Achtung! Fake?

December 5 2014

Image of Achtung! Fake?


Here's a story I've been looking into for a while; in southern Germany, state prosecutors have begun investigating the work of an art restorer, called Christian Goller (above), after it was alleged that he has been producing 'Old Master' pictures that have subsequently been sold as the real thing. He specialises, it is alleged (put 'it is alleged' after everything you read below), in German 16th Century paintings, especially Cranach. The prosecutors are looking into 40 paintings, which have apparently been sold for hundreds of thousands of euros, some in the London art market. Apart from being an exceptionally talented creator of 'old' paintings, Goller's best trick, it is said, is not to make exact copies of known Old Masters, but to make subtle variants. That is, he'll take a known composition, but alter it slightly, with the inclusion of a new detail, or a slight variation in a limb, pose, or background.

The allegations seem to come in main part from a German art historian who specialises in Cranach, Dr Michael Hofbauer. You can look at his Cranach online database here. The story first broke in Der Spiegel magazine (subscription required), and was then picked up by the wider German press (for example here and here).

The story has yet to travel any further. But it's possible this could end up being one of the greatest fake scandals of recent times - if some of the works attributed to Goller turn out to indeed be by him. He could potentially be one of the best art forgers ever. We must wait to see how the investigation proceeds. 

However, Herr Goller has form in the fake line; one of his works was sold in 1974 to the Cleveland Museum of art as a Matthias Grunewald, for $1 million. Here's a link to that picture on their website. Above is an image of it, and below is an image of the back of the panel. It's hard to believe from the features and handling that anyone could really have thought the picture was by Grunewald. But as you can see from the crack in the panel and the 'damages' and woodworm holes in the back, this was no mere 'imitation', but an extremely cunning attempt to create something that looked 16th Century. 

In this piece in the New York Times from 1991, Goller says that he paints only in the 'style' of Old Masters, and sells them as legitimate copies:

"Whoever calls me a forger," Mr. Goller insists, "is lying. I only paint in the style of the Old Masters. I add patina and crackle for decoration. You can't call that a forgery." He goes on: "I think copies make art accessible. Everybody can afford to hang a Grunewald in his house." Mr. Goller emphasizes that he does not add any artist's signature to what he calls his reconstructions, and he sells them for what they are. He says he is not responsible for the claims others make for them.

Of course, 'it wasn't me guv' is a line regularly trotted out by fakers.

One of the pictures identified by Michael Hofbauer as a 'Goller' fake happened to be coming up for sale in a recent Christie's Old Master sale in Amsterdam. The portrait (below) purported to be of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and was catalogued as 'Circle of Lucas Cranach the Elder', with an estimate of €25k-€35k. When I first saw it in the catalogue, before the fake story broke, I certainly didn't for a minute think it was fake, such was the craquelure and overall quality of the picture. But in light of Hofbauer's allegation, I looked again. 

A few things then struck me as potentially unusual. First, it was not a known type of Charles V, and had never been published before; odd for an apparently unique portrait of such an important figure. Despite the presence of a Habsburg double eagle in his hat, the sitter was not wearing the Golden Fleece - which again is something unthinkable in a portrait of Charles V - and the sitter certainly looked like him, with that Habsburg jaw. The only provenance was from a 'copy' of an old certificate by a German art historian who saw the picture in the Munich area in the 1950s - I've forgotten his name, and the catalogue entry has now been taken off line. It was hard to see from the images, but in some parts substantial areas of paint seemed to go over the cracks. Perhaps it was later over-paint, perhaps it was evidence of fakery. The medium was described as 'oil on panel, laid onto canvas, laid onto panel'. That's not unheard of, but one of the key ways to date a panel painting is by dendrochronology, and if you make the main surface layer impossible to date (the original panel would have been shaved too thinly to date by dendrochronology), then that's one potential hurdle overcome. 

There was, AHN-ers, only one way to find out if the picture was real or fake, and that was to see it. So, for your benefit dear readers, off I dashed on a flight to Amsterdam... only to find that the picture had been withdrawn. I wasn't under any circumstances allowed to look at it. The picture is 'under investigation', and so far I've heard nothing else. So I don't know what to make of the picture. Hofbauer said confidently it was a 'Goller', but he seems (from what I was told in Amsterdam) not to have actually seen it in person. In which case, it's a bold claim by Dr Hofbauer. Christie's are, or rather were, pretty adamant it was 16th Century. All I can say is that if it is a fake, then (from the photos) it's the best I've ever seen, and better than anything I'd ever have expected to see. It would be alarmingly good.

Some of Hofbauer's alleged 'Goller' fakes seem more obviously 'wrong'. For example, this picture (above) sold at Christie's in London as 'Circle of Cranach the Elder' (that is, as 16th Century) is most odd in the face (detail below) and the modelling of the body, which looks like it has come from a 1970s tattoo catalogue, and certainly not the 16th Century. That said, the overall 'age' of the picture, in the craquelure, does look more genuine. Therefore, if it is a fake, as Hofbauer says, then it tells that someone, somewhere has pretty much perfected the art of making a new panel painting look passably ancient.

The picture made £103,250 in December 2008. Which means that as of yesterday, it's outside the 6 year window in which Christie's would need to give a refund. Caveat emptor...

Update - a reader points out the similarities parts of Cranach's 'Justice' on the left (private collection, at the Musée du Luxenbourg), and his 'Lucretia' in the Alte Pinakothek in Munich, on the right. I believe the technical term for this is a 'mash up'.

Update II - a reader tells me that the 'certificate', a copy of which was provided with the Charles V, was written by a German art historian called Alfred Stange. Wikipedia tells me he was a Nazi. The provenance of the 'Charles V' was 'Southern Germany' for 'the last 40 years'. 

Update III - the provenance of the 'Justice' sold at Christie's in 2008 was listed as 'Andreas Seefellner, Obernzell, Bavaria'. Michael Hofbauer, however, says (in this article) that there was no such person, and that the only person who might have been this Seefellner who lived in Bavaria never owned a Cranach.

Update IV - a reader says of the Charles V Golden Fleece question:

The collar (ie chain) worn in the “Charles V” portrait is in fact that of the Order of the Golden Fleece but without the fleece badge (ie pendant) itself. Although I’m a bit of an anorak on such things, I don’t know if the collar was ever worn without the badge, though I suspect not.

It's certainly a very odd omission - one would expect a contemporary painter to have realised that the inclusion of the Golden Fleece was essential.

Update V - another reader comments on the collar:

The Emperor Charles V while not wearing the badge of the Order of the Golden Fleece is wearing the collar of the order. However, I have never seen the one without the other and since it was made of gold would not appear red!

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