Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

Faking of antiquities and Renaissance and Baroque masters continued during the eighteenth century, with contemporary artists being targets as well. As before, the practices of legitimate copying and liberal restoration created confusion over artistic originality. Bartolomeo Cavaceppi in Rome “restored” antique sculptures to their original form and in some cases supplemented with more replacement material than the remains to which it was added. One twentieth-century art historian likened his work to modern dentistry or plastic surgery.89 Cavaceppi’s handiwork today can be found in major collections in Rome and elsewhere,90 defying experts to determine how much of an original is needed to carry that label. Cavaceppi was one of many sculptors working in questionable antiquities. Another was Francis Harwood, an English artist living in Rome who turned to forgery on the side.91 A particularly attractive enterprise was making false works from Pompeii and Herculaneum. When the sites were excavated in the mid-nineteenth century, frescoes taken from them became popular with collectors, and forgers cashed in as original works became scarce. English artist Richard Evans made a number of the fakes,92 and many more of lesser quality were produced by Giuseppe Guerra and exposed as false after connoisseurs and antiquaries examined them over a period of several years.93

One of the most faked artists at this time was Rubens. Beyond the confusion over works from his studio that involved his assistants, there were outright forgeries as well as other pieces that were genuine but substantially altered. These works were sold regularly during Rubens’s lifetime at the well-known “Friday Market” in his home city of Antwerp, where his studio was located. Around the beginning of the eighteenth century, Nicholaes Pieters took advantage of the plentiful Rubens engravings that were available by adding color and selling them in the higher-priced category of colored sketches. Rubens’s counterfeits made by Pieters and other forgers of the time continued to be sold into the twentieth century.94

At the other end of the continuum from forgers producing plentiful fakes is the fraudulent duplication of a masterpiece, something tried only rarely in the history of art forgery. The Nuremberg town hall displayed a self-portrait of Dürer as a young man, and the image was well known and copied legitimately on various occasions. The painting was loaned to Abraham Wolfgang Küfner for this purpose, after the precaution was taken to place a seal and other markings on the back of the wood panel. The borrower sawed through the panel parallel to the front and back surfaces so they became separate pieces. He then glued the copy he made to the back half, returned that painting to hang in the town hall, and sold the original.95

In America, none other than Paul Revere was accused of fraud in appropriating images from two contemporary artists. One case involved his copying a published image of the Indian fighter Benjamin Church, adding a powder horn and using it as the frontispiece for a book. In the other case, Revere sold his own original prints of an image that was similar to a drawing of the Boston Massacre done by Henry Pelham. The angry artist wrote a letter saying he believed his copyist was incapable of creating such a complicated image by himself, and that he had been wronged “as truly as if You plundered me on the highway.”96 Revere, who was primarily a silversmith rather than an engraver, met an ironic fate both in his own day and later in history as his famous and valuable works have themselves been widely counterfeited.97

Beyond relating acts of forgery in themselves, the art-historical writings of post-Renaissance times demonstrate the degree to which art forgery was recognized to be part of the culture. During the seventeenth century, writings by Giulio Mancini and Abraham Bosse addressed the main principles of connoisseurship for distinguishing good art from mediocre and one artist from another, as well as (at least in brief accounts) how to spot copies, and Giovanni Baglione wrote a biography of Terenzio da Urbino that explained the process forgers used to simulate old oil paintings.98 Francisco Pacheco, Roger de Piles, Jean-Baptiste Du Bos, and Jonathan Richardson followed with further statements on copying and faking early in the eighteenth century that detailed how an expert’s eye would discern the difference between an original and a work made to look like one.99 This expertise was meant to be passed on to connoisseurs, who gradually came to be respected as authorities (more than artists) for making determinations about the authorship of artworks. Conflicting opinions arose about the possibility that knowledgeable parties could be fooled by excellent copyists, with de Piles suggesting, “the truth sometimes hides itself from the deepest science,”100 and Richardson proclaiming confidence that “The Best Counterfeiter of Hands cannot do it so well as to deceive a good Connoisseur.”101 These opinions foreshadow a debate that continues today among aestheticians about the possibility of a “perfect fake” (discussed in part III).

