Art Forgeries arebeing discovered more and more frequently as technology advances and scholarly research in the field develops. Although the production of fakes has not increased, art forgery reveals another side to the art world, a side that is clearly struggling with authenticity. Art forgers have become wealthy individuals because of their keen ability to scam the art world through their faux art. In the past century, fake art has earned over $5 billion for the forgers. Many have been caught and punished for their crime, but it has not deterred others from trying to fool fool both the public and private realms.
Henk Tromp, a cultural anthropologist at Leiden University, is publishing the book A Real Van Gogh: How the Art World Struggles With Truth, set to come out in August. It introduces J.B. de la Faille’s story of dealing with fake Van Goghs and continues on with the problems that arise over the authenticity of Van Gogh’s work and the reactions of the art world. There has been a long running debate concerning the authenticity of a number of Van Gogh’s works. In 1928, J.B. de la Faille published the Catalogue Raisonee, a comprehensive list of Van Gogh’s paintings and drawings. Within this list of works, Faille soon after discovered that over 45 of the paintings were fakes commissioned and sold by a German art dealer, Otto Wacker. Once Faille set out to publish the list of fakes, the incident became known as the “Wacker Scandal,” and many owners of the art as well as Van Gogh scholars were outraged. All of these frauds had slipped past the eyes of experts and had been confirmed as “real” Van Goghs. Wacker was eventually charged with fraud and sentenced to nineteen months in prison. However, his forgeries sparked an ongoing debate that continues to this day. How do we interpret artwork long thought real that is suddenly revealed as a fake? What are the academic implications? What are the financial implications?
As time goes on, more and more Van Goghs are being questioned. But Van Gogh forgeries are just the beginning of the long list of fakes in the art world. Works attributed to masters such as Caravaggio, Cezanne, Goya, and Durer have been deemed fake in the recent past. As an increased number of works are being challenged, the art world is becoming much more skeptical. Do painting forgers enjoy the challenge of making art to fool the eyes of art scholars? As artists, they are neither recognized for their technical ability nor their creative vision. It seems that forgers are not even thought of as artists for this reason. Yet, what distinguishes these painters from “artists”? Is this simply a for-profit enterprise? Or does it go deeper? How would you react if you found out the Mona Lisa was a copy? Are art dealers simply too eager to turn a profit, without questioning the authenticity of the work?
Many forgeries are overlooked by the experts, despite the advanded technology that is available to the art world. But if these works are proved to be forgeries, should they be taken down in museums that already showcase them? Are they any less of an artistic achievement? The New Britain Museum of American Art has had a bit of experience with the confusion of authenticity. We frequently have on display both the real painting and the copy of Frank Weston Benson’s Figure in a Room. Visitors can compare the two side-by-side to analyze the forgery and draw conclusions about the importance of authenticity in the art world. To read more about our Figure in a Room paintings and the story behind the forgery, please see this entry about fakes on display.