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Imitation is the Highest Form of Flattery | Forged Art

Forged Vermeer, “The Smiling Girl” c. 1925, oil on canvas, Andrew W. Mellon

To even the most trained eye, it is not a simple task to identify authentic art from its counterfeit counterparts.  Since before the Classical period, Copy art is world-wide a multi-million dollar industry, and as such has grown in demand and concern tremendously.

The “art of forgery”, so to speak, dates back farther than two thousand years when Roman sculptors began recreating Greek sculptures with the transparent understanding that they were imitations.  Nonetheless, buyers were pleased with the forged art, placing value in its aesthetic beauty or historical significance, rather than in its genuineness.  In fact, few buyers actually cared about the identity of the artist at all!

During the Renaissance, it was common for professional painters to take on apprentices who would practice techniques by copying the style and works of the master.  If they were passable, the master would sell the works as payment to the student for a job well done.  Imitation is after all, the highest form of flattery.  Some of these apprentice works would be erroneously credited to the master.

Succeeding the Renaissance period, there was a large growth in desire for art in the home of the middle-class citizen.  As the 14th century neared its end, Roman statues were displaced in Italy as art slowly became a commercial commodity.  As this upsurge of the value of art grew and changed, the public became more interested in placing value on it by identifying the artisan.  To help identify their works, artists began marking them.  Thus, in a place where the demand for certain popular or limited works began to exceed the attainable supply, forged art was born.

Unknown Italian forger 1920's wormholes created with drill & Virgin's robe was painted using Prussian Blue, a pigment not invented until the 18th century.

Unknown Italian forger 1920’s wormholes created with drill & Virgin’s robe was painted using Prussian Blue, a pigment not invented until the 18th century.

While at the time of the 16th century, imitating the talents of other artists was looked down upon, the monetary rewards often outweighed the stigma of the fraudulent artist.  In 1496, Michelangelo created a sleeping Cupid figure, treating it so that it appeared to be much more antiquated – essentially, forging art.  It was sold to dealer, Baldassare del Milanese, who then sold it to Cardinal Riario, who then, upon finding it was a fraud, demanded his money back!  It was supposedly destroyed in the great fire in the Palace of Whitehall, London.

A lot has changed since then, as in modern society, forged art is causing a large upheaval in the artistic community while fostering distrust among buyers.  As the populous’ perception of art changes, so does the attributed value.  Today artists like Picasso, Salvador Dali and Matisse are favored targets of forgery.  Like Michelangelo’s Cupid, forged art is usually sold to a dealer or art gallery, who then distributes the art to unsuspecting consumers.  For Art and antique collectors, the risk of attaining forged art is about as high as the price-tag.  In fact, German propaganda during the occupation led to the selling of the highest price Cezanne at the Paris auction house Drouot, which turned out to be a fake!

Ellingten church used by 1945 US forces storing Nazi-looted art. BBC

Ellingten church used by 1945 US forces storing Nazi-looted art.

Though some buyers still attain knowingly forged art for its aesthetics and affordability, the practice of forgery is widely disdained by collectors today.  Though the industry is ever-changing, experts worry that forged art is destroying a sense of trustworthiness and confidence in the evolving art world, which could have detrimental impacts on the way we view and value art.  Huge retailers such as New York’s oldest gallery, Knoedler & Company have been dismantled due to competitors offering forged art at half the price.  With so many hustlers in on this profitable scheme, from artists to greedy sellers and scholars paid to keep their mouths shut, who can be trusted?

When purchasing authentic art, it is important to go through acclaimed dealers and local art stores who practice ethical business.  When shopping online, especially when going through Ebay, there are some things to be wary of.  Determining whether a work of art is authentic or counterfeit is not easy.  While some websites offer a warranty or seller guarantee, Ebay lacks a certain amount of quality control and takes no accountability in regards to authenticity, accuracy or condition.  Because of Ebay’s protection policies, it is a breeding ground for deceptive sellers who make a living off of counterfeit art.  So if you get stuck with a fake, it’s a long and difficult process to return it.

If a deal is too good to be true, it might be!

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