Less formal writings, too, spread the word about art fraud and darkened the reputation of art dealers, without the confidence that experts like Richardson expressed about detecting forgeries. Typical of the eighteenth-century skeptical commentators was journalist Justus van Effen, a Dutchman who decried corruption in the art market, saying, “Picture dealers, like horse dealers, well versed in trickery, palm off worthless trash and copies on young and inexperienced collectors as valuable originals.”102 On the humorous side was Samuel Foote’s stage production Taste, featuring a disreputable auctioneer and a forger of Old Masters who is his accomplice in preying on aristocrats while they mocked them for being ignorant dilettantes.103 And to sum up the dangers of buying at auction, there is a verse by the chaplain of Britain’s Royal Academy that names one of today’s most powerful auction houses (founded in the 1760s):

When good master Christie tricks out his fine show,

All is not pure gold which there glitters, we know;

But with pompous fine titles he humbugs the town,

If the names are but foreign, the trash will go down:

For this purpose, some shrewd picture-merchants, they say,

Keep many a good Raphael and Rubens in pay;

And half the Poussins and Correggios you meet

Were daubed in a garret in Aldersgate-street:

There with pencils and brushes they drive a snug trade;

There Ancients are form’d and Originals made;

New trifles are sheltered neath an old name,

And pictures, like bacon, are smoked into fame.104

Cartoonists joined the protest against art fraud and mocked the industry of spurious artworks. In England, William Hogarth’s popular prints were widely faked, causing him to respond with a caricature on the topic (see Figure 1.3). He also banded together with fellow engravers to approach Parliament in a demand for a legal remedy that resulted in the Engraving Copyright Act of 1735, an early form of copyright law also known as Hogarth’s Act.105 This measure was limited to the protection of engravings and did not apply to other forms of art.

Public exposure to art continued to grow in the nineteenth century, contributing to an expanded market and a further proliferation of forgeries. The advent of public art museums was a key factor. Since the late Renaissance, some private collections of “curiosities” (eclectic assemblages that might include art among such other items as manuscripts, jewels, and specimens of natural history) were made available on occasion for public viewing. Private collections of art per se occasionally followed this trend. The Ashmolean, Uffizi, and Capitoline museums are examples of precursors to the movement that developed predominantly in the nineteenth century to open key collections to public viewing on a regular basis and to place them in civic control. The 1790s saw the founding of the Louvre and the national galleries of Austria and Sweden, followed in the early 1800s by the Rijksmuseum, the Prado, the British National Gallery, the Hermitage, and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (1870), among others.106 The opportunity to view collections of important art for pleasure was available to the masses.

The growing number of people with the wherewithal to purchase art found a number of outlets to satisfy their interests. Christie’s auction house in London had sold art since the latter eighteenth century, as had Drouot in Paris, and lesser-known auctions were available, some conducted by individual artists of their own works.107 Shops selling artworks, often among other luxury goods, became a regular feature in the commercial districts of major cultural centers, and by midcentury, they were proliferating to the extent that sixty-seven were listed in the Paris commercial almanac of 1850.108 By the turn of the twentieth century, New York was home to forty art galleries109


Figure 1.3. The Battle of the Pictures by William Hogarth, 1745, engraving. Promotes Hogarth’s own studio and artworks (on the right) and satirizes the auction trade in art as corrupt (on the left). The auction house bears a symbolic crack on the front wall, while the paintings lined up in front are copies and fakes. Wikimedia Commons

as well as various other dealers. The profession matured to the point where star dealers were sometimes as well known as famous artists. By the latter nineteenth century and into the early twentieth century, Paul Durand-Ruel, who represented the Impressionists in France, and Ambroise Vollard, who represented the Post-Impressionists, secured their names in history as promoters of an upstart movement that would set artistic sensibility on a new course. Stefano Bardini in Florence and New York became known as a bold and savvy salesman who provided historic works to major museums and private collectors while influencing the development of their taste in art. Colnaghi and Company in London and M. Knoedler and Company in New York established reputations as premier galleries. Several of these leading lights would eventually find their reputations tarnished by questions about the authenticity of their inventories. Bardini (who was also a painter and restorer) was accused of disreputable dealings in overly restored works and suspected for outright fakes.110 Colnaghi was embarrassed in the late twentieth century by British forger Eric Hebborn when he revealed in the newspapers and his memoir his habit of selling them counterfeit Old Master drawings.111 And Knoedler closed in 2011 in the throes of a scandal over the sale of forgeries made by Chinese painter Pei-Shen Qian.112

