Ian Barnett discusses the history of forgery and the scientific techniques used to detect it today

'Lady Seated at a Virginal' Johannes Vermeer

Art forgery is perhaps an overlooked profession, but one which nonetheless has made many individuals huge amounts of money over the past few centuries. Most artists are not truly appreciated until they are dead, and therefore make paltry amounts from the sale of their artwork during their lifetimes. Vincent van Gogh is a prime example – he made only 400 francs from the sale of one painting before his death. Hence, many skilled artists have turned to forgery in pursuit of the exorbitant prices paid for fine art. Art experts utilise a plethora of techniques to establish authenticity: studying the item for style, as most artists have a unique style; researching the item’s history; and scientific analysis.

Han van Meegeren was perhaps one of history’s most successful forgers. Amassing an impressive $60 million in today’s money, he was an impeccable Vermeer forger. Even addictions to fine champagne and morphine didn’t mar his success with poor imitations continuing to fool art experts into believing his work was genuine. The secret to his success was the use of pigments and canvases available to artists at the time the original was painted. He used phenol formaldehyde to age the paintings before baking and rolling the canvases to add cracks. The Supper at Emmaus, one of van Meegeren’s most famous forgeries, was sold and exhibited it the Rotterdam museum before the Second World War. Another of his Vermeer forgeries was discovered by the Allied Arts Commission in Hermann Göring’s house, the sale of which was traced back to van Meegeren.

After this discovery, van Meegeren was accused of collaborating with the Nazis, which amounted to treason. He was threatened with the death penalty, but he eventually cracked in prison, admitting he was the forger behind the work. As a result, van Meegeren was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment but died from angina before starting the sentence. After his rise to fame as the man who swindled Göring, van Meegeren’s work started to rise in price. This ironically generated a series of poor quality forgeries of van Meegeren originals, including several by his own son. Van Meegeren’s works are now of considerable value themselves, proving the point that many artists are only truly appreciated after they die.

More recently, Shaun Greenhalgh was convicted of art forgery and given a 56 month prison sentence. Working out of a garden shed in Bromley Cross, Lancashire, he and his parents were able to fool experts at both The British Museum and Christie’s. His best known forgery was of the 3500 year old ‘Amarna Princess’, which his father sold to the Bolton Museum for £440,000 in 2004. It was only when a spelling mistake was found on a forged Assyrian stone frieze that the authorities were alerted to Greenhalgh’s series of forgeries. Scotland Yard officers subsequently found over 120 forged items at his parent’s house, and the BBC broadcast a documentary about the family entitled The Antiques Rogue Show.

With the advent of modern analytical techniques throughout the early 20th century, art forgery has become relatively easy to detect, with carbon dating and x-ray analysis being the most useful techniques. Carbon dating exploits the radioactive 14C isotope. By detecting the ratio of 14C to total carbon in the sample, one can determine the age of the object, with the ratio falling off as the item ages. Items can be aged to within 40 years, but it does involve removing a sample from the object from analysis. X-ray analysis of the painting can reveal layers of paints unique to certain artists. Techniques such as X-ray fluorescence are able to detect the presence of pigments such as titanium dioxide, a white pigment, which was invented in the 1920s. This can be especially important if the painting was supposedly painted before the pigment was discovered, therefore proving it a forgery. Certain artists also used unique mixtures of pigments and pigment binders. Egg tempera was a popular binder used pre-1500, but linseed, walnut and poppy oils became more popular in later years.

Currently, four people are standing trial in Germany charged with art forgery. 14 of the quartet’s paintings have been proven forged, with a further 33 still undergoing tests to determine their authenticity. Over the past ten years the accused had amassed €16 million from the sale of forged 20th century art. Experts say the forgeries could have been easily detected if the methods outlined above had been employed.

Art forgery is a problem that has manifested itself through history. With some paintings fetching over $100 million at auction, it is unsurprising that individuals are willing to risk forging masterpieces, in the hope of successfully fooling experts. Thankfully, modern science has made it extremely difficult to deceive auction houses and their experts; modern buyers of fine art can be increasingly certain about the authenticity of their purchases.

Ian Barnett

Image credit – Wikimedia Commons