Robert Butler, Curator of Art, sfmuseum.org
Not too many years ago it was estimated that half of all the Rembrandt paintings in American museums were fake. How could this be that the best-trained specialists in art were deceived into paying big money for fraudulent art? To extend the point, that the best-trained specialist are fooled what chance does the rest of us have? The answer is, not very much!
To evaluate the authenticity of a painting the various clues lead to a point system. A number one indicates that all the clues point to authenticity plus the picture provenance is established. That is it can be traced directly from the artist to the present owner. Even this is iffy as it depends on the honesty of the artist and the dealer’s veracity. Both of these ifs have led to fakery. Rembrandt for instance signed several of his students’ work to help them sell. Dealers have faked signatures with some frequency over the years.
A number two indicates the clues are all positive but the provenance is not available. This opens the door for excellent fakery of “unknown masterpieces” by the supposed artist.
A number three casts some doubt as to the authenticity but most indicators are positive.
A number four tips the balance against the piece; that is there are more negative than positive factors.
Let us take a painting by a 19th century California artist as a case study.
On the positive side:
1.The painting is signed T. HILL. Thomas Hill was one of the giants of 19th century western art a favorite of Leland Stanford with his impressive landscapes.
2.The frame and matting are correct for the period (late 19th century).
3.The pinkish tone in the mountain landscape is typical of Hill.
4.The painting of trees seems similar to that of some established Hill pieces.
1.The scene is a generalized western landscape. Hill tended to paint specific places, Yosemite for example.
2.The signature “T. HILL” is very easy to duplicate.
3.The ovate shape is not typical of Hill.
1.Hill’s son who painted and his first name was Thomas.
2.Hill spent two years in Boston. It’s possible he painted some general landscape scenes while in the East.
3.If ovate shape were not typical why would a faker produce one that would be immediately suspect.
4.The provenance is unproven, but it had gone through at least one art auction where the dealer and buyer dealt with it as very suspect if not downright fake.
Taking these factors into consideration the number assigned would probably be four. The negatives carry enough weight to have the painting referred to as “in the style of”.
Signatures are in general a poor clue to authenticity. Well-known contemporary artists will sign hundreds of blank pages. These will then be sent to a printer who will reproduce the artist’s original image endlessly. Tourist oriented art shops will sell the reproduction with the genuine signature for hundreds of dollars.
Returning to the original example. Rembrandt’s paintings were faked because of the complicity of the artist himself, dishonest dealers and the existence of some very talented artist/faker unable to break into the charmed circle of “masters”. They with talent at times equal or better than the masters, fake the works and achieve some financial success.
Perhaps a final cause. Tradionally a few prominent critics have set the tone for the world of art if they have slanted, bigoted or ignorant opinions that misinformation is carried down the pyramid of art professionals and collectors.
Why can’t a well-painted picture stand on its own regardless of artist? This makes sense but ignores the role of money, prestige and snobbery in art collecting. As reproductive processes become better and better the problem will increase.
HAS IT OCCURRED TO YOU?
How important should it be that a beautiful painting is by the artist signing the picture as against say as in Rembrandt’s case by one of his students?
Should there be stricter rules and penalties regarding authenticity and fakery in the fine arts?