August 02, 2020
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Catching Yourself A Da Vinci

There are more eyeballs to grab that masterpiece today

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Catching Yourself A Da Vinci
Edward Linsmier (From Outlook in collaboration with The New York Times January 2013)
Catching Yourself A Da Vinci

Palette Training

  • Edvard Munch’s The Scream was recently sold for a record price—around $120 million
  • Thanks to a proliferation of art history courses, the ranks of discovery hunters has swollen
  • Equally, there is need to exercise precaution and learn enough about the world of fakes to tell the real


Had you been sharp-eyed at a US estate sale around seven years ago, you could have picked up a Leonardo da Vinci for a few thousand dollars.

When I tell people this, they are incredulous. How, they ask, in a world saturated with information, with yet more art and antiques programmes (guilty), books (guilty), art courses and the overarching power of the main auction houses, can great artworks slip by? We know so much more, see so much more, have so much abundant technology at our fingertips that the treasures-in-the-attic world of our grandparents has disappeared as surely as cloth caps and sepia photos.

It is true that the world of country house innocence—if it ever really existed—has moved on, but with increased knowledge and a market that has expanded exponentially in the last half-century, prospects in the art world’s mill pond have never been better. Potential discoveries are thrumming beneath the surface, but the discovery hunter also requires knowledge of the increasingly sophisticated world of fakery.

The fuel for discovery is art history. Forty or 50 years ago, art history was seen as something of a luxury subject. It belonged to the land of Brideshead Revisited, academically comparable to a subject like anthropology and best combined with something sensible (a joint history and history of art degree, for example) if you insisted on pursuing it.

Today, finding an art history course, at least in the West, is as easy as finding driving lessons. They abound in universities and colleges, auction houses, museums and online. All this learning has consequences: students are pushed harder to discover fresh subjects in order to produce original research. This then appears in the form of doctorates, theses, articles, books, exhibition catalogues, bringing to a wider audience overlooked artists or unanalysed artistic influences. Shining a light directly onto these previously ignored areas increases the possibilities for collectors and museums to make new finds—and for the art sleuth it provides ever-broadening hunting grounds.

A collage of elements from great art works. (Photograph by Eduardo Recife, From Outlook in collaboration with The New York Times January 2013)
Take what happened in 1996 when the art historian Susan E. James decided to make a detailed study of a relatively obscure historical resource: the inventories of jewels belonging to Tudor monarchs. No one had ever done this as forensically as she had.

Through her research, Susan James caused one of Britain’s most illustrious historical portraits, which had been hanging on the walls of the National Portrait Gallery since 1965—an elaborate, life-size portrayal of the ill-fated royal claimant, Lady Jane Grey—dramatically to lose her head (again).

James’ evidence was damningly clear. Jane was bedecked in some fabulous bling, but alas it was not hers: the inventories proved incontrovertibly that it all belonged to Henry viii’s last wife, Catherine Parr. With the swiftness of Tudor rough justice, the gallery changed the label to identify her as Queen Catherine, and by the same stroke rendered any illustrated history book that had included her image as Jane rudely obsolete.

Increased opportunities for the discovery of great artworks are also a product of the extraordinary developments in amateur photography. When I was studying art history in the late 1970s at the University of East Anglia, illustrations were mainly ancient pre-colour photos taken by a deceased professor. My perception of Giotto, a vivid painter of flesh tone and sky, was the same as that of my grandfather in the Great War—a benign black and white with an overlay of nostalgic distance. Detail was often difficult to read.

Since the advent of cheap, efficient digital photography however, the mist has lifted. Now it is possible to marshal before you the whole canon of a great artist with taxonomic detail.

This has been particularly useful for commercial trophy hunters like myself. Take the Flemish master Anthony Van Dyck for example. When he settled in England in the 1630s, Van Dyck was an image-maker par excellence. Not only did he have the job of making multiple portraits of King Charles I—whose gnome-like physiognomy and bandy legs badly needed artistic tweaking—but any fashionable royalist worth his salt would want the same artistic equivalent of haute couture. He went to an early grave, leaving thousands of works of varying quality in his wake.