Not only was there a growing familiarity of the public with art, but an awareness of forgery was also reinforced during the nineteenth century through books and magazine stories by fiction writers.113 Henry Carl Schiller in “Who Painted the Great Murillo de la Merced?” plays on an artist’s remorse for innocently creating a commissioned painting that he later discovers is owned by a collector who takes it to be an original by a seventeenth-century master.114 “The Capitoline Venus” by Mark Twain similarly presents an artist who inadvertently creates a fake. A friend, knowing the artist needs money, damages one of his sculptures and creates artificial aging, and then sells it as an ancient original, with the artist receiving the proceeds.115 In “Pierre Grassou” by Honoré de Balzac, a professional art forger, whose paintings are sold to the nouveau riche, lives in bitterness that he lacks the talent to make his own originals.116 Themes in other writings include forgery as a leveler of pretentiousness and corruption among the elite, acclaim for the knowledge of expert authenticators, and condemnation of crooked dealers.

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story “Edward Randolph’s Portrait” and his novel The Marble Faun deal with the prevailing attitude toward art restoration.117 Hawthorne preferred works to be restored to their original appearance. However, there was a growing sentiment away from this position and toward the display of old and damaged works as they were found, with minimal or no intervention, rather than to produce a stylized re-creation or attempt an accurate rendering of the original. This preference for caution about restoration had a basis in the eighteenth century, especially as spoken for by Johann Winckelmann, whose authority was widely respected. Even Cavaceppi, a friend of Winckelmann’s, came to espouse the new philosophy of the importance of preserving authenticity, although his workshop turned out various pieces that were heavily restored, and other restorers did so as well. This disparity between theory and practice continued through the nineteenth century. In what is often described as a watershed event, the decision was made not to restore the fragmented Elgin Marbles that had been removed from the Parthenon and transported to England, with Antonio Canova and other respected sculptors refusing to do the work.118 Art critic John Ruskin gave support to the new way of thinking in his campaign to avoid renovating decaying old buildings, taking an aggressive stand.

Do not let us talk then of restoration. The thing is a Lie from the beginning to end. You may make a model of a building as you may of a corpse and your model may have the shell of the old walls within it as your cast might have the skeleton . . . but the old building is destroyed, and that more totally and mercilessly than if it had sunk into a heap of dust.119

Rather than restore, the alternative was, if not to abandon or demolish à la Ruskin, to preserve with special care. However, as in the past, art collectors and museumgoers continued to want refurbished works that gave the appearance of original condition. Paintings were retouched to fill in damaged areas and undamaged parts were sometimes repainted as well, ancient Greek vases were made to look like new, prints were treated with bleach to whiten the paper,120 and other forms of art were dealt with analogously. Overall, the new aesthetic gained ground, with innovative re-creations clearly unacceptable. Debate continued over how much, if any, restoration was appropriate in a given case, and there was an emphasis on caution.

Along with growing public knowledge of art, and stories about forgery appearing in popular culture, connoisseurship gained a newly devised method for recognizing the authorship of an artwork and for detecting fakes. Italian critic Giovanni Morelli focused on seemingly inconsequential elements such as earlobes, fingernails, and folds in drapery that artists repeat faithfully and copyists are unlikely to duplicate exactly.121 Authentication became a scientific process of observation that was available to many people, at least in amateur fashion. It acted as an intellectual cousin to Sherlock Holmes’s deductive thinking and to Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis,122 with Freud himself saying both he and Morelli looked for “secret and concealed things from despised or unnoticed features, from the rubbish heap, as it were, of our observations.”123

Despite the broader scrutiny artworks were subjected to, a surge of forgeries appeared throughout the century. Journalists wrote about copy shops in the United States as well as Europe that produced artworks for fraudulent sales, some of which used methods of mass production and employed female artists:

With a few hasty strokes one girl does the hair, and the copy is taken to the next, who puts on the face; it goes then to a third, who gives arms, and so it traverses the workshop until the whole has been obtained.124

