Scott Reyburn aptly summarizes the range of possibilities with respect to the controversial work of art known as “La Bella Principessa” in his report for the New York Times:
By various accounts, then, it would seem that “La Bella Principessa” is either a real Leonardo worth tens of millions; a 19th-century Italian Renaissance style drawing worth tens of thousands; or a modern fake worth hardly anything at all.
The Sunday Times has published a report that claims Shaun Greenhalgh, a prolific art forger who has fooled the Art Institute Chicago, the British Museum, and countless others may be the creator of this work. He claims he created the work in the 1970s, depicting a “bossy” supermarket clerk named Alison.
Doubts should now increase as to whether this is an authentic Leonardo da Vinci. It was purchased by a Canadian, Peter Silverman, who has been trying to demonstrate the authenticity of the work. It seems the work was made on vellum, but may have been done on the wrong side. The art critic Waldemar Januszczak, part of a consortium publishing a limited run of Greenhalgh’s memoirs, writes in the Sunday Times that Greenhalgh “bought an old land deed that had been written on vellum, and finding the ‘good’ side to be too ink stained to use turned it over and drew on the rough side instead, as Leonardo would never have done”.
For now Silverman will keep the work of art at the Geneva freeport. In an attempt to burnish the reputation of the work, he claims he will offer 10,000 pounds to Greenhalgh if he could reproduce the work on vellum, and criticized Januszczak as “shameless”.
So says Orson Welles in this clip from F for Fake. I couldn’t help but think of Welles and his film when reading Martin Gayford’s piece on the National Gallery in London’s new exhibition “Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries”.
Gaysford asks “whether works of art are really by the people or cultures that are supposed to have created them?” The Exhibit at the National Gallery will examine these questions, with specific objects. One object which the exhibit draws on is “The Faun” a fake Gauguin sculpture created by Shaun Greenhalgh which fooled the Art Institute in Chicago (and many others) for a number of years. Gaysford notes that after Greenhalgh’s deception was discovered, we all thought very differently about the object, when in fact “this changed nothing. The faun remains the same pointy-eared, hook-nosed fellow that he always was.” Yet Gaysford notes:
The point of this story is not that art experts are foolish. In fact, the Faun is a very clever forgery. Its brilliance in part is that there actually was a Gauguin sculpture of a faun – it’s listed in an old inventory and may still exist in a cupboard somewhere. The lesson is that now we know it’s not a Gauguin, it ceases to be part of a larger whole: Gauguin’s art. At that point, even if it is still quite an attractive statuette, it loses an enormous amount of meaning. Discovering a work is a fake is like discovering a friend has been lying to you for years.
It is difficult to separate the object from the deception. Even if the faun was a terrific work of aesthetic beauty, the fraud which spawned the forgery taints that beauty in our mind—we might even resent the object the better the “fake” really is. That is not to say it cannot be a beautiful object, but it loses something by trying to trick us.
Relativity, M.C. Escher, 1953
Artists play tricks all the time. The works of M.C. Escher may be the most obvious examle of this. But his deception is mathematical, and there for you to see—in a sense the job of the viewer is to try to figure out how he has done it. Orson Welles was right to ask what’s in a man’s name, and right to point out that it may not matter that much. But what does matter for something like the Faun and other forgeries is the lie told to the audience or the buyer. Art forgers may be the creator of the work, but also those who attempt to pass off works they know or should know are forged on an unsuspecting public.
The bigger question is how many forgeries are exhibited in museums alongside the authentic works. When buyers and sellers and museums are not careful about the history of an object (including antiquities) we might think of them as a kind of forger as well. They may be unwitting, and fooled by a clever forger as the Art Institute of Chicago was, but when they value the object above everything, they risk becoming complicit in the forgery.
According to a report by the Art Newspaper, the V&A museum has hired Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley away from Scotland Yard’s art and antiques. The V&A is a massive museum, which has been difficult to safely secure in the past. Here’s to hoping he can continue to improve the V&A’s security. From the Art Newspaper:
He joins the museum on 21 June, to take charge of security and visitor services. Before turning to art, Rapley investigated murder, paedophilia and child abuse at the Metropolitan Police. He really got to know the V&A in 2004, when there was a spate of thefts at major London museums. The V&A was hit three times, and 38 rooms had to be shut, many for years, while security was upgraded. Supported by the V&A, the Yard set up the London Museum Security Group. Rapley even took a turn as guest curator earlier this year, when he organised a Scotland Yard-curated display at the museum on fakes and forgeries, which spotlighted the case of the Greenhalgh family from Bolton, who created objects ranging from Egyptian antiquities to modern paintings.
