Art authentication needs to become more rigorous to confront the challenge
For much of artistic history, forgery has been thought of with a tinge of romanticism. It has also been recognized for its sheer difficulty. Experts, collectors, and other artists aren’t traditionally naïve to the nuances of their craft. Very few have the talent to create original compositions in the exact style of the artist subjected to imitation, let alone the audacity required to do so successfully in the marketplace.
In recent history, forgery scandals have oddly become commonplace, near regular occurrences. In our era where information moves far faster than any of us have the time to process it, the issue can’t be attributed to the talent and cunning of a new generation of forgers. The issue itself is in art authentication.
“We live in an era where anyone can find ‘an authority’ to say whatever he or she wants,” says the Art Newspaper’s Jane Kallir in a recent commentary.
Wolfgang Beltracchi single-handedly turned the art world upside-down before knocking it on its feet earlier this decade. After having successfully forged Ernst, Pechstein, Kandinsky, and Gaugin, among many others, Beltracchi was convicted by a German court before becoming a renowned artist in his own right. It’s reported that hundreds of his forged works are still in circulation.
The question now is: what’s more fashionable? A successful Beltracchi forgery or one where the buyer is in on the ruse?
Beyond Beltracchi, in 2016, Paris was taken asunder by its own forgery scandal. Bill Pallot and Charles Hooreman became two of the most famous men in French art when Pallot admitted to a deep and sophisticated scheme, after being exposed by his ex-student, Hooreman.
In 2011, Knoedler & Co. Gallery closed abruptly amidst allegations it had sold works falsely attributed to leading Abstract Expressionists. It was revealed that between 1994 and 2008, the gallery was home to an $80 million-dollar forgery ring. 40 counterfeit works were consigned and sold off as legitimate. In 2009, the gallery was hit with a subpoena and it succumbed to the weight of legal action against it in 2011 – ending a 165-year history in New York City.
Just this past January twenty Modiglianis that were seized by police in Genoa were confirmed to all be fakes. According to an independent art expert appointed by Italian authorities, the fakes were crudely forged, and their frames came from Eastern Europe and the United States – contexts completely outside of Modigliani’s historical period.
The art world has not proven immune to the modern era of alternative facts and fake news. While expertise and connoisseurship shouldn’t be dismissed – in fact, it should be relied on more heavily than ever – the process of authentication needs to be more rigorous and intentionally slowed down. The sanctity of authentication should be placed ahead of the potential for profit.