Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

March 21 2016

Image of Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

Picture: br.de

This year, the talk of Maastricht was fakery. The news that a newly discovered Cranach was seized by French police for further investigation was broken by Vincent Noce in The Art Newspaper on 4th March shortly before preview day, cueing raised eyebrows throughout the fair.

Normally, police forces don’t get involved in matters of art historical attribution, especially if both the vendor and buyer are in agreement about the attribution, and we can only wonder at what other evidence the police are acting on. It was suggested at the time that they had been sent an anonymous letter, but even that on its own seems slight grounds to act so dramatically. I’m surprised the French police didn’t try and get in touch with the Liechtenstein collection first. There might have been a more discrete way to investigate the case.

Still, it was a serioius development, and as I wrote at the time the news tied in with rumours that had been circulating for more than a year within the trade that someone was touting a series of extraordinarily convincing fakes. Regular readers will know that while AHN freely indulges in speculation, and shoots from the hip as any blog must do, I don’t do rumours, not least because they permeate the art market with the intensity of cheap perfume. On this occasion, however, the matter was so potentially important that I broke the rule

Since then, more news has since been reported, and what follows is an overview of what we know so far. I should begin by saying again that I have not seen the Prince of Liechtenstein’s Cranach, and I therefore cannot say with any fair conviction whether it’s by Cranach, a contemporary follower, or a modern fake. Nor, of course, am I a Cranach scholar. I have seen a reasonably decent photo of the picture, and while it is always difficult to judge paintings from photos, there was little in the picture to make me think ‘fake’. The Art Newspaper says Colnaghi bought the painting from ‘the manager of an American investment fund’. The claim that titanium white (a 20th Century pigment) has been found in the painting is concerning.

After Vincent Noce’s article came out, a French publication called ‘Le Quotidien de L’Art’ reported that a newly discovered picture by Orazio Gentileschi, David with the Head of Goliath, was being linked to the Cranach, but without setting out why. This picture, reported the ‘Quotidien de L’Art’, had been offered to a number of museums and collectors by a ‘Russian agent’. I have not heard of this mystery Russian agent, but the picture was sold to a private collector in 2012 by the London dealer, Mark Weiss, and you can see his catalogue note here. The picture is painted in oil on Lapis Lazuli, a precious stone not previously known to have been used by Gentileschi, but which was used by contemporary artists as a support. The subject was painted a number of times by Gentileschi, both in large and small formats. In the Weiss Gallery picture the head of David is in a different position than seen in the other versions, and looks to be as well painted as the rest of the picture.

The Gentileschi had until days previously been on display at the National Gallery in London, where I saw it a number of times. The picture is now not even mentioned on the National Gallery’s website. The Gallery subsequently said, in a statement also reported by Georgina Adam in the FT that the Gentileschi “was part of a small display by the artist that came to an end last week and has now been returned to the owner, a ‘private lender’”. I don’t know, but I doubt the ending of the display last week, at the time this story began to gain traction, was a coincidence. 

Is the Gentileschi genuine? I suspect it is, but again I’m not Gentileschi expert, and nor am I much good with late 17th Century Italian art anyway. My conviction about the painting, such as it is, must be led in part by the fact that greater minds and eyes than mine (not least at the National Gallery) have declared the picture not only period, but genuine. I don’t doubt for a second that anyone involved in its sale, display and publication has ever been entirely sure that it’s a late 17th Century painting. And yet, once told that something is potentially questionable, someone like me can’t help looking at a picture with a more than usual scepticism. Unfounded doubts can soon start to enter your mind. I must confess to at least… shall we say, wondering about the picture. 

On 15th March, another online publication, Telerama, gave further details about the Cranach case, and it claimed that the Gentileschi and the Cranach certainly came from the same source. The vendor, whose name is not known and which Telerama calls ‘X’, was being represented by a French lawyer called Philippe Scarzella. The Cranach was, Telerama reported, inherited by ‘X’ in 1973 from the daughter of André Borie, a French construction magnate. The Gentileschi was (as far as I can make out with my poor translating skills) bought by ‘X’ but even then was in turn originally from the same Borie collection. It was this ‘X’ who sold the Gentileschi to the Weiss Gallery in 2012. 

