Into the Twentieth Century

The early 1900s saw a continued demand for Egyptian antiquities, which led to more and better forgeries. Europeans operating at home and in Egypt were active producers, with one ring of forgers centered in the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.143 The most accomplished of these forgers was Oxan Aslanian, who came to be known as the “Master of Berlin.” Of Armenian heritage, he lived in Egypt as a young man, where he learned to fashion sculptures and reliefs. After 1920, he worked in Germany and specialized in the Amarna period. By 1930, Aslanian’s activity was noticed by several experts, but without direct evidence against him, his name was not revealed until after his death in 1968.144 After that time, telltale signs of his work became known, and many Egyptian sculptures in European and American museums have been identified as fakes attributed to Aslanian.145

Also active in the early twentieth century, and whose identity has never been known, was the “Spanish Forger.” The name derives from the discovery in 1930 that a fifteenth-century panel painting attributed to the Spanish artist Jorge Inglés was instead a recently made fake.146 The forger, who is believed to have been French or to have worked in Paris, painted on original panels and parchments, sometimes doing page illustrations for text and music (see Figure 1.4). Once the forger’s distinctive style was recognized, other fakes held in many museum collections were detected. A catalog for a special exhibition of seventy-five of the forger’s works in 1978 brought the known total at that time to about 150, with the tally growing gradually to nearly 350 in the early 2000s.147

Icilio Federico Joni is the best known of a group of skilled craftsmen working in Siena, Italy, who presented themselves as legitimate copyists (including Umberto Giunti, known for fake fresco fragments) of historical Italian works, but eventually were labeled as forgers.148 Joni began his career by doing interpretations of sixteenth-century book covers and worked his way into a specialty in Renaissance paintings.149 On various occasions, he fooled noted art historian Bernard Berenson, and published a book (translated into English from Italian in 1936) titled The Affairs of a Painter in which he spoke openly about the techniques of forgery.150 Tales about Berenson were originally written into the book, and although they were removed before publication, there was speculation that he and his dealer-employer, Joseph Duveen, bought up and destroyed most of the available copies.151 Duveen’s business relied heavily on Berenson’s authentication of Italian Old Masters, which were backed up by his outstanding reputation.

Italian sculptor Alceo Dossena shocked the art world in 1928 when, like Bastianini before him, he revealed his identity as a forger out of anger over an unsatisfactory financial arrangement with his dealer-associates. At first, art experts refused to believe one person had created dozens of sculptures in various styles from the ancient period to the Renaissance, in mediums from terracotta to wood to marble, that were held in many major museums and important private collections. As proof, the artist produced photographs of his work in progress and the hand he had broken off from one of his masterpieces to make it look worn. Once exposed, Dossena enjoyed brief popularity as an artist under his own name, but found that even with exhibitions in Paris, Berlin, London, and New York, his sculptures sold for small amounts. He died in a pauper’s hospital.152


Figure 1.4. Musician Harping for a Recumbent Queen by the Spanish Forger, on parchment, 225 x 195 mm. Courtesy of Les Enluminures.

As Dossena’s career was ending in Italy, Lothar Malskat’s was beginning in Germany. A talented young copyist, he was hired at a cheap hourly wage by an art restorer for a cathedral project, where they found it easier to do a complete repainting job on the damaged medieval murals than the careful restoration that was commissioned to preserve a religious landmark. Working in isolation, the artist finished the job, his employer took the credit, and the method that was used went unnoticed. Malskat’s career continued when, after serving in the German army during World War II, he went to work for his old employer’s son, turning out six hundred fake paintings over several years ranging from Renaissance masters to Corot, Renoir, Degas, Picasso, Munch, and others. He was discovered only when another cathedral job was offered, and history repeated itself. He secretly whitewashed the walls of the Lübeck Cathedral, which had been damaged in the war, and painted new murals, with his employer taking all of the credit and most of the payment. The project drew accolades, and two commemorative postage stamps were issued to honor the supposedly refurbished paintings.153 Malskat, angry at being mistreated, demanded that both he and his employer be prosecuted, confessed to his years of illegitimate activity, and received a prison sentence of eighteen months (twenty months for his employer). He lived thirty more years, painting under his own name as an Expressionist and earning little money,154 although his story was widely known through a German biographical film as well as Günter Grass’s novel The Rat.155

Another post–World War II scandal rocked the art world when Dutch artist Han van Meegeren revealed that he was the creator of several paintings thought to be by Johannes Vermeer. Those paintings, along with a dozen other forgeries he made (mostly of Vermeer but also Frans Hals and Pieter de Hooch), have been regarded by many commentators to constitute the greatest art fraud in history. Van Meegeren, the subject of a dozen books and numerous other publications as well as several films,156 is known for the estimated $50 million to $100 million (in the currency of the early twenty-first century) he earned,157 the ingenious methods he used, the false chapter he wrote temporarily into art history, the scheme in which he fooled Nazi leader Hermann Göring, and his high-profile trial.

Van Meegeren was arrested by Dutch police in 1945 when it was discovered that during the war he had sold (through an intermediary) a Vermeer painting to one of Adolf Hitler’s chief officers. Facing a charge of collaboration with the enemy and a possible death sentence, the artist had no recourse but to admit that the painting in question was a forgery and he was the forger. As the case unfolded, he confessed to counterfeiting other paintings, and to prove his claim, he created another Vermeer in front of a court-appointed panel of experts. After the legal charge was reduced to fraud, he was tried and found guilty while also becoming a celebrity. His trial drew international attention and culminated in a one-year prison sentence that he never served due to his death from ill health.