Peter Nahum has an excellent editorial in the Art Newspaper titled “How I was duped by the Bolton forgers“. Nahum, the director of the Leicester Galleries in London details the fraud in 1990
[S]he wished to sell a painting by the Scottish Colourist, Samuel John Peploe, which she had inherited from her grandfather who had owned an art gallery. This was confirmed by a label on the reverse: “The Metcalfe Gallery, 45 Dundas Street, Edinburgh”. She arranged for her husband to bring the painting to the gallery after 6pm and stated that she wanted cash… In the middle of that night I woke up and realised it was almost certainly a fake.
In fact he wasn’t duped, as he cancelled the check quickly and reported the incident to the police. It seems the Greenhalgh’s had built quite a reputation for passing forged art, but it wasn’t until 2006 that the Greenhalgh’s were finally raided. The troubling aspect of this case is the fact that these individuals were suspected art forgers, yet the state of the market is such that legitimate works cannot be distinguished from forgeries sold by known art forgers. The clear indication is that there needs to be a radical shift in the way the art market guarantees authenticity and title. Either a centralized database, or some kind of title insuring mechanism is sorely needed to prevent this kind of fraud.
One wonders how often dealers suspect the dubious nature of a work, but because a forgery may be of such a high quality, they reason that members of the public would not suspect. Nahum’s statement on this is quite telling I think:
The point about the Greenhalgh case … is that what seems to be a rock solid provenance can distract the expert’s eye from careful assessment. Every cloud has a silver lining; although I have sometimes lost money tracking down fakers and reporting them, I have gained another arrow in my street-smart quiver. Never trust a provenance until it can be verified. Trust your eye and instinct, your personal researches and any reliable expert on the subject you can consult.
At a minimum, the relevant law enforcement personnel should have circulated the names of the Greenhalgh’s among the dealing community to prevent further fraud. The understaffed Art and Antiques Unit was slow in responding as well it would seem. Another difficulty is the ambiguity which the term “provenance” encompasses. If courts in the UK had a wider sampling of cases with which to grapple, perhaps a firm conception of the term would emerge, however these cases occur relatively infrequently. As such, we are relying on industry practice to define the boundaries of “good provenance” and that has produced a deeply unsatisfying system.
Jamie Grace, a friend and researcher at the University of Derby emailed me with some very interesting thoughts on this situation:
The sale of a forgery (and the resale of stolen art in general) would cause difficulties for DACS the agency that attempts to administer the Artist’s Resale Rights Regulation 2006. I support your call for an authenticity database – from my perspective, it could be linked to another mandatory database detailing sales, making the administration of the 2006 Regulations for the benefit of contemporary artists a lot easier.
As for the Art & Antiques Unit, restrictions on a researcher’s ‘right to know’ under the Data Protection Act 1998 and the Freedom of Information Act 2000 means that for ‘operational reasons’ the Unit cannot divulge many details about recovered or stolen works or art (or antiques etc.) – so a curious or suspicious art market professional cannot even go straight to the Unit to check provenance. Allowances are hard to make for the reasons of understaffing when the legal framework itself defeats the aims of sensible dealers.
Jamie knows far more about DACS than I do. From what I understand it is essentially a scheme which takes a small portion of the sale of works of art and distributes it among contemporary artists. I hope to hear more from him on that in the coming months here.
I’ll confess I was unaware of the implications of the Data Protection Act and the Freedom of Information Act, but they only seem to be undercutting the work of the Unit in this case.
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Apologies for the light posting this last week. I’ve been away in Dubai with the wife. I’ll talk about why, and talk a bit about my impressions tomorrow. For now I want to talk about the big story which was revealed while I was away: the forgery by Shaun Greenhalgh, whom I talked about earlier here.
The Art Newspaper has perhaps the best coverage, as it seems it tracked the sculpture to Chicago. Last month the three members of the Greenhalgh family were sentenced over the Amarna Princess. They discovered a Gauguin sculpture had been created by Greenhalgh after talking with Scotland Yard. They then tracked the work to Chicago.
The forged work was consigned to Sotheby’s by “Mrs. Roscoe”, the maiden name of Olive Greenhalgh. It was sold for £20,700. The London dealers Howie and Pillar purchased it, and it was later sold to the Art Institute for $125,000. The purchase was hailed as a success. Martin Bailey asks why nobody questioned the authenticity? The real sculpture has been missing, the forgery was based on a faun sketch dating to 1887. It seems Sotheby’s is expected to reimburse the Art Institute of Chicago. I think this reveals at least two troubling matters.
First, how many more forgeries are out there? How easy is it to trick authenticators? The best in the world looked at this sculpture and were duped. Perhaps they wanted to believe a little too much. Also, when visitors (and even experts) looked at the sculpture did it convey emotion? How much did that have to do with the beauty of the object itself; and how much was related to the idea that this small work was created by a “great” artist, Paul Gauguin?
Second, I think it reveals the continuing need for more provenance information in art and antiquities sales. The answer may be for an international registry which tracks buyers and sellers when objects are bought and sold. Until such a system emerges, the market continues to leave itself open to this kind of embarrassment.
Questions or Comments? Email me at email@example.com