title or authenticity. They hungered for money. They sold stolen Nazi art throughout the world, while the suspicious looked the other way or were silenced.
 
After 1950, hundreds of seedy swindlers lived to outwit and fool scholars, museum curators and wealthy collectors by selling them high-priced fakes. The quick-witted, resourceful dealer-forger David Stein (active, 1960-1970s) convinced Pablo Picasso to authenticate as real an imitation Picasso that Stein painted. No one knows for sure how many of Stein’s fake Picassos exist, but it is assumed they are too many.
 
Stein worked as a forger with Canadian counterfeiter Real Lessart and middleman-agent-dealer Fernand Legros. The threesome sold forgeries as genuine works of art and supported their claims with falsified certificates of authentication to a world full of fools who blindly believed their outlandish claims. Stein was imprisoned for his foul deeds, but Fernand Legros went on to commission infamous forger Hungarian Elmyr deHory (1906-1976) to continue Stein’s work.
 
Counterfeits by deHory, Stein, and Real Lessart are in revered collections worldwide and are thought to be authentic. Remarkably, most of their forgeries have not been identified. After David Stein was incarcerated, his wife Ann-Marie released a revealing book "Three Picassos before Breakfast"(1973) and made even more money off her husband’s sleazy talents.
 
Patricia Jobe Pierce is a freelance writer, art historian, art dealer-consultant, certified AAA appraiser, public speaker, photographer and American art authenticator for museums, auction houses and collectors. She graduated from Boston University with a BFA in 1965, is owner and director of Pierce Galleries, Inc. in Nantucket and Hingham, Mass., and is author of many works, including, "Art Collecting & Investing: The Inner Workings and the Underbelly of the Art World." For more of her submissions, Click Here Now.
 
 

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The work of inventive forgers fools novices and learned scholars. Counterfeit antiquities and paintings posing as indisputable treasures are in many major permanent museum collections.
Forgery, museums, collectors, Hoving
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2015-58-12
Monday, 12 Jan 2015 10:58 AM
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