Stealing Beauty: Detecting Art Forgery
Art forgery is as wide as the universe. This fluorishing industry traces its roots to the olden days, when, without rules on intellectual property or attributions to artists, the Romans copied the Greeks.
There was, however, an acceptance of copies of great art. What are now termed forgers were called copyists, and would be commissioned to copy say, the “Mona Lisa,” or a Rembrandt. They would then sign their names or they would not. It was understood and accepted as a copy. It was up front.
Art has always been, as it should, a part of daily life. From before and after the Renaissance, it was public art for the most, commissioned by churches, government institutions, public places. Then came those with disposable income and cultivated tastes; they had portraits done. In those days artists also had ateliers with helpers. It may, therefore, be guessed that under the name of Rembrandt, Titian, Velasquez, and others, there were lesser artistic hands that were part of the work completed. Now they try to classify art like that as “School of Rembrandt,” “Studio of Titian,” if they doubt that the master was the one who did all the brushwork.
The art world then was no more rarefied or commercialised than the trade of ordinary goods, albeit they were luxury goods.
It is only when art became status symbols in the times of great wealth (rather than portraits for your loved ones to remember you by in the pre-photography age or simple wall décor) that art forgery came into its own as profit to the forger, and menace to the artist—an underhanded activity. When art prices leap to unheard-of levels, when there is frenzy about acquiring art for investment, status symbol, or luxury, art forgery will keep up.
It is an economic crime, not quite vandalism really, but it steals from the original creative artists. Art forgers can be very talented in stealing someone’s style.
It is a problem here more than ever today with our burgeoning art market. Mabini artists painted a la Amorsolo but they signed their own names in yesteryears. Now that Amorsolo is a National Artist, a long-departed icon in the pantheon of Filipino art, with the cachet of being expensive, sought-after and renowned, he is subject to forgeries signed with his name.
Naturally, the art world has been alarmed and wants to fight back. Collectors fear the rise of fakes—they may mistakenly buy them; they may devalue what they already have of the artist in question. But it is not easy.
FINDING A FAKE
There are two methods for detecting art forgery, both of them not definitive enough.
The first is connoisseurship, or the study of an artist’s work by a specialist who then becomes very familiar with the distinct “flourishes” which can be described as an individual’s trademark style. Just as one can identify an individual by how he speaks, turns a phrase, uses a particular vocabulary or tone, an artist can be identified by a distinctive colour (like a particular red in a certain shade), the way he paints hands or fingers or hair or uses light, composes, and so on.
This is the old method, which of course is subjective. There are scholars of Rembrandt or Poussin or de Kooning, Pollock, Picasso who, after years of scholarship, experience, and exposure to the artist, gain the ability to analyse, recognise, and maybe even duplicate his style. In the end, it is their judgment that prevails. You trust them or you don’t, for whatever reason. But connoisseurship remains a valid method and does have a logical foundation.
The more modern method for detection of forgery is forensic study, which is purely scientific analysis. It needs scientific equipment and training to use it and the ability to recognise the results of the scientific data gathered. Recently Nicole Tse, an Australian art historian, gave a forensic analysis of the Basi Revolt paintings at the National Museum. She has been here several times and it is highly recommendable that she be listened to as she is a very qualified forensic researcher.
The best determination on whether an art piece is real or fake should probably be a combination of connoisseurship and forensic analysis. The National Museum is presently scanning its art collection (in 3D for sculptures) to develop a database of artists’ works of good provenance to compare with those that are doubtful. Qualified art historians should be able to use the database to analyse questionable work. The scientific methods must be used and enhanced. National Museum asked Benjy Toda to photograph dubious works with his Phase One camer a which can magnify images 300 per cent. This is using optics, a non-invasive method on art pieces. Analysis of paint may be invasive because you need to get a sample or work with a part of the art piece. Invasive procedure needs specific consent from the owners.
All in all, there are no absolutes because there are no fool-proof ways of detecting good forgeries. Even museums and scholars have been fooled.
But do methods have to be fool-proof to make a decision? Even if they aren’t, we can decide by measuring the degree of doubt that the work has, baselines created by cultural institutions or art experts. Each point against authenticity makes it more dubious. The National Museum—when it finishes its database, acquires new equipment, hires the personnel to do the research and create baselines—can, in time, do it with a combination of connoisseurship and forensics on levels of dubiousness that can be validated and judged. If the work on the piece results in a high level of doubt, it may be validly judged to be dubious and, possibly, a forgery.
Yet it must be said here that no cultural institution, art expert or even family or close associate of an artist in this day and age will sign a document declaring outright that an art piece is fake. The slew of lawsuits that will rain on him or her will be daunting. Even the Andy Warhol Foundation, after spending US$17M to defend itself for declaring a painting a fake Warhol, no longer cares to do so.
ARRIVING AT A DECISION
What are the solutions to the knotty problem of art forgeries? Good homework, good research, good cataloguing, alertness, and questions if something doubtful comes up.
Good homework is establishing the provenance: where, who, when, how. When was it bought or acquired, from whom, at what venue, how much, and where did it originate in the artists’ career. Simple facts can be the foundation. Works found in a closet, attic, or storeroom, not seen for years must have a valid explanation—wartime, transfer of residence, or death. If there is none for the sudden appearance of a piece of art, reasonable doubt must then turn to connoisseurship and forensics.
Provenance is key. All artists at work must record, photograph, measure, and catalogue their work, indicating who bought and for how much. They should also give authentication certificates upon sale. Collectors should request for it. The same goes for galleries.
It may be appropriate to note here that dubious art seeks a good provenance. So, it is exhibited in respectable places or makes its way into art books and publications. These instances give them claim to provenance.
Manansala is gone but perhaps the Friends of Manansala, among themselves, should build a database of their collections and those in public places, as well as all works known to them that are Manansalas. The reason that Christie’s pulled out the dubious Manansala from an auction was the image of an authentic piece of the same subject from a collector to which the one at Christie’s compared with unfavourably with in matter of brushwork, composition, etc.
And now to the HR Ocampos that were reported to the National Museum, which is mandated under the Anti-Forgery Law to “authenticate” and “appraise” art work. Let’s begin by saying that to do both operations by one agency is against the International Council of Museums Rules. To authenticate and appraise, make room for undue power and therefore undue pressure which may end in corruption. Previous authentication panels at the National Museum were accused of irregularities and became so compromised they had to be abolished. It is now the National Museum Conservation Laboratory who is in charge where forensic methods are the norm.
The Anti-Forgery Law needs to be amended to conform to international standards and be more effective. The National Museum’s Conservation Laboratory is being developed and expects new equipment (srf spectrometer and other scientific instruments) which, with the addition of more trained staff and a database to detect “dubious” art, will be better prepared to curb art forgery.
In the case of the Ocampos, when photographed by Toda’s Phase One camera, they were found dubious. When examined physically by the National Museum Conservation Laboratory, they were less so, but still dubious. So the University of the Philippines, which has a Niji- S developed by the Advanced Imaging Technology Laboratory of Kyoto University, was requested to test the paintings. Unfortunately, the owners refused to allow the paintings to be tested. They have also threatened to sue the National Museum.
This is the present state of affairs. Because of the red flags, word-of-mouth doubts and questions, as much as the formal request to the National Museum, the case of the dubious Ocampos has quieted down. Many of the paintings from the exhibition were returned and the buyers reimbursed. The vigilance shown has made the forgers a little less in-your-face. In this case, at least. Unfortunately, under present circumstances, art forgery will not stop.
This article was originally published in the May 2014 issue of Philippine Tatler | Photography by Toto Labrador