Fakes, Forgeries and Copies, Oh My!
Over the years, I have had the opportunity to see and learn about fakes and forgeries in the art market. Like all museums, the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art has unknowingly acquired artwork that is fake - meaning that the objects were created by someone other than the signature states. For ethical reasons, museums do not want to put these pieces back into public circulation, so the works are generally used to teach connoisseurship or used for the practice of conservation treatment.
My first forged encounter was with a painting that was supposedly by George Luks who was one of “The Eight” and should have been painted around 1920. This painting was purchased in the early 1990s at an auction in New Orleans. The painting is a portrait of a young man and the quality and condition are convincing enough. No one suspected its authenticity until a museum friend heard of the purchase and alerted the staff. We looked at the painting under a black light (one that fluoresces) and could see where new paint had been applied over old, but that evidence only shows that a conservator, restorer or forger had worked on the piece. There was a nagging feeling that the subject matter didn’t quite match the other work done by Luks but still no evidence. A few years later, we located and contacted the Luks expert and she confirmed our suspicions.
Another encounter was the gift of a small landscape supposedly painted by George Inness. The gift was delivered with no paperwork and the donor was impossible to contact after the delivery. This point may not mean much to most people, but a paper trail is important to establish the provenance (history of ownership) of the work, its value, and the evidence of ownership.
No one really suspected deceit; we thought the donor was just being difficult. It was not until Dr. Michael Quick, the expert on the work of the 19th century painter George Inness came to visit LRMA to see our authentic painting by Inness that we learned a very simple fact. Dr. Quick asked to remove both paintings from their frames so that he could see the backs. The small painting was painted on hardboard and not just any hardboard - it was painted on Masonite.
We know that Masonite was invented here in Laurel in 1924 and was unavailable to artists in 1890, which is the date assigned to the painting. Many artists have painted on wooden panels for hundreds of years but there were no mechanically-made indentions on the back until Masonite came along. (Please note that the painting Close of a Rainy Day by Inness hangs in the American Gallery and is definitely authentic.)
Not until recent years have I thought that other objects would be of interest to forge. We have encountered “faked” wooden African artifacts. The forger’s trick is to accelerate the age of the wood by placing it in a smoke pit. The piece will darken in color and will smell like smoke. If the outer layer of wood is scratched on bottom, a person can tell if the wood is old or new.
I’ve recently read of Native American baskets in the California region that are being faked and sold as old baskets from extinct tribes or from tribes who no longer have weavers. The baskets are newly made for little money and then “doctored” to age them. Weaving a basket for fraudulent purposes is too much work to not get recognition for it. Obviously, there’s a middle man somewhere making a lot of money.
Our most recent encounter of forged artwork have been offerings of late 19th and early 20th century drawings. Most of the originals can be traced to auction sales. The forger’s trick here is to use old paper (probably the inside leaves of old books) and with a pretty good hand and eye, the forger copies the image in front of him.
We’ve become quite good at detecting these fakes. The Internet and auction catalogues allow for us to find the originals or least similar images by the signed artist. The two are never exactly alike. A jeweler’s loupe is a handy tool and one can see more details than with a magnifying glass. It will also allow a person to see if a document has been “doctored” or if the piece has been photomechanically reproduced (for example, a poster print). A black light is helpful to see where paintings have been touched up.Artists’ signature books are good research tools to compare signatures. And, certainly the inspection of the materials used and their appropriateness to their time period is helpful in determining the correct age.
In closing, I recommend that the buyer should beware! Don’t collect things that you know nothing about and deal only with reputable dealers and galleries. And to forgers, these tools along with world-wide professional communications are here to stay. Your talents could better be used elsewhere.
Tommie Rodgers is the registrar at the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art.