The art of forgery
Copying geniuses is something as old as the first artistic manifestations, but only the best forgers have managed to make a living from it.
It is often said that renowned painters were sometimes confronted by works of theirs that they did not remember, but that such was their faithfulness to the style that the author could be no other, so they put their stamp on it and immediately added the work to theirs. However, behind these brushstrokes was the hand of anonymous forgers capable of copying the great masters... and even making a living from it.
Picasso and Dalí, to go no further, sometimes found themselves with this. But the world of forgery has reached all artistic manifestations and all times: the temptation was too great.
The case of Vermeer
There are as many forgers as there are artists and styles, but for obvious reasons the most sought out are those that can no longer reveal their tricks. This is the case of Vermeer. The Flemish painter left some of the most valuable works of 17th-century Dutch traditionalism, but his production was small and some of his canvases are thought to have disappeared or been lost in time.
This circumstance was taken advantage of by a 20th-century compatriot of his, Han van Meegeren. His talent was great but his preference to paint like the master from centuries before brought criticism that his style was obsolete and unoriginal.
Offended by the critics, Van Meegeren conceived a system to copy the traces and painting techniques that would allow him to simulate the centuries of difference. His production was very broad and he even achieved certain fame; in fact he ended up paying for one of his great successes in prison: Christ and the adult, which he brought out with Vermeer’s signature and fate took to the personal collection of the Nazi hierarch Herman Göring. At the end of the war, the origin of the painting was traced until it reached his paintbrush, and sent him to prison for several months.
Van Meegeren also has another dubious merit: the fact of selling one of the forgeries for which most money has been paid. In 1937 he took a work by Caravaggio, The disciples of Emaús, to make his own version. His work was so similar to Veermer’s original that it was not only accepted as authentic by the experts, but earned more than four million dollars at an auction. "The signature of a famous artist makes us think of paintings as if they were sacred artefacts, touched by the hand of a genius", he argued.
A story of spies
The history of forgery is also that of its own authors, and behind the good imitations there is a series of novels. This is the case of Elmyr de Hory. Born in Budapest (1906), his biographies blend true facts with others suspiciously similar to spy films. The fact is that De Hory had an extraordinary talent to recreate such different stars as those of Renoir, Matisse, Modigliani and Picasso.
De Hory’s work became so famed that it is said, rather sarcastically, that many museums of the world have paintings of his on their walls. In fact, and he would not be so happy about this, a paradox occurred; that of the forged forger, as he became so famous in the circles that even his copies gained considerable value. He had no qualms about his work of "interpretation, not copying", it hadn’t been his idea, but he was sure of his talent. "When my paintings have been on a museum wall for long enough, they will end up being authentic”, he even said.
The truth is that part of his legend lies in his prolific activity (he is said to have made more than 1,000 paintings) and in the fact that he had become a character in a book and even the object of a report signed by Orson Welles: Fraude (F to fake).
Rosario Weiss, Goya’s 'goddaughter’
The world of forgeries has traditionally left women outside collective imagination, which is why to include Rosario Weiss here might seem risky because she cannot be considered a forger in the same way as her listed colleagues.
Weiss, who was born in Madrid (1814-1843), was not only a contemporary of Goya but became a daughter for the painter, to the extent that it was rumoured that he was her father. The truth is that beyond this, the youngster considered the author of Los fusilamientos del 3 de mayo a close, private teacher who allowed her to develop her talent; and although her name is now is rather unknown, a recent display at the Biblioteca Nacional showed drawings made by both and part of her work.
At other times, Goya suggested she copied his works as an 'exercise'. This is where Weiss¡’s work begins to bring tension, for once outside her mentor’s umbrella, she earned her living by copying paintings at the Prado Museum. It is true that her biography reflects no intention to deceive, but she did make copying a living.
Modigliani "Painted more dead than alive"
“Amadeo Modigliani (1884-1920) painted more dead than alive”. It is to this extent that Italian art has been and is the object of copiers, according to the expert Carlo Pepi. Pepi describes the situation as "aberrant", above all following the scandal surrounding the display of the artist in Genoa in 2017, in which it was discovered that 20 of the 70 works on display were false.
Kenneth Wayne, one of the eminences of studies on Modigliani, assures that "to say that the situation of the reasoned catalogue of Modigliani’s works is a disaster is to fall a long way short" because, as he well says, even works considered true are now under scrutiny. Meanwhile, and this is something that the forgers particularly bear in mind, their price continues to rise.
Dalí, the 'self-forger'
The brilliant artist from Figueras boasted his talent whenever he had the chance. He also generally mentioned his tendency to sign blank pages, thousands according to the chroniclers, with which he managed to increase his already bloated income. The fact is that this material was perfect to bring the painter extra money, and also because these immaculate spaces were ideal to tempt fate with copies of his work and various forgeries, which is what ended up happening.
This explains why he is one of the most widely copied artists. From time to time, information appears on this in the press. The last time was of the 47 lithographies of the soft clocks series attributed to him, which were apprehended in a police operation in 2012. Sadly this situation is nothing new. His apocryphal copies have been found not only in Spain, but also in the United States and Japan.
Banksy and his things
Times change, and artistic manifestations too. A clear example is that of Banksy, the British anonymous artist who came to fame thanks to urban art, with satirical or political images on walls and public spaces. His success is so overwhelming that some of his murals have been directly removed and put on sale.
He never made any comment about the works attributed to him, so the chance was open for any 'brave man' to launch his own works on the market to earn a bit of money.
And the idea doesn’t seem a bad one because the author himself assures that "many copies are better quality than the originals”. Banksy’s work for which most money has been paid is Space Girl and Bird, for which 288,000 pounds sterling were paid in an auction.
How is it possible?
Sometimes a forgery is obvious, especially for trained eyes. But if the trace and the colours are absolutely faithful to the original, a deep analysis of the material is needed to discern an original from a copy. The most obvious of these is the canvas. It is relatively easy to say when a canvas dates from, which is why simulating this age is one of the greatest problems facing forgers, but this now seems to have been overcome: some have created a printing system that gives the work an almost indistinguishable appearance of the past.
The pigments also give the game away. Depending on the time, the region the artistic school, etc., each colour has a certain composition that sometimes has been sufficient to unmask an impostor.
Sculpture forgery is also long-standing, in fact it was one of the origins of this dubious art. In Rome, for instance, it was commonplace to trade with Greek sculptures, which naturally did not come from the Aegean. This discipline continues today. The works of Giacometti, for instance, are some of those most imitated, although the search for deceit has looked far back and so there has been no doubt in making flakes, in polishing surfaces or applying ageing treatments to make objects made far more recently than might seem look like true objects from the past.