Art forgery is quite a tricky crime to commit. It often requires knowledge of both art history and chemistry. It also doesn’t hurt if the art forger has impeccable imagination and a good command of logical thinking. Take a look at some of the fascinating techniques and materials used by art forgers and by the forensic experts who end up exposing them.
1. Successful Art Forgery Requires The Right Choice of Artist
The obvious first step of an art forger is deciding which work to forge. The options are limited since forgers either copy the already-existing works and sell the originals, or they paint something entirely new or long-lost and sell it as a new discovery.
Deciding on the right artist to forge is also a challenge. Although picking a great renowned artist feels ambitious and profitable, the bigger the name the more meticulous the experts are. Although the news of a fake Picasso or Matisse regularly disturbs the art world, most art forgers prefer to work with second-grade artists that are less researched.
The forged artwork should have a plausible explanation of its provenance, a chain of ownership traced from the current owner to the artist’s studio. Many forgers use what is called a provenance trap for their works. A provenance trap is a work that did not survive or did not even exist, but could have existed. The world-famous forger Wolfgang Beltracchi found his inspiration in old catalogues raisonnés which featured the definitive lists of all works painted by an artist. Many paintings were lost over the years and never photographed. In catalogs, however, these works are usually listed through vague visual descriptions. Beltracchi carefully studied the complete oeuvres of his preferred artists in order to match the fakes to their styles.
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Other popular provenance traps are sketches, especially those made by the Old Masters. Most artists used paper for sketching, making their preservation close to impossible. The forgers use that fact to let the new exciting discoveries cloud the minds of art experts, thus making them less critical.
2. Picking the Right Base
The next step is picking the right canvas. In most cases, the forger would buy an old cheap painting from a flea market. Then, the forger would scrap off the paint, cover the surface with gesso primer, and paint a new work over it. Another popular technique, often used for forging landscape paintings, is to not remove the image completely but change the details on it. For instance, someone could buy a cheap Dutch or German work, repaint the trees and bushes to match the Eastern European flora, and a no-name European artist becomes a Russian realist, worth thousands of dollars.
Every detail is vital, especially when it comes to the base materials. Before painting, artists put their canvases on wooden stretchers. Art forgers must look for proper wood and nails so that the new materials don’t contaminate the work. Although finding a piece of wood that’s old enough is hardly a problem for expert forgers, usable old nails are harder to source. The solution is simple: leave traces of rust on the back of the canvas. Forgers keep their brand-new nails in salted water, speeding the oxidation process.
When it comes to sculpture, a wrong choice of material would also ruin all chances for a successful sale. Forgers who work with Roman antiquities often melt cheaper objects from the era, like coins or household appliances, than use authentic bronze for sculpture casts.
3. Using the Right Pigments and Materials
Using anachronistic pigments is the most common mistake that art forgers make. Titanium white, a pigment found in every art supply store, became common in the 1950s. Thus using it would be an obvious sign of fake nineteenth-century work. The art forger Han van Meegeren, who famously sold fake Vermeer paintings to Nazi officials during World War II, used lapis lazuli pigment to mix blue paint. Lapis lazuli was the most expensive blue pigment at the time, considered the best in quality and vibrance. Cheaper alternatives of the same tone appeared significantly later, after Vermeer’s death. Some forgers like Eric Hebburn resorted to medieval apothecary recipes to create ink for drawings and manuscripts.
Old recipes of varnish were also incomparable to their modern analogs. They were aging differently, leaving traces of organic materials detectable with UV light. To avoid being exposed, experienced art forgers like Ken Pereyni removed the dried varnish from cheap paintings, mixed it with fresh, and sprayed it all over the finished canvas.
Art forgers must be extremely careful not to leave any personal traces on their works, such as fingerprints or DNA samples. During the recent restoration of Vincent van Gogh’s Red Vineyard at Arles, the chemical analysis revealed the artist’s DNA in the paint. Apparently, Van Gogh was licking his brushes. These findings might just give the experts another instrument to use when questioning or approving an attribution.
4. Having a Consistent and Recognizable Style
The relevant simplicity of style is what attracts art forgers to the works of Abstract Expressionists – notably, Jackson Pollock and his drip paintings. Pollock splattered paint all over the canvas, rarely, if ever, using brushes. Another popular artist to forge is Amedeo Modigliani. His unique style, influenced by African masks, makes his works simple but instantly recognizable and, most importantly, very expensive.
Simply mimicking an artist’s style wouldn’t be enough to convince a buyer. Just like handwriting is unique for each and every person, brushstrokes differ from artist to artist. The amount of paint on a brush, the length of a stroke, and the gesture all contribute to the unique style of each painter. A good art forger should be able to pinpoint even the smallest movement of an artist’s hand. Still, there is a difference between working naturally and mimicking someone else’s gestures.
