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WYWH: Tricking the Art Market – On Forgery, Beltracchi, and Scientific Technology

By Musetta Durkee.

Forgeries [i] have tricked the art world for decades. Sometimes a work appears that fills a gap in an artist’s catalogue or provides added inventory of a much desired artist. Other times a buyer has an emotional connection to a work. Or a work may have already been in the art market for decades and its authenticity is presumed. Oftentimes, rigorous due-diligence is not undertaken or fails and a forgery enters the art market, sometimes purchased for millions of dollars and remaining undetected for decades. 

On November 14, 2018, Center for Art Law and Brooklyn Law School hosted a film screening of “Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery” (2014, dir. Arne Birkenstock), a documentary looking at the work of famous German forger Wolfgang Beltracchi, accompanied with a presentation by Professor Jennifer Mass, President of Scientific Analysis of Fine Art, LLC and Professor of Cultural Heritage Sciences at Bard Graduate Center.

Whenever forgeries are exposed, shock pulsates through the entire art market. Experts are increasingly essential to perform necessary diligence, and are using scientific solutions to expose forgeries that have already entered the art market, as well as to prevent the selling and acquiring forgeries. Professor Mass is one of those experts. In a discussion prompted by “Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery,” Professor Mass explored the many scientific strategies deployed by experts in detecting forgeries. 

Beltracchi with his forged Campendonk “Rotes Bild mit Pferden.” By Federico Gambarini/EPA/Landov; by Simon Vogel/picture alliance /dpa (painting).

Forgeries have captured the imaginations of art world insiders and laypersons alike.  For example, the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris is exhibiting two versions of Caravaggio’s “Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy” side-by-side raising the question of which painting is authentic. However, a learned eye alone is not enough to spot a forgery. Professor Mass emphasized that determining the authenticity of an art object requires collaboration between curators, authenticators, and scientists. Experts must evaluate the state of preservation, attribution, genesis, provenance, and title of the work. There must be close looking at the aesthetic qualities of the work, evaluation of the history of the work and related documentation, and chemical analysis of the work. Furthermore, no expert can determine the authenticity of an object by looking at a photo of the work – it is much better to be able to hold the work to see its actual qualities, such as the true colors, the brushstrokes, and the materials.  

Two versions of Caravaggio’s “Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy” on view at the Musée Jacquemart-André in Paris.
On left, “Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy, Klein Magdalena” (ca. 1606).
On right, “Mary Magdalene in Ecstasy(1606).

Forgers go into great length to fool experts, Professor Mass explains: forgeries must have the right labels, dates, signature, provenance, restoration history, and materials (paint, canvas) that are time appropriate. For example, if you see a work that is supposedly hundreds of years old, with no restoration history, that would be a red flag. Similarly, putting a painting under ultraviolet light may shows a blue fluorescence that was invented after WWII; if the painting was supposed to be 1916, that would point to a forgery. Or, if there was an original signature, but over sixty percent of the painting was overpaint, that would also warrant consideration (normally, conservation should be limited to twenty to thirty percent of work).  

“Technical art history,” as Professor Mass describes the scientific aspects of forgery detection, uses scientific tools and methods to determine the authenticity of an art object. By using tools along the electromagnetic radiation spectrum, from ultraviolet light to x-rays to infrared sensors, experts can obtain information regarding paint properties, layers of paint including overpainting and brushstrokes, quality of canvas including tears or repairs and binding, and information on light, humidity, and other conditions such as water stains. Each viewing technique reveals different information in the work. For example, ultraviolet light can show how cadmium yellow fades to white, thereby providing information about the degradation of the painting. Furthermore, with the development of new technologies – such as hyper spectral visuality, mass spectrometry research, new x-ray technologies, and even particle accelerators – scientists can conduct more sophisticated chemical and DNA analyses, and even evaluate works completely nondestructively, that is, without using even a miscrosample of paint from the work. Indeed, the American Institute of Conservation requires that analysis of works be conducted as non-destructively as possible, which has led to the development of these new technologies. 

Wolfgang Beltracchi is one of the most prolific and financially successful art forgers in history.  He claims to have forged around 300 works, including works in museums and private collections, by artists including Max Ernst, Fernand Léger, Heinrich Campendonk, and André Derain. With the help of his wife Helen, Beltracchi sold his forgeries by creating fake provenance, complete with staged black and white photographs, and fake collectors.

Fake provenance photo staged by Beltracchi and featuring his wife alongside his forgeries. From Polizei/dapd/ddp images/AP.

In 2011, a German court found him and his wife guilty of forgery relating to 14 works he had sold for a total of $45 million, as he had the intent to deceive in making and selling his forgeries. After serving his sentence, he was released in January 2015 and is currently painting under his own name, with some of his own works selling for over $80,000. In an interview with The Art Newspaper, he describes a “good forger” as someone who is “an art historian[,] who is a restorer, who is a painter and who has scientific knowledge.” However, Beltracchi made several mistakes in his forgeries that ultimately led to his arrest and conviction.  