A newspaper account described a factory in a New York City suburb that specialized in Jean-Baptiste-Camille Corot, whose French landscape scenes were in vogue with American collectors as well as in Europe. According to a leading artist of the day, “you can obtain works of this master in any size or in any quantity you please, either by the dozen or single copy.”125 Another account tells of 235 fake Corots that were exported to France in a single year (1888) from a single workshop in Belgium.126 Beyond the factory approach, the Corot phenomenon was complicated by the circle of painters who worked remarkably like the master in his easy-to-imitate style and whose products might easily pass for his with a simple change of the signature by an unscrupulous dealer. Another factor was Corot’s habit of putting his signature on paintings done by followers who approached him for his critique and approval.127 He also collaborated with various assistants and other artists and with studios that produced his paintings, with the amount of work he actually performed on those pieces unknown.128 Unknown, too, is how many finished studio versions were produced after the artist’s death.

Also prolifically faked in the nineteenth century were ancient Greek Tanagra figurines, tiny terracotta images of everyday people in casual poses. Thousands were produced originally for religious devotion (sometimes buried with the dead) and personal enjoyment. After local villagers discovered them in tombs in the 1870s, they became popular with art enthusiasts throughout Europe. Private buyers flocked to own a Tanagra, and leading museums amassed whole collections. When demand exceeded supply, forgers set to work, and over time, suspicions arose about the presence of fakes even in carefully vetted collections. The fakes often can be detected by knowledgeable observers who spot features such as poorly executed faces and folds in the clothing, or single-piece casts (originals were made with a separate base).129 Scientific procedures also can be employed to measure age. In 1994, laboratory testing using thermoluminescence to determine the date of production found that 20 percent of the Tanagras in a major collection in Berlin consisted of fakes. Testing in 2003 on 140 pieces held by the Louvre showed only a few that were not authentic.130

The demand for ancient artworks also included Egyptian sculptures and reliefs, after European museums early in the century imported them and created intrigue with their displays. Sales shrunk the number of available originals, and forgers in Cairo filled the void, along with Italian craftsmen who shipped their wares to Egypt.131 A French dealer who was frustrated with the fakes flooding the market penned an open letter in 1843 to a member of the French Academy, saying, “What, for Christ’s sakes was to be done in order to supply antiquities to so many amateurs, interested and curious parties?”132 He continued on to describe how false wooden sculptures were produced (carved from sycamore wood, boiled in tobacco juice, and treated with bitumen to create the smell of a mummy), as well as statues made from plaster. Although these fakes generally were not of high quality, they satisfied the crowds of European and American tourists visiting Egypt.

While the volume of fakes made in the nineteenth century was large, only a few of the forgers responsible for them were recorded at that time or discovered later. Englishmen William Smith and Charles Eaton are remembered for producing fake medieval medallions along with a variety of other objects such as small statues and reliquaries they claimed to have found buried in the mudbanks of the Thames River.133 The works were sold by antiques dealer George Eastwood and soon were spotted by archaeologists as forgeries for bearing odd and meaningless letters and symbols, and dates from the eleventh century in the form of Arabic numerals (which were not used in Europe until the Renaissance). Eastwood sued Athenaeum magazine for an article reporting that he had sold forgeries, and although the judge decided against him, an expert witness declared the objects were genuine because no forger would be so blatantly wrong or could produce the wide variety of objects involved. Several years later, when the plaster molds used by the forgers were discovered, they escaped prosecution, but their business dwindled. An estimate of the number of “Billy and Charleys” produced suggests there were several thousand over the period of a decade, although how many were sold is unknown. With time, Billy and Charleys became collectible forgeries, and in the twenty-first century are held in twenty-five British museums as well as appearing on the auction market occasionally, at prices of a few hundred dollars each.134

In the area of drawings, Italian artist Egisto Rossi forged the works of Renaissance masters and nineteenth-century artists. His activity seems to have been unknown during his lifetime except for a brief entry in a book on Italian artists published in 1892.135 Notes recorded in a folio of Lorenzo Bertolini drawings at the Ufizzi identify some of those works as Rossi fakes, which provided clues for later investigations that revealed forgeries also of Raphael, Andrea del Sarto, and Antonio Canova.136 Keys to detecting the fake works include the artist’s mark along with his use of red chalk and bright blue ink, and a habit of mounting sheets on a blue background using gold tape.137