By necessity, Van Dyck employed talented assistants. They’d often work together on a painting, either finishing areas for which Van Dyck had no time or inclination, or producing replicas, known in academic parlance as studio versions. To the discerning art collector, there is a world of difference between the work of the master and his assistant. (In food terms, think of the difference between a meal made by Heston Blumenthal himself and one of his oven-ready British Airways dishes).

While a portrait of Charles I entirely by the artist himself might induce offers of 5 million pounds, or about $8 million, a studio work may go for as little 30,000 pounds.

Two years ago a portrait of a young girl catalogued by Christie’s in Paris as merely ‘Flemish School’, with an estimate of 15,000-20,000 euros, or about $19,000-$25,000, appeared on my screen. I recall with absolute clarity the moment I homed in on her white drapery—to me, the big clue was the way that what could have been repetitive white folds were instead infused with melodious rhythm, particularly in tandem with her plump little hand that was executed with a convincing naturalism that only Van Dyck himself could have mastered. It was the capacity of digital photography to allow me to pore over detail that transformed what might otherwise have passed by as an uninteresting picture into an art discovery.

As was to be expected, on the day of the auction it proved that I was not the only artistic twitcher in the room. I ended up having to part with a million euros, underbid by a rival dealer with a plasma screen as big as mine; but it all ended well. The post-sale clean, as we say in the art auctions trade, was a dream and I sold the work to a hedge fund manager who has now placed the work on long-term loan with the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. There she sits among the greats, a lost and now recovered work by one of the greatest image-makers of Europe, summoned from obscurity with the aid of digital photography.

Fakery has also followed the fortunes of the art world in a fascinating curve and countercurve. There are fakers who massively benefit from the availability of information, but equally there are those that suffer—as in the days before readily available art history they could thrive like an unstoppable virus. Han van Meegeren is arguably the most famous forger of the 20th century. He prospered in Holland, particularly in the 1930-40s, during which time he not only fooled the country’s main national gallery but, via intermediaries, Goering and the Nazi regime as well.

The art trade has found a quiverful of homing arrows in digital tech. It allows experts to zoom in on every square mm of a work in order to identify a master by his technique.

Apart from the infinite pains van Meegeren took to disguise his canvases and pigments in such a way that it duped scientific analysts, he also chose an area that in the dim distant days of art history no one could challenge. Focusing on the creme de la creme of Dutch 17th-century genre painters, Johannes Vermeer, van Meegeren made up a whole body of religious painting that Vermeer might well have produced as a younger man, and which in the absence of knowledge and comparative material was nigh impossible to disprove. He took in the greatest brains and connoisseurs of his day, hook, line and sinker. Following the end of the war, so complete was the duplicity that he could have been shot as a traitor for selling national patrimony to the Germans had he not been able to prove to the authorities that he had faked them. In a surreal courtroom scenario, he took out his paints and canvas to prove his criminal skills to the satisfaction of the jury.

Looking at his fakes today, however, as I did recently in the darkened basement of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, they are risibly awful, combining worthy Old Master compositions with a touch of Walt Disney. But, at the time, in the absence of more sophisticated art history and good images, he got away with it.

In the pre-digital age and before the study of art history became widespread, the financier John Pierpont Morgan was as badly taken in by forgers as the Dutch nation. In 1906, he put together a definitive collection of 795 portrait miniatures. Sourced largely by Joseph Duveen, later Lord Duveen of Millbank, the roguish but supremely successful dealer of his day, with research and advice coming from a “Dr” G.C. Williamson (a qualification he never really attained), Morgan’s collection ended up riddled with fakes that they must have acquired from dubious sources. As there was no easily accessible expertise around to challenge his procurers, they were free to write their own ticket—and did. By recent calculation, a third of the works they sourced for Morgan were not what they claimed. The entire collection was sold in 1935, and today Morgan’s miniatures often re-emerge on the market, the “attributions” for which are usually treated with coldblooded scepticism—and for very good reason.

