The largely unregulated, informal nature of the legitimate art market, a network of discreetly cultivated relationships with its own language and commercial rituals, makes it susceptible to manipulation on a range of levels, but particularly to forgery.
—Dr. Tom Flynn, art historian and critic, London
Art forgers force us to question our concept of creative originality and corrupt the cultural record. Yet, a reality of art collecting is that relatively few artists are celebrated as masters, producing a strong incentive for forgers to duplicate famous works and to foist their copies as originals. This exhibition highlights five notorious art forgers from the 20th century to the present, exposing their infamous legacies and analyzing how their talent, charm, and audacity beguiled the art world.
Art fraud is one of the most serious challenges facing museums today in their stewardship of our cultural heritage. It is, therefore, critical to go “behind the scenes” and examine how these daring forgers used artful methodology to fool—at least initially—the experts, art dealers, and institutions who validated and collected their work. Han van Meegeren, Elmyr de Hory, Eric Hebborn, John Myatt and Mark Landis were all unable to make a career based on acceptance of their own artistic style. They found fakery, the exact duplication of an original work of art, and forgery, the creation and selling of a work of art which is falsely credited to another, to be their most accessible avenue to recognition and commercial success.
The forgers in this exhibition imitated the works of many notable American and European artists such as Charles Courtney Curran, Honoré Daumier, Philip de László, Henri Matisse, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Paul Signac and Maurice de Vlaminck, among others, whose original works of art are featured in the exhibition as comparisons.
By bringing to light these forgers’ frustrated artistic ambitions, chaotic personal lives, and contempt for the art world, as well as understanding how advances in technology are aiding art professionals in identifying authenticity, this exhibition brings to light the serious implications of these con artists’ intent to deceive.
The art world has yet to develop a foolproof system for authenticating works. The current system is based on a three-pillar approach:
- connoisseurship—a person with expert training in characteristic features of an artist’s style and technique, often referred to as the “eye of the expert”
- provenance—an evaluation of the history of an artwork’s origin, ownership, location, and transactions; documentation for authentication
- technical analysis—scrutiny with scientific equipment of a work’s material components to determine if they are consistent or inconsistent with a purported age or attribution.
All of the forgers in this exhibition employed means to thwart this system of authentication. They fooled the experts by mastering techniques of the artists they copied, created false identities and background stories to build credibility, constructed elaborate schemes to corrupt provenance documentation and went to great lengths to ensure their materials would pass forensic examination. All relied heavily on the art of deception.