Beginning around midcentury, Reinhold Vasters embarked on his career in Germany as an artist, restorer, and forger. Working in gold and other metals, jewels, and rock crystal, he turned to fraud in an arrangement with art and antiques dealer Frédéric Spitzer that lasted until Spitzer’s death in 1890 and went undetected for nearly one hundred years. Besides Vasters’s legitimate business, he produced a wide range of items, including chalices, crosses, pendants, vases, candelabras, reliquaries, ewers, and more that were sold as Renaissance originals. He amassed a substantial personal fortune and a collection of five hundred art objects, pieces of furniture, and other items that he put on public display. After his death in 1909, his art library was sold at auction and became part of the archives at the Victoria and Albert Museum.138 It was not until 1979 that the discovery was made in his records of more than one thousand drawings of works simulating Renaissance style, accompanied by detailed instructions for assembly in Vasters’s handwriting. Within a few years New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art reassessed its prized Cellini Cup (also called Rospigliosi Cup), thought to be an original by the sixteenth-century master, and announced that several dozen more of its Renaissance holdings were forgeries created by Vasters.139 His works have been found in other major collections as well.

Forgery of Renaissance paintings continued in the nineteenth century, with a ready supply of fakes of great masters available in Italy and a continuous market consisting of well-heeled young Europeans and Americans taking the Grand Tour to round out their cultural awareness. A traveler to Italy with a knowledge of paintings and dealings in art there recounted the experience he found to be typical for Grand Tour novices. A young tourist is taken by a valet to a picture dealer and shown retouched and repainted old paintings bearing the signatures of Del Sarto, Giotto, Fra Angelico, and other notable artists. The dealer then presents two pieces of special quality by Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci, which he was entrusted to clean and repair and which would be sent back tomorrow. The next day, the valet mentions casually that the owner of the two paintings is an acquaintance of his who is in need of money and could be persuaded to sell. An incredible sum is asked.

Negotiations ensue, such as can alone be carried on and understood in Italy. Twenty people appear who seem to have an interest in the matter and are ready to advise and assist you. After squabbling, cajoling, losing your temper and ordering your post horses twenty times the whole sum in dispute being at length probably reduced to about five shilling—you bear off with your prizes in triumph . . . provided with documents signed by illustrious families, and authenticated by well known professors of the academy to prove their genuineness.140

Renaissance sculpture, too, was in demand. Sculptors found ample work making busts of famous men, women, and saints in the style of fifteenth-century masters. Florence was a center for production, and Giovanni Bastianini became its most famous practitioner. He was employed by art dealer Giovanni Freppa to sculpt works he was paid little for and at least some of which were sold as copies rather than originals. Because of the high quality of his artistry, the truth about his works went undetected for nearly two decades. When the owner of a Bastianini bust of Girolamo Benivieni resold it to the Louvre as a sixteenth-century original for twenty times what he had paid for it and failed to give the artist and his dealer their promised cut, they went public. Experts refused to believe the bust was a forgery, along with the possibility they may have been fooled by the sculptor’s work on other occasions, and contentious remarks appeared in Italian newspapers over the naivete of the French and in French newspapers about a costly fraud perpetrated by Italians. A wealthy supporter of the Louvre offered a greater amount of money than the museum had paid for the sculpture if Bastianini would prove himself by making a comparable one. He accepted the challenge but died suddenly at age thirty-seven before he could do the work.141 Further scrutiny convinced skeptics of Bastianini’s claim, but barring his admission, his secret might have gone undiscovered for many years. Eventually other works thought to be Renaissance originals were found to be his. Later experts have been split on their assessment of Bastianini. Some rate him to be equal or nearly equal to the Old Masters he was emulating, and others emphasize the characteristics in his style that are giveaways. Some believe he was a legitimate copyist who was taken advantage of by unscrupulous buyers, and others see him as a forger.

Many other examples could be added to these highlights from the nineteenth century. Besides traditionally popular paintings and sculptures, forgers turned out Gothic ivory carvings, Byzantine enamels (figures painted on plaques and medallions), French eighteenth-century ceramics, and works of other sorts in response to the art-minded public’s broad demand for collectible items. Some commentators have called this period the “great” or “golden” age of faking,142 which is apt relative to what preceded it. But looking forward reveals that counterfeit art in the twentieth century and to the present has evolved into an even larger and bolder enterprise. A growing population and potential art-buying public provides the impetus for forgeries in larger numbers: more forgers turning out more fake art.

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