Not just in museums, great art also turns up on eBay. (Photograph by Michael Falco, From Outlook in collaboration with The New York Times January 2013)

Modern forgers now have an almost impossible job faking Old Masters. The advances in learning, the prodigious amount of high-quality comparative images of “the real thing” and developments in scientific analysis mean that serious counterfeiting of the likes of Vermeer is almost impossible. Not so, alas, for the 20th-century art market, which can be a seething snake pit.

The faker of 20th- and 21st-century art these days has the benefit of fashion. Contemporary and modern art is cooler than it’s ever been, and has substantially replaced the art of previous centuries in popular affections: Even barely known names make good money if their image hits a zeitgeist nerve.

There are, in addition, two supreme advantages to forging recent art. The first is that virtuoso figurative skill is often not a paramount requirement: Even in the case of greats like Picasso, or Lowry or Mondrian, most decent artists could create a pastiche or copy without having to be a technical genius in a way that they would have to be, say, to forge a Rembrandt or a Caravaggio. The other factor is just as important: Forgers do not have to create the illusion of great age—arguably the most difficult thing to fabricate.

This is becoming an increasing problem in the 20th-century Russian market, where insights into what went on beyond the Iron Curtain (and what goes on there now) are often obscure. In July, the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg won a 1.7 million pound refund from Christie’s after its London auction house sold him a “fake” nude, said to be the work of the Russian artist Boris Kustodiev produced in 1919. It was the aluminum found in the paint—a pigment that only existed after the artist’s death—that gave it away. Such was the height of the bar in terms of artistic technique to emulate a genuine Kustodiev that the work had sailed by Christie’s experts prior to the sale.

And this is not just at the top of the market. It is with a heavy heart that I report that a good 20 to 30 per cent of 20th-century paintings up for sale these days online and at certain provincial auction houses are ‘trappers’ (shorthand for cheese in the trap). This is a term I have coined by necessity for works that cleverly “suggest” themselves as the work of recognised artists but are not catalogued as such—paintings purportedly by people like Jack Vettriano, Augustus John or Francis Bacon, placed in oldish frames, and often with fake exhibition labels on the back. They are sold as by “unknown artists” and priced with tantalisingly low estimates in the hope of getting two rival bidders, thinking they are onto a winner, to fight it out. The vendors normally disappear into dust when you try to track them down, but the vendor could be just about anybody—from the faker himself, an intermediary or even the auctioneer.

I too bought one of these, a putative Picasso representing four abstract reclining nudes, for 120 pounds at an auction earlier this year (for research purposes only,  I might add) and had it resting on the floor of my West End gallery in London for a couple of weeks before I took it home. How depressing is this? One of my better clients spied it on the ground among the Van Dycks, Gainsboroughs and Sir Thomas Lawrences and, drawn by the zeitgeist ruggedness of the forms, turned to me and said: “God, I love this stuff. So pleased you are getting into it.”

And why not, some might say? If it looks like the real thing, and artistically does the same job for a fraction of the price, why worry?

The answer is: For every reason.

However sophisticated we have become, the primal desire to connect to the real thing can be traced back to the medieval desire for the genuine holy relic. Certain artefacts carry the soul of their maker. Saints may no longer have the hold they did, but the secular demigods of civilisation—among them great artists—do, as the art market testifies. I am one of these new devout, and need to know that the item I discovered contains the artist’s dna, rather than that of some clever cheapskate, with the curtains drawn, crafting cheese for the trap.

Philip Mould owns the Philip Mould Gallery in London and presents Fake or Fortune? on BBC. He has uncovered three unattributed Van Dycks and bought a Gainsborough on eBay for $150.

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