A notorious art forger Eric Hebborn admitted that he would often get drunk while painting his forgeries. Although the idea may seem counter-intuitive, given the fact that painting requires concentration, for Hebborn, this worked perfectly. Alcohol intoxication helped him relax, resulting in free fluid brushstrokes done by a person not giving a second thought to the process.
5. Looking for Anachronisms
Another sign of a forgery is the temporal inconsistency of the elements. This applies not only to the materials discussed above but to the subject matter as well. A good art forger has to be aware of the history of art and everyday culture of the period they are working with, knowing the nuances from period clothing to animals common in the area that is pictured.
In 1951, a German art conservator Lothar Malskat was restoring frescoes in Marienkirche (St. Mary’s Church) in Lübeck, Germany. The church was almost completely destroyed after the Allied forces’ bombings. The frescos suffered severe damage and there were no photographs showing enough details to provide the full picture of their original state. Thus, Malskat decided to take matters into his own hands. He repainted the murals himself and the news of the saved artworks quickly flew all over Europe.
But Malskat confessed that while creating the composition, he deliberately added several anachronisms which the experts missed. One of them was a turkey. Although this bird is commonly seen in many parts of the world nowadays, in thirteenth-century Europe it was unheard of. Being a native species to North America, turkeys were first brought overseas in the sixteenth century. Other hints left by Malskat were even more ridiculous. Among the depictions of saints, he included figures of Marlene Dietrich and Gregory Rasputin.
6. Aging A Painting
Fresh paint would definitely raise suspicions. To avoid them, forgers use a variety of techniques to age a work artificially. The easiest one is rubbing a used teabag over the canvas, leaving brown stains similar to natural dust and dirt. However, it is also the easiest one to expose since canvases absorb scents. The painting would still smell of tea after several months or even years. Some sprinkle powdered coffee over works on paper, but this method seems even more obvious.
Experienced art forgers use different methods. Max Brandrett, one of the superstar forgers who is now banned from every auction house in the world, mixed bee glue with varnish. After applying the mixture onto the canvas, he heated the painting, causing the paint to crack. Brandrett’s finishing step consisted of rubbing dust over the cracks, creating a convincing look of an aged artwork. The only problem was the smell. As an organic material, bee glue began to rot after a certain time. Although this does not affect the look of the painting, the stench could raise suspicions.
If an art forger is working on a conveyor-belt level, for them, every moment counts. Thus, speeding up the drying process is another branch of forgery science, mostly applied to oil paint, which takes around three months to dry completely. A common trick is to add eggs to the paint mixture. Although the egg would definitely reveal itself during a chemical analysis of the painting, it would win the forger several months of free time.
7. Coming up with a Paper Trail
A good art forgery has the paper trail fabricated to convince the experts of the authenticity. It is crucial for successful deceit. Art forgers create non-existent letters, documents, and sometimes even photographs. The longer the story, the more plausible it is. Because of this successful forgers orchestrate complicated chains of events that never actually happened, manipulating historical records to fit their narratives. Although sometimes your reputation saves you the effort of creating a believable story.
Glafira Rosales, the dealer working for the respectable Knoedler Gallery in New York, kept it simple. She attributed a surprising amount of fake Pollocks and Rothkos to an undocumented collection of Mr. X. For years, the reputation of the Knoedler Gallery, as well as Rosales’ position in New York social circles, diverted any questions on the matter. However, thanks to Rosales and her accomplices, the gallery closed its doors for good in 2011.
A German forger Wolfgang Beltracchi and his wife Helene invented a story about an art collection that belonged to Helene’s grandmother. To convince the clients of the authenticity of the works, Beltracchi’s wife posed as her deceased grandmother, wearing period-appropriate clothes while sitting in front of the paintings forged by her husband. The Beltracchis invested in proper photographic equipment to make the shots look like they were really taken in the early twentieth century.
8. Art Forgery in Contemporary Art
Forgers rarely work alone. In most cases, a fraudulent art dealer or a museum employee is an accomplice, looking for a buyer for a forged work. The art world maintains a certain level of respect for its actors, and thus thorough authenticity checks are not routinely done during sales. To trigger the investigation someone has to step out and indicate possible inconsistencies.
Although the age of old-fashioned art forgery is far from over, new forensic technologies make this crime harder and harder to commit. The pigment analysis, X-ray, and UV scans unveil the truth behind canvases soaked in tea or smudged with dirt. However, forgers refuse to give up, looking for new ways to keep their businesses afloat. Since the Old Masters and Modernists are now almost out of reach, young contemporary artists became the next target.
According to an ex-art forger called Ken Perenyi, contemporary or recently rediscovered artists introduced to the art market for the first time are now the goldmine for art forgers. These artists are well-known just enough for their works to be valuable, yet new enough to be under-researched. Another benefit is their use of contemporary materials, which spares the forgers the effort of aging the work and carefully studying the nuances of artists’ techniques.