Thursday, March 05, 2009

Guest Blogger: Tommie Rodgers

More on Fakes and Forgeries

In my last article, I discussed my encounters with fake artwork and the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art’s investigation into two paintings acquired in the early 1990s along with works on paper offered as recent gifts. I would like to continue the discussion of why forgers forge.

The issue of forgery has been a quiet subject in the museum community until recent times. Museums across the country have accepted fakes into their collections for decades. Every museum from the Metropolitan Museum of Art to the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art have fallen victim to forger’s attempts to be included in these fine art collections. Staff members have had to learn to be investigators and to pursue their own investigations of questionable artwork.

Forgers are not unlike other criminals in that they may get their rush from the act of deception. While there are self-proclaimed artists on every street, the forger’s own art usually has been rejected somewhere along the way. The forger then begins to pursue vengeance with his scams of smoke and mirrors.

The desire to be praised and recognized as a fine artist drives them to do whatever it takes to be included in a reputable museum or to see their work sold alongside artists of national or international recognition. To those forgers, money is not the issue, although it may play a role in their activities.

To others, it’s all about the money, and the money seekers are not really interested in creating the finest quality. They are more interested in a quick job to get quick cash.

There are some typical characteristics of forged artwork. Most are small in size and are claimed to be executed by artists who are marginally recognizable. The theory is that one would want to forge work by an artist who has already been accepted in the art market but one would not want to go overboard by creating works in the name of an internationally recognized artist such as Monet or Picasso. This mistake would send out red flags to the masses and experts would discredit the work quickly. The IRS is also more likely to audit donations with high dollar values.

Forgers may begin like most artists do in their training. Drawing is the most basic of training with painting and sculpture being more difficult to master. Not only does the forger have to learn to execute a quality painting, but they have to research and know the artists materials and techniques and how they were used, before they begin. This all takes time, research, and experiments.

There are numerous publications that discuss ways in which forgers work and why they pursue their craft. For instance, a newly published book called The Forger’s Spell by Edward Dolnick discusses the experimentation that Han van Meegeren performed during the 1940s trying to replicate a 17th century crackled surface. He experimented with a mixture of Bakelite (the first plastic invented in 1907 by Leo Baekeland), turpentine, linseed oil and pigments and made numerous failed attempts at baking the painted surface, each time hoping for the experiment to work.

One day he left his home and the oven unattended for an extended period of time. When he returned, he found that the painted panel experiment worked. He was overjoyed to see that it was possible to create a forgery of a 17th century painting by the Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer.

According to Dolnick, an oil painting will not only dry but harden. Drying can takes weeks but hardening can take years, even up to a century. A newly executed oil painting can be rubbed gently with a cotton swab soaked with rubbing alcohol and the color will appear on the swab. A completely hardened oil painting and a painting created with Bakelite will show no color in this test. Van Meegeren was aware that he needed to pass this first hurdle in his quest to create a convincingly-faked Vermeer.

Van Meegeren fooled experts, museum directors, and wealthy collectors as well as officers of Hitler’s regime. He went so far as to purchase a 17th century painting from an antique store, scrape off the old paint and began a new painting using the Bakelite material. Of course, he had other tricks up his sleeve to further age the newly baked plastic. As World War II came to an end, so did van Meegeren’s secret. His trial began in October of 1947 and van Meegeren died on December 30, 1947, at the age of 58. He never served a day of his one-year sentence.

Tommie Rodgers is the registrar at the Lauren Rogers Museum of Art.


Jeanne Walters said...

If you're interested in forgery you should also check out the Edgar-nominated book on Van Meegeren: Jonathan Lopez, The Man Who Made Vermeers (Harcourt, 2008).

Curator Jill R. Chancey said...

Thanks for the reference!

Anonymous said...

I'm enjoying the blog, and the series on forgery. I see this in movies all the time, and of course, wonder what really goes into the making of a forgery. Thanks Tommie!

-- Steve Moffett