Forgeries are hurting the art market – but I’d buy ones this good | Art and design | The Guardian

February 16, 2017 – 08:47

Forgeries are hurting the art market – but I’d buy ones this good

Jonathan Jones15/02/2017

How can you tell when the art market is terrified? Perhaps when a leading auction house sets up its own forensic department, so it can offer art collectors the additional reassurance of a battery of scientific tests when they fork out hundreds of thousands, or even millions, on a painting that may be a masterpiece – or may be a fake. Sotheby’s New York has recently done just that. It has purchased the research company Orion Analytical, whose forensic knowledge will now be part of its own brand.

Sotheby’s has good reason to buttress its expertise with objective scientific tests on such crucial clues as the age of the materials a work of art contains. For there is a crisis in the art trade. Allegations of forgeries are proliferating in a way that is troubling to think about.

Just a week ago, it emerged that Sotheby’s is taking legal action against art dealer Mark Weiss, in the latest chapter in an eye-popping story of suspected art crime. Weiss sold Sotheby’s a painting by Frans Hals that it sold on to a US buyer – but Sotheby’s has since declared the work a fake, reimbursed the purchaser, and is taking Weiss to court. Weiss will contest the claim. The painting is said to be part of a sophisticated forgery network that also created a painting of David, supposedly done by Orazio Gentileschi on lapis lazuli, though as yet this has not been proved and the National Gallery, to whom the work had been loaned, said: “The gallery always undertakes due diligence on a work coming on loan as well as a technical examination.” Meanwhile, a painting supposedly by Lucas Cranach the Elder was seized by French authorities from an exhibition in 2016, after claims it was also a forgery. The owners of the Cranach painting also deny the forgery claims.

In January, Sotheby’s said a painting of St Jerome that it sold as a work by the great 16th-century painter Parmigianino, or someone who worked with him, is definitely a modern fake. Testing by Orion Analytical confirmed this, for it found that 21 separate samples “contained the modern synthetic pigment phthalocyanine green, which was first used in paints nearly four centuries after Parmigianino died.”

Painting of Saint Jerome, originally attributed to the circle of Parmigianino. Sotheby’s has called the painting a fake and reimbursed the buyer.

Painting of Saint Jerome, originally attributed to the circle of Parmigianino. Sotheby’s has called the painting a fake and reimbursed the buyer. Photograph: Sotheby’s

You don’t get to be a business as big and enduring as Sotheby’s – founded in 1744, when William Hogarth was satirising the 18th-century art trade that filled stately homes with Old Masters – without staying ahead of the game. That game is reassurance. Having been victims of a forgery scam that is still unravelling, it is now rushing to admit its own errors and offer the latest science as part of its service.

Yet the real mystery is – if these are forgeries, who are the forgers? How have they fooled so many experts?

The research by Orion Analytical shows they did not bother to imitate historical materials. This is odd. Surely, it would make sense to avoid using a colour such as phthalocyanine green, which was bound to be detected if St Jerome was tested. Why would a sophisticated forgery ring make silly mistakes like this?

We can see something else about the forgers. My god, they can paint. One or more extremely talented painters are involved. St Jerome is an impressive piece of work. The bare upper body of the saint is a fine exercise in nude painting. The background is more formulaic – perhaps that’s why the “experts” decided it might be by Parmigianino’s “circle” rather than the master himself – yet the painter who did this could surely, given the right opportunities, be a Lucian Freud in the making.

David with the Head of Goliath. attributed to Orazio Gentileschi, now being investigated as a possible forgery.

David with the Head of Goliath. attributed to Orazio Gentileschi, now being investigated as a possible forgery. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Does not this combination of artistic talent and technique, impressively inventing a mannerist masterpiece, yet not bothering to use historically appropriate pigments, suggest an oddly innocent crime ring?

Perhaps, far from being calculating con artists led by a 21st-century Mr Ripley, these forgers are a group of young painters putting their skills to illicit use, for fun as much as money. I don’t usually see anything romantic in art crime, but I am starting to sneakily like these guys.

Skilled painting is no longer valued by our culture in the way it used to be. Painters have a very hard job getting recognition. Being able to paint like Parmigianino means nothing in an age when interactivity, photographic media and moving images fill galleries such as Tate Modern. I am not saying it’s wrong for the craft of painting to be so diminished. It may be a historical inevitability. As the art historian Michael Baxandall argued, people tend to like using the skills they learn in daily life when they look at art. Many people today work on screens, using brains, not hands – so of course they like looking at conceptual art.

Yet the more I think about these mysterious forgers, the more I am on their side. They must have trained for years to paint so well. They are so good they can mimic the masters of the 16th and 17th centuries – yet that skill has no place among the theoretical moves and merciless iconoclasms of contemporary art. So perhaps they have taken a bizarre revenge on an art market so obsessed with the new that it has plainly been failing to properly scrutinise the less fashionable old masters that pass through its hands.

Anyway that’s how I picture this artistic underworld. It will be fascinating to find out the truth. Meanwhile, I wouldn’t mind owning one of those beautiful fakes.

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