However, Telerama reports that in November 2012 this ‘X’ offered the Cranach to an intermediary in Paris for evaluation. ‘X’ did not say the picture was by Cranach. This intermediary was previously involved in the sale of the Gentileschi, and also a newly discovered picture by Frans Hals. (This Hals was the first of this ‘X’s’ pictures to have been sold, and which was also sold by the Weiss Gallery. I don’t know if this Hals is the same Hals as that listed on the Weiss Gallery website - and which I have not seen in person - but if it is then I wouldn’t have thought for a moment that this picture too is a fake.) 

Back to the Cranach. This alleged intermediary (whose name we are not told) apparently worked in partnership with a ‘Mr. Tordjman’, who, it is claimed, was the person who sold the painting to Colnaghi (for a reported €3.2m), adding that it had been in his family in Belgium for 150 years. Quite how this tallies up with the information stated in The Art Newspaper about the painting being sold by the ‘manager of a US investment fund’ I’m not sure. But the main point here is that ‘X’ was not happy with the sale, which he apparently did not know about till he read in the newspapers that it was now in the Liechtenstein collection, with the figure of €7m attached to it. We may conjecture that ‘X’ may or may not have got all or some of the proceeds. 'X' began a legal case against those he/she claimed diddled him/her, including this ‘Tordjman’. Telerama says there was ‘a trial’ (in the original French ‘procés’)  in 2014, though we are not told where or what happened.

All of which could begin to make some sense of this mysterious case. Are we in fact dealing with a case of rancour and grievance borne out of someone somewhere feeling they’ve been hard done by? What better way to get back at those who this ‘X’ feels have duped them than to say ‘aha, these pictures are all fakes!’ At this moment, if the Telerama reporting is accurate, and if there was really a ‘trial’ in 2014 in which all this was already aired, then one must be inclined to believe that that’s what we’re dealing with here. If so, one also has to feel particularly sorry for those who, further down the line, have been innocently caught up in the ordure.

Still, the best way to resolve this affair is for everyone to be thorough and forensic in their analysis of it, and to do so publicly. In the art world, if genuine pictures are claimed to be fake or ‘not right’ then one has to work doubly hard to disprove the doubters, otherwise there’s a tendency for a picture to be wrongly tarnished for years. It would help, for example, if the results of any technical analysis of these pictures were made public. 

Some questions remain, of course. First, it is perhaps odd for someone who has a collection of previously unknown masterpieces, which includes works by Hals, Gentileschi and Cranach, to feel the need to sell these works piecemeal through intermediaries. Why not go directly to a dealer or, say, Sotheby’s or Christie’s? And why, when you’ve already sold a Hals and a Gentileschi would you continue to act in such an unusual way with picture number three, your Cranach? In my experience, if I’m contacted by someone claiming to represent the anonymous owner of a masterpiece, there’s usually something curious going on. Art owners tend to know what they have, or what they think they might have, and to be wary and scrupulous about getting fair value. This ‘Mr.X’ might be one of the least savvy vendors of masterpieces the art market has ever known. 

Second, the technical doubts about the Cranach still need to be explored. I can report that another leading auction house also had serious doubts about the painting. The concerns listed in The Art Newspaper report (apparently the result of a technical analysis conducted by Christie’s) are extensive; it’s not just a question of someone looking at it and saying ‘I’m not sure about this’. Johann Kraftner, the Liechtenstein Collection’s chief curator, says that the presence of titanium white can be explained by later restoration. That may be so, but oil retouching is, we must concede, not exactly standard procedure in 20th century conservation (retouching medium is more like watercolour, and easily removed). It should be possible to establish conclusively that the titanium white is only found in small areas, over much earlier damage. 