As a young man, Van Meegeren enjoyed brief success with art critics before being dismissed as an unimaginative traditionalist. While he continued to sell his own works (including commissioned portraits), he turned to forgery to provide income for an expensive lifestyle and as a means to exact revenge on his critics. What made his scheme so striking was its boldness. With Vermeer’s paintings regarded as national treasures, and his known output numbering only about three dozen, to add more would draw considerable attention. After previous attempts that yielded subpar Vermeers (although some were sold), the forger refined his approach to circumvent scientific testing and the fact that he was less skilled with a brush than the artist he was imitating. He was careful to make his paints from pigments used in Vermeer’s time, and he discovered that adding phenolformaldehyde (sold commercially as Bakelite) and then heating a canvas brushed with his concoction in an oven at 250 degrees Fahrenheit, would simulate the hardness of centuries-old paint.158

The final and most cunning part of the hoax was to conjure a period early in Vermeer’s career when he painted Christ in the House of Martha and Mary.159 This was the artist’s only work with a religious theme, but it was enough to lead experts to believe there could have been more. It spurred Van Meegeren to create The Supper at Emmaus (see Figure 1.5) in 1937, which was heralded by some commentators at the time to be Vermeer’s greatest masterpiece, followed over the next decade by six more paintings of biblical subjects. The style in these pieces is different than in Vermeer’s paintings, which deflects attention away from the lack of his customary level of workmanship. The faces of the figures appear wispy and unworldly, clearly different than those in Vermeer’s noted works such as Girl with a Pearl Earring and The Milkmaid, as well as Christ in the House of Martha and Mary. While not all experts were fooled—Joseph Duveen’s representative sent to view Emmaus called it a “rotten fake”160—the desire to fill in a little-known period in Vermeer’s work held enough sway to be convincing until Van Meegeren’s unusual admission of forgery.

Still another early to mid-twentieth-century forger who simulated historical works was Jef Van der Veken in Belgium. Trained as a copyist, he began his career prior to World War I by painting legitimate Old Master decorative paintings, and opened an antiques shop where he also sold his works as Renaissance originals. After the war, he shifted his career to become a restorer and perfected the approach he termed “hyperrestoration,” which often meant extensive overpainting on damaged panels and canvases that had little paint remaining. Some of the figures in his imaginative restorations were drawn from photographs of his gardener’s daughter as a model.161 With his


Figure 1.5. The Supper at Emmaus by Han van Meegeren, 1937, oil on canvas, 115 × 127 cm. Forgery in the style of Vermeer. Heritage Image Partnership/Alamy Stock Photo

dark side still unknown, Van der Veken’s skill earned him employment with museums, where he tended to follow more traditional restoration techniques and developed a reputation for excellence. He was called to be an expert witness at the Van Meegeren trial, and was commissioned to paint a replacement copy for the famous Mystic Lamb panel of the Ghent Altarpiece that was stolen in 1934 and never recovered; the copy remains today as a permanent part of the display.162 During the 1920s, Van der Veken restored and hyperrestored a number of pieces for collector Émile Renders, some of which the owner sold to Hermann Göring during World War II. In the 1990s, many of Renders’s holdings became suspect for their authenticity and were a key to unmasking the restorer’s lifelong pattern of deception. The extent of that deception is still in question as twenty-first-century investigators search through Van der Veken’s personal archives and examine works held in various museums and private collections.163

Van der Veken’s hyperrestorations were considered forgeries by twentieth-century standards. The artist understood that his work would be judged that way and took measures to disguise his techniques. Inventive restoration was clearly unacceptable, and extensive restoration continued to be questioned, as the philosophy associated with interventions tightened in light of an increasingly complex set of issues. Should fill-in material be added to an original work, and if so, with what limitations? How does a restorer know what the original work looked like? Should old restorations be removed, and if so, should they be replaced? Should signs of aging (such as discolored varnish) be removed, or should they be left as is?164 With these questions and others under debate, discussion of them became organized and institutionalized as national and international organizations formed over concerns about historical preservation. The International Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (IIC) was established in 1950, and the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) grew out of it as an independent group in 1972.165 According to the AIC “Guidelines for Practice,” compensation for physical loss must be “detectable” using at least one of three examination methods: visible light, ultraviolet light, or low-power magnification. Compensation must be “reversible,” employing methods and materials that do not adversely affect the original material, and covering as little of the original surface as possible. And the work performed must be “documented” in written and graphic form, with identification of the materials used.166 For example, a sculpture with missing arms would have them reattached in a way that makes clear what was added to the original: the adhesive and any newly created parts would appear in a different color, if not to the naked eye then at least when simple scientific means of detection are used. The adhesive should not cause deterioration or discoloring on the original sculpture, and should be removable in the future without adverse effect. With a painting, if color is added to fill areas of paint loss, it should be done with material that is distinguishable from the original paint and can be removed later if desired.

This cautionary approach describes current ideals for restoration as defined by leading figures in the profession. In practice, however, determinations about the what and the how of restoration are made by the parties commissioning the work they want done. Private collectors and dealers, in particular, may be inclined toward minimal compliance with the standards, if with compliance at all, following a different perspective on what they value in aesthetics and salability. As in prior times, during the twentieth century and forward to the present, there have been appreciable differences in attitudes toward what constitutes appropriate practice in art restoration. Whether a restored work has retained or lost its authenticity, then, becomes a matter of debate and interpretation. This topic will be discussed further in part II.

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