A forgery is a work that is not genuine to its proclaimed origins, however, is presented as a genuine article, and is so acting with the intention to deceive. The practice of art forgery is as well established and mature as the practice of creating original visual art itself. The two industries have grown congruent to one another in innovation and technique, and the infiltration of these skilled fakes has now led to the creation of specialised detection agencies to combat the reputational jeopardy forgeries pose to the commercial art market. Such art detective establishments primarily rely on two methods of authentication: art specialists and forensic examination.
Formerly, connoisseurs’ expert visual analysis and comprehension of an artist’s evolved body of work has been the reliant procedure for authenticating a newly emerged work of art. Yet the fine-tuned scientific practices of identifying disingenuous artworks are widely viewed as a factual and conclusive method of detection, and are seemingly less fallible than that of the connoisseur’s intellectual and visual detective agencies. This essay intends to determine whether scientific testing or the expertise of the connoisseur presents a greater threat to the modern art forger. To work chronologically with the history of authentication practice, this essay shall first evaluate the competence of the connoisseur and subsequently scientific technologies in their proficiency to detect modern art forgeries.
It has been the role of the art specialist since the mid-nineteenth century to accurately attribute works to their correct creator or era; likewise, it has also been their job to weed out both the obviously discernible and equally the ‘sleeping’ fakes. When attributing a work to a particular artist, the connoisseur will primarily look to the painting’s ‘form’. The modern definition of form encompasses a mass of conceptual properties: physical characteristics, content, overall design, and theoretical ideas. This broad definition in modern art historical theory allows varied application, however is reductive in that the term has now become equivalent to period-specific styles and design.
For example, Impressionism is a style, however, Monet’s singular form is demonstrably dissimilar to Casset’s. It is an artist’s individual form that establishes the connoisseur’s judgement on authorship and authenticity. Whereas scientific technologies are adept in placing a work of art’s substance within a time frame, the specific hand of an artwork is identifiable only by a connoisseur who is learned in the idiosyncrasies of that singular artist. Were a modern forger to succeed in fooling scientific analysis, if the forger focuses too heavily on the style of the period, as opposed to that of the artist forged, the expert will recognise the misconstructions of form and defy any authenticity claim.
Furthermore, if an artwork is presented that is anomalous to the artist’s customary iconographic oeuvre, a connoisseur will not automatically reject the work. Rather, the expert will carefully evaluate the specific form of the artist forged and will attempt to identify these stylistic characteristics in the presented work. As O’Connor aptly puts it: ‘Anyone can achieve a particular subject or symbol; only the artist can paint in his way’. Nor would an artwork necessarily be rejected by a connoisseur for its aesthetic flaws – be it poorly-drawn, crudely painted, or otherwise abnormal to the artist’s canonical standard of workmanship.
A verdict of authenticity would be passed depending on whether the work demonstrated the fundamental qualities congenital to the artist’s oeuvre. In this way, the modern forger may be able to create a piece atypical of the primary artist and therefore there would not be a direct iconographic comparison available for cross-examination for dissimilarities. However, this approach inevitably attracts greater attention to the forged work for its irregularity in the artist’s canon. The forger must be secure in their ability to unequivocally replicate the artist’s fundamental style to ingratiate the forgery within the legacy of the artist in the eyes of the connoisseur.
Connoisseurship, of course, begets a certain degree of innocent human error or negligent oversight. Such individuals are also susceptible to dishonest motives for authentication. Such motivations can be personal or financial; for instance, the traditional mechanism of authentication in the early twentieth century was a certificate from an expert scholar, however this was easily exploited as a means of income for poorly paid academics. Whilst these ambiguous certificates were less commonly granted if the public reputation of the expert was at risk, it has become the task of the contemporary connoisseur to rectify these lapses in judgement.
An interesting twist on these inauthentic certificates is when the connoisseur’s or academic’s approval is also counterfeit; for example, in Japan, where Renoir is immensely popular, the esteemed Renoir specialist Francois Daulte’s signature has been forged to assign authenticity to fake documents and fake paintings. This type of historic dubious behaviour has led to a lack of confidence in the art expert and their objective opinions. This scepticism in specialist expertise has increased alongside the growth of forensic analysis’ capabilities, as wider society has turned more toward technological, data-based methodologies as opposed to an individual, humanistic approach. In the eyes of the layman, and in some instances the law, a connoisseur’s behaviour can be ethically compromised, whereas scientific data appears more factually assured.
The modern forger must be exceptionally adroit to avoid detection by forensic analysis. The scientific advancements made throughout the twentieth century has allowed the art world to see beyond aesthetic recreation to the substance beneath. The development of several technologies can now securely date a painting to a specific era and it is challenging, near impossible, to dupe these tests. The two most commonly used methods to detect painted forgeries are X-radiography and pigment analysis.
X-radiography, first used on paintings in the 1920s, is a technique wherein X-rays penetrate the surface of the painting down to the canvas support. This is used to uncover the underdrawings or underpainting beneath the superficial layer, most potently revealing those performed in charcoal or carbon black. These images can unveil a underpainting anachronistic to the purported artist’s period or may show a work attributed to an painter who worked after the forged artist’s death.
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