As early as the Stone Age, when the first counterfeiter copied the mammoth on the wall of the cave, the art counterfeiting activity probably started. However, since the 20th century, with the emergence of the global art trading market, this behavior has become particularly profitable.
Art fraud is of course a crime, but it is not as despised as other illegal activities. The reason is simple: in most cases, the victims are collectors, often very rich.
In May 2018, Sotheby’s in New York sold the Italian painter Amedeo Mortigliani’s “Nude Woman Lying to the Left” for US$157 million. This 1.5-meter-long oil painting is worth almost US$1 million per centimeter. Its previous owner and Dutch horse farm owner John Manier bought it in 2003 for US$26.9 million. After this auction, he received 139 million US dollars, and the remaining money went to the auction committee.
The situation of new buyers is usually not leaked out because of fear of being targeted by thieves. But there is another reason why they are so low-key: once they buy fake paintings, they will become the laughing stock of others. In fact, the possibility of buying fake paintings is quite high. Even well-known auction houses often suffer such losses, so before auctions, auction houses will carefully check the authenticity of the works.
“The art market has no rules at all,” said Wendy Kingsmith, a modern art consultant. “It’s like a minefield…” This metaphor is very vivid. Mortigliani is one of the most forged painters. First of all, his paintings are up to the master level; secondly, many of his paintings are of unknown origin, because of his unruly life, his works are difficult to trace to the source. It is said that he often wanders around Paris with picture clips full of works on his back, trading them for drinks. Not long ago, there was a shocking incident in Mortilianni’s hometown: from May to June 2017, 20 of the 30 Mortilian paintings exhibited at the Palazzo Ducale in Genoa is fake. The police immediately investigated the three organizers of the exhibition and destroyed the forgeries in accordance with Italian law. Among them was one of Mortigliani’s “nude pictures”, which resembled the one sold in New York not long ago. One picture.
So here comes the question: if one of the “naked girls” is fake, who can guarantee that the other “naked girls” are real? That being said, the new buyer in New York had better do another technical appraisal to reassure himself.
Fake Painting Museum
At the end of April 2018, it was discovered in the city of Elne in southern France that more than half of the works of Etienne Tyrus, one of the founders of the Fauvism, displayed in the local museum were fake.
Shortly before the museum opened, the City of Elne purchased nearly 80 paintings by Etienne Tyrus as a supplement to the existing collection. However, the painting historian Eric Vulkada, who was invited to organize the exhibition, suspected that many of the oil paintings were fakes, and were shoddy fakes. “I wore white gloves and scratched the ink pen signature on one of the paintings, and the signature disappeared.” He told reporters. Experts from Paris confirmed Vulkada’s suspicion: only 68 of the 140 works are authentic.
After the Genoa scandal, art scientists are asking a question: How many authentic works of Mortigliani are in the hands of galleries, museums and private collectors? Mark Lestellini, one of the most authoritative experts on his works, believes that there are no less than 1,000 fakes.
As the counterfeiter of Mortiliani’s works, Elmir de Horry is considered by many painting historians to be one of the most important counterfeiters in the 20th century. “If my work hangs in the museum for long enough, it will become authentic.” This is Horry’s favorite saying. With the help of partners, Horry sold more than 1,000 fake paintings during his 30-year career, many of which were deemed authentic and hung on the walls of museums, galleries and private collectors.
In 2015, Dulwich Gallery in London conducted an interesting test: let the audience find one of the fake paintings among 240 exhibition oil paintings. The test lasted for three months and attracted a large number of painting enthusiasts, with four times more visitors than usual. Among the more than 3,000 spectators who participated in the test, one in ten found the fake painting, which is Jean Honoré Fragonard’s masterpiece “Reading Girl”.
If ordinary viewers in the exhibition can see the authenticity of the works, then the expert appraisal work shouldn’t be too difficult, right? Here, we want to mention something that makes people laugh and cry. In 2006, Katya Shnaidel, manager of the German Moritzburg Art Museum, took a painting randomly piled up with various paints as a masterpiece by the German painter Ernst Ney and bought it without thinking. When she learned that this colorful painting was not Ney’s work but Ponka’s work, let alone the disappointment. Painting enthusiasts may not have heard of Punka’s name. In fact, it is a 30-year-old gorilla in Halle Zoo.
Ponka’s story is ridiculous, but strictly speaking, the work of experts is not easy to do, because they make mistakes at a high price and often cause great losses. Of course, if experts cannot distinguish between true and false, then there will be more accusations against them. Sometimes, experts will treat the original as a fake, causing the price of the work to plummet.
In 2017, an oil painting by John Constable was sold for only 35,000 pounds because it has been considered a fake for a long time. In fact, it is an authentic painting worth 2 million pounds. Its previous owner, collector and TV presenter Philip Multer always believed that it was authentic, but could not prove it. In the end, experts determined that this painting was an early version of “Hay Wagon”, and the color and structure of the picture were consistent with Constable’s style. Mult was very happy because he was right, and he was not at a disadvantage. Although in 2000, he sold the painting to the businessman Henry Reid at a price 60 times lower than its actual value, the original purchase price was only £10,000.
The nemesis of counterfeiters
Those counterfeiters who knew Jamie Martin were afraid of him. Born in Baltimore, he had two hobbies since he was a child: studying painting and science. Prior to this, he worked as a technical consultant for the FBI, museums, galleries, auction companies and private collectors for 20 years. Now, since December 2016, after its Wimbledon-based Orion Analytical, a consulting company specializing in materials analysis and testing, was acquired by Sotheby’s, Martin became the New York branch of Sotheby’s auction house. The leader of the laboratory is also one of the main opponents of the famous painting counterfeiters. This “counterfeiter’s nemesis” travels between New York and London 80% of his time to appraise Sotheby’s. In order to ensure absolute fairness, there is a clause in his labor contract: he will not receive any form of bonus. Martin exposes the counterfeiters while also respecting them. He knew that many of them were true geniuses.
Michelangelo couldn’t hold back
When counterfeiters defend themselves, they might say that it is very difficult to create real masterpieces. Besides, many famous artists are suspected of deceiving others. Art historian Tieri Lenan thought Michelangelo was a liar. Lenin believes that the great Italian copied many famous paintings and replaced the original ones with fake ones.
According to the historian, Michelangelo borrowed the work he wanted to copy from the owner of the painting, but what he returned back was not the original, but a copy of his paintings. Michelangelo plagiarized many works he wanted to collect.
This is not the first time Michelangelo has been suspected of fraud. It is said that in 1496, Michelangelo copied an ancient sculpture of a sleeping Cupid. In order to make the sculpture have the appearance of ancient Rome, he buried the sculpture underground and deliberately made several flaws. After a while, he dug up “Cupid”, regarded it as a sculpture from the ancient Roman period, and sold it to Cardinal Rario through an intermediary.
In short, it is difficult for us to determine which works of art currently hanging in galleries and museums and appearing in auctions are authentic and which are counterfeit. Although dozens of counterfeiters have been arrested and imprisoned, hundreds of people are still “working hard and continuing to commit fraud.”