Dendrochronological analysis of the panel (as reported here on 19th March by the Austrian newspaper Der Standard) has apparently confirmed an early date for the painting, and this is especially convincing [though see Update V on this point]. It should be possible to prove without doubt that the painting is as old as the panel, and that it has always been attached to it. Der Standard also reported that Michael Hofbauer, of the Cranach Research Institute in Heidelberg, has decided the picture is not only a fake, but the work of Christian Goller (above), the German restorer currently under investigation by German police for making fakes. Goller has 'previous' (as a British policeman would say) when it comes to making fake early 16th century German panel paintings. However, from the little I’ve seen of Goller’s acknowledged fakes I’d be pretty sure it’s not by him - he’s not that good. You can read more about Hofbauer’s view here on his blog.

Hopefully more facts will soon emerge to help us settle this one way or the other. Obviously, if the pictures are proven to be fakes (a very big if at this stage), then the story will have seismic repercussions through both the art market and the museum world. The Old Master market is already (and always has been) beset by risk over attribution. Normally that’s confined to whether something is, say, by Rubens or his studio, or a copyist. But if we now have to wonder whether a ‘Rubens’ was made last week, and ask whether even national galleries can tell the difference or not, then things become much more serious. My best guess at this stage, working mainly from photos, is that these pictures are not all fakes. Apart from anything else, what are the chances that some genius faker of unparalleled brilliance is as adept at early 16th Century German subject paintings as they are at mid-17th Century Dutch portraits? It is still more likely that something else has sparked this particular story.

But I am aware of other (less good) fakes that have been doing the rounds. One was at Maastricht last year, and vetted off. It definitely seems that there are people out there who can now reach a very high standard of fakery. Regular readers may remember that I used to say, in response to tales of fakery in modern art, 'you can't fake an Old Master'. I don't say it anymore.

Update - for example, this is the sort of picture I feel increasingly suspicious of; a newly discovered Gentileschi on alabaster. It was offered at auction in Switzerland this month, and made CHF650,000. I was puzzled by the damage, which in parts seems to be divertingly obvious (e.g. in the crack top left) despite the fact that the picture looks like it has been recently restored. But as I say, it's easy to start being paranoid about these things.

Update II - a reader writes, in response to Update I:

Re Alabaster panel. We can now all get doubts! Looking at this again, the angels top right look a bit “wooden” but the point I would like to make, following on from the doubts on this and the Cranach; both works come with “expertise” so isn’t the problem two-fold, the authenticity of the paintings in question (and others-e.g. your discovery of “recent manufacture “at Maastricht) and also,if you like, the authenticity of the “experts”. [...]

To summarise-just WHO is right and whose views have merit? I have often seen in the catalogues of the London rooms, where they have published the opinion of outside “experts” [that] if the opinion is favourable this is fine. When it hasn’t been, they still catalogue the work in full. It is rather pointless for any of us to ask a question only to ignore the response.

All of which are good points. If fakes can somehow get through the 'expert' net, then what does that tell us about the experts? There are no easy answers to this. Regular readers will know that I have written before and at length that these days too many people who are not expert can easily qualify as 'expert' just because (for example) they have a book deal. I would prefer it if we could rely instead more on those who have, through their track record, established themselves as having a 'reliable' eye. In the present case, doubts have arisen largely because people who really do know one end of a painting from another looked at certain works and thought... 'hmmm', even though this judgement went against the view of more 'academic' experts. In other words, there's still no easy way around the whole connoisseurship issue. But over time, even with cases like this, the truth does eventually emerge. And if (if) any of the pictures mentioned above do turn out to be fake, then the track record of those who were fooled by them must be marked accordingly.

Update III - I am told that Mr Tordjman was indeed the person from whom Colnaghi bought the painting (allegedly). 

Update IV - The prestigious and widely respected Lucascranach.org website changed the designation of the Venus to 'Imitator of Cranach' earlier this month, but has now removed the entry for the picutre entirely.

Update V - Cranach the Elder seems to have most regularly used lime.

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