Take a look at some of the most scandalous cases of art forgeries in history.
The other day, I was watching Big Eyes, one of Tim Burton's recent films. The movie is not even remotely his best work, but it made me think about the topic of art forgeries. In case you haven't watched it yet, it tells the story of an artist called Margaret Keane, known for her portraits of children with very big eyes. Her husband, Walter, convinces her to sell the paintings and pretend that they were actually made by him. One day, Margaret discovers that the many landscapes her husband claimed to have painted had actually been painted by someone else. It made me wonder: what if some of the works of art we know and love were actually fake? I mean, Walter Keane made a fortune from his wife’s paintings and was only exposed because she got tired of lying, but if it hadn't been for her, nobody would've discovered the fraud.
After watching the movie, I stumbled upon an article from The Independent by Michael Glover, where he claims that at least half of the art in the global market is probably fake. Now, there are two types of fake art: the first one, and the one Glover refers to, is works that have been attributed to an artist, but there’s no evidence to prove their authorship. The second, and the one I was most interested in, was those known as forgeries, where famous masterpieces are sold and exhibited as authentic, when actually, they are false. This is a crime. So, fasten your seatbelts and come with me on this journey through some of the most scandalous cases of art forgery in history.
Modigliani Exhibition Failure
Jeanne Hébuterne (au chapeau) - Amedeo Modigliani (1917)
I love this story, and I can’t believe it actually happened. At a recent art exhibition in Genoa showing the work of Italian artist Amedeo Modigliani, 21 of the 60 paintings displayed were suspected to be forgeries. Carlo Pepi, an art historian who specializes in Modigliani, was the one who realized what was going on when he noticed that the painting used to promote the exhibition didn’t really match the artist’s work in terms of style and quality. Convinced that it was a fake, he decided to notify the police and the international press. This caught the attention of other Modigliani experts who agreed with him and ended up discovering that at least one-quarter of the exhibition was actually forgeries.
People in the art world wondered how was it possible that the exhibition's curators didn’t notice that the paintings didn't belong to the artist. According to Pepi, the reason is because there isn’t an official, definitive catalog of Modigliani’s work, so it’s quite possible to believe that a painting with a similar style belongs to the artist.
Johannes Vermeer’s paintings
The Milkmaid - Johannes Vermeer (1658)
This story sounds like something from a cheesy WWII movie. Once upon a time, a young Dutch artist called Han van Meegeren dreamed of being recognized as one of the best modern artists in the world. However, even after working very hard, he was barely recognized as an average painter. Angry and frustrated, he decided to prove everyone that he was a great artist, as good as the masters even. So, he started replicating some of the most important works of art in history, especially some in Johannes Vermeer’s style, which he had mastered quite well. Long story short, he soon realized that he could actually make good money from it, and started selling them to art collectors who believed they were authentic.
Little did he know that one of his Vermeer forgeries would end up in the hands of Nazi officer Hermann Göring (one of Hitler’s right-hand men). After the Dutch government found out where the painting had ended up, they decided to start an investigation to see who had sold one of the Netherland’s art treasures. Convinced that the culprit was a Nazi collaborator, they decided to put all their efforts in the investigation, which eventually led them to van Meegeren. At first, he refused to name “the person he had gotten the painting from,” but after getting arrested, and fearing he would be sentenced to death, he decided to tell them that he had actually forged the painting, which they didn’t believe until he was given the chance to recreate another painting.
Living the American Dream
Vase de Fleurs (Lilas) - Paul Gauguin (1896)
The story of this forger, Ely Sakhai, goes back to his childhood, when he emigrated from Iran to New York and started working with his brother at an antique shop. They started selling fake Tiffany lamps when they realized that if they made good fakes, people would pay tons of money to get their hands on one. Sakhai even copied the authenticity labels, knowing that the more real they looked, the more money they could get. After making a small fortune this way, he decided to try something new. So, he started buying relatively unknown original paintings by Modigliani, Chagall, Gauguin, and Monet and hired some very talented Chinese artists to make the copies.
His idea was to sell one of his forged paintings, and then wait a couple of years to sell the original, so nobody would suspect anything. However, the business he'd ran for decades failed in 2000 when he sold Gauguin’s original Vase de Fleurs (Lilas) to the famous auction house, Sotheby’s. When they started promoting the painting, another auction house, Christie’s, announced that they had the same painting in their collection. Both houses called a Gauguin expert who determined that Christie’s version was a forgery. The FBI traced Sakhai and arrested him, but he was only sentenced to 41 months in prison.
Michelangelo was the greatest forger
Bronze Statue of Eros Sleeping - Unknown (circa 3rd to 1st century A.D.)
I had to include this one because I laughed so hard when I read it. So, apparently, before becoming one of the greatest artists of all time, Michelangelo had a dark past as a forger. As the story goes, when he was just 21 years old, before becoming a renowned artist, he created a statue called “Sleeping Eros,” which he claimed was from Ancient Rome. To make it look old, he used acidic earth and sold it to an art dealer called Baldassare del Milanese. The latter then sold it to the prominent Cardinal Riario of San Giorgio who somehow (this part of the story isn't very clear) realized that it was a fake.
The angry cardinal wanted his money back and went to the art dealer to give the forgery back. By then, Michelangelo had already become a kind of celebrity thanks to his famous “Pietá,” so the dealer decided not to make a fuss and sold it to another victim. However, this story has a happy ending because later on the Cardinal became Michelangelo’s first patron in Rome. Well, happy ending for Michelangelo, at least, because his “ancient” masterpiece is believed to have been destroyed in a terrible fire in the seventeenth century, so the image above is actually an original ancient statue of the deity.
When reading about these stories, I thought they were very funny, but actually, it happens all the time and has happened everywhere around the world. The question now is why? The answer is kind of obvious: you can make millions from it, but there's something else that’s worth bringing up, and it is that these forgers are actually great artists that study the work of great artists closely. They just wanted to enjoy the money, rather than wait for ages for their original work to be recognized.
Here are other art stories you might enjoy:
Cover painting: Girl with a Pearl Earring by Johannes Vermeer (1665).