From “Beltracchi: Art of the Forgery,” showing Wolfgang and Helen Beltracchi with a forged Max Ernst.

In Beltracchi’s case, Professor Mass identified at least seven ways in which Beltracchi’s forgery of Heinrich Campendonk’s “Rotes Bild mit Pferden” was exposed and led to his arrest. First, as also described in Beltracchi, Beltracchi used a white paint that had titanium white in it, a pigment that was not available in 1914, the year attributed to the forgery. Second, the painting construction was incorrect – Campendonk’s paintings went all the way around the edges of the frame, while Beltracchi’s only went to the edge of the canvas. Third, Beltracchi intended to fake worm holes in the frame to imitate age, but he merely poked holes straight through with a nail, and wormholes are not straight. Fourth, Beltracchi was overly aggressive in sanding down the canvas, creating an thin painting layer. Fifth, in trying to show age, he made the canvas too dirty. Sixth, using x-ray, an early composition on the canvas could be seen. Seventh, Beltracchi’s drying technique created a different distribution of fatty acids than with normal drying. All of these mistakes together led to the conclusion that the painting was a forgery.

But how did Beltracchi fool the art market in the first instance? Professor Mass notes that like many successful art forgers, he did not head for the high end of the market, where expensive scientific analysis may be more likely to be pursued. And rather than copying an artist’s style, he made pastiches of styles, thereby filling a gap in the artist’s catalogue and setting up an art historian for a discovery to be made. He also concocted elaborate fake provenances and created fake collectors for his works, thereby creating a plausible history and context to his forgeries. As such, Professor Mass emphasizes that not only scientists, but also collectors and historians need to be diligente and be on the lookout for suspicious acts. For example, if one notices a bottomless trove of one particular artist or works that are filling gaps in an artist’s collection they should be on the alert.

From “Beltracchi:The Art of the Forgery” showing Beltracchi preparing on oven to bake and therefore age one of his forgeries.

However, even armed with scientific tools and methods and as more collectors and auction houses become aware of the potential for forgeries, Professor Mass often finds herself in the position of the naysayer. “The market is pushing towards a ‘yes,’” she explains, and opinions labelling a work as a forgery can be unpopular, especially if someone has already purchased the work. According to Professor Mass, even though auction houses give the appearance of trying to protect against forgeries entering the market, auction houses are primarily interested in selling. Indeed, Professor Mass noted that between forty and seventy percent of works in the art market could be forgeries. Works by Modigliani, folk and vernacular art, and Chinese imperial porcelain are all known to be susceptible to forgeries.

There are certain ethical questions that arise through Professor Mass’s work. For example, in working with Professor Mass’s Scientific Analysis of Fine Art risk management company, she has examined many art works, some of which are forgeries. Though she notes that her expert opinion regarding the authenticity of a work belongs to the client alone, Professor Mass does make an exception if she finds evidence of systematic collection of art that was moved during WWII. Also, Professor Mass notes that there can undoubtedly be disagreements between experts in determining the authenticity of an art object. However, she is encouraged by a new initiative to develop a Court of Arbitration of Art where there would be neutral experts, instead of competing experts for hire.

Professor Mass rejects the idea that “a connoisseur’s eye will tell us everything we need to know.” Instead, in her presentation, she stresses that experts must look at the materiality of an object as well as the connoisseurship before including in an artist’s catalogue raisonné. Artist foundations, such as Joan Mitchell’s foundation, are increasingly concerned about forgeries entering the market. A bill pending in New York State Assembly since 2016 was designed to provide protection to art historians/experts when authenticating artworks and protect them from litigation in the instances when the opinions based on their reviews were disfavorable to the artwork and economically detrimental to the collector/holder of the art piece determined to be inauthentic.  In the modern world where even living artists, such as Jeff Koons, have found themselves protesting forgeries that have entered the market- Scientists and connoisseurs must collaborate to protect against forgeries of artists’ works.

[i] “Forgeries” and “fakes” are often used interchangeably and/or imprecisely in discussions such as these.  According to Professor Jennifer Mass, a fake has no signature, and a forgery has a signature. For purposes of this article, I will be using “forgery” throughout, even though the discussion applies equally to fakes (for example, a signature is not needed to show intent to deceive).  

Suggested Readings

  • Anthony M. Amore, The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World (St. Martin’s Press, July 14, 2015), available for purchase here.
  • Noah Charney, The Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of the Master Forgers (Phaidon Press, May 12, 2015), available for purchase here.
  • Jennifer Mass, “How the Scientific Study of Painting has Become Accessible to Everyone,” Apollo (June 25, 2018), available here.
  • Jennifer Mass, selected recent publications in Heritage Science, Smithsonian Institute Press, Archetype Press, Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry, and Keramos.
  • Ken Perenyi, Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger (Pegasus Books, Aug. 15, 2012), available for purchase here.

About the Author: Musetta Durkee is a lawyer and freelance writer focusing on the arts. Formerly an associate with WilmerHale, she received her J.D. from University of California, Berkeley, School of Law and her M.A. in Performance Studies from New York University.