Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

October 11 2016

Image of Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

Picture: Sotheby's

The news that Sotheby's had declared the above portrait by Frans Hals, which they'd sold privately in 2011 for a reported $10m, to be a 'modern forgery' has predictably caused quite a stir. It was interesting to see how, in one week, the news of a possible Raphael being found in Scotland was in the end heavily outweighed by the news that a Hals was not a Hals. 

I wrote a piece in the Financial Times on the background to the Hals case, and also covered some other paintings that have been sold by M. Ruffini. I came out - perhaps unwisely, you never know - and said that I believed the picture of David with the Head of Goliath that was until recently on display at the National Gallery in London was also fake. Actually, I had intended to say 'almost certainly a fake', but 'it's a fake' got printed. No matter, there's not much of a difference. I  may well be wrong - I'm no Gentileschi expert by any stretch of the imagination. But having been to Berlin to look at Gentileschi's undoubted original, small-scale version of the picture, there's little doubt in my mind that the picture recently shown at the National Gallery, which is painted on a most unusual surface (lapis) and which has never been known before, is not what it seems.

I should of course make it clear here, as I did in the FT, that there is no evidence that anyone who has handled, bought, exhibited or sold the Gentileschi suspected it might be a fake. I have no doubts that everyone acted in the most appropriate manner. The same of course goes for the Hals and all the other pictures in this case. The original source of both pictures, and also the Cranach that has been seized by a French court to investigate whether that too is a fake (having been bought by the Liechtenstein collection for a reported €7m), is a French collector called Giulano Ruffini. He is of course adamant that he did not believe any of these pictures to be fake, and we must believe him. He is also clear that he never thought any of them were certainly genuine either - he says he left that up to the experts.

And here is where Ruffini is right and has done us all a favour in a way. The real story is not just that there might be a fantastically gifted faker out there, able to morph from impersonating Hals to Gentileschi to Cranach, but that the system upon which the art market relies for determining authenticity is not working. The Hals was declared a 'national treasure' by the French government, the Louvre tried to buy it, the Hals scholars said it was wonderful, the Burlington Magazine carried an article giving it the best possible endorsement. In other words, something went very wrong here. I touch upon it briefly in the FT piece. But the issue is that we tend too much to outsource the determination of attribution to people who may have written books, but who may not have any skill at actually making attributions (ie, connoisseurship). 

This is absolutely not to say that all or even most scholars and experts do not have a good eye. In my experience most do. But there are some artists for whom scholarship is in a truly woeful state. The experts who preside over giving pictures the thumbs up or down may well be widely derided within the museum world and the trade for having 'no eye'. But they are still deferred to. And until they die or become irretrievably ancient they will go on being deferred to, wreaking havoc on their chosen artist's oeuvre. Many people reading this will be able to immediately think of 'experts' who fit this bill. It has since emerged that the National Gallery did not conduct any technical analysis of the picture before they put it on display, even though they have the facilities to do so.

You may say it was ever thus. Perhaps that's right. In most cases most of the time the Old Master world gets it right. (And by the way, who is to say that this master forger has not tried their hand at, say, Impressionists?) But we must strive to do better. If the art world is to learn anything from this scandal it is that we must be more open and honest of our attributional failings, and work hard to come up with a better system of who painted what, and when. It's not good enough for the Louvre to pull down the shutters on this case and pretend it never happened, as they seem to have done. More must be done to be transparent about sharing scientific data. And we must also be more transparent about provenance - the shadiness of which is too tolerated across the art trade.

Personally, I would like to see more emphasis placed on the views of people with 'good eyes', if I can glibly use that term. After all, it was primarily because a number of people (mainly within the art trade) who really know how to assess a picture, began to look at this group of pictures and think; 'there's something not right here'. It may have taken them, collectively, a long time to eventually bring the matter, through wider discussion, suggestions, and for want of a better term, eyebrow raising, to bring the matter to a head. But they got there in the end. I might even say we got there in the end.

Of course, I can't finish without discussing science. Regular readers will know that I've long been something of a Doubting Thomas about the ability of science to tell us who painted what. I remain so, even after the Hals was revealed by technical analysis to be a fake. Here, we shouldn't forget that the Louvre, before they attempted to buy the picture, did their own scientific tests, and declared the picture to be perfectly period. Therefore, as in connoisseurship, scientific analysis is not infallible. It's based on many subjective deductions, and is rarely as binary as we like to hope it is. And just as there are good and bad connoisseurs out there, so we must also reluctantly conclude that there are good and bad scientific analysers. In this case the gold medal goes to Jamie Martin at Orion Analytical in the USA, who was commissioned by Sotheby's to look into the Hals. He also, you may remember, was one of the people who helped unmask the Knoedler fake scandal. Of course, it is has long been the practice of forgers to be aware of the latest scientific data on an artist or period, and to work around it. In that sense, each new scientific investigation into a genuine painting can become a faker's charter.

Finally, a recap on the most recent developments. Here is the latest from Vincent Noce, the French journalist who has been pursuing this story from the start. It's looking bad for the Cranach, with some of the Cranach scholars who originally supported the attribution now saying they think it's a fake. But there's no certain proof of forgery yet.

Vincent also mentions this St Jerome by Parmigianino, which was apparently another painting that passed through Ruffini's hands, and which was sold by Sotheby's in New York as 'Circle of Parmigianino'. This was later put on display, from a private lender, at the Metropolitan Museum as 'attributed to Parmigianino'. It has since been taken off display. If that's fake, then it's yet more confirmation of what a gifted artist we're dealing with here. You may well look at it, and say 'that can't possibly be fake'. And I can't entirely believe it myseld. But that's what a lot of people said about the Hals too. And now that picture has been unmasked, the more one looks at it, the more obvious it seems. 

In the Antiques Trade Gazette, Ruffini's lawyer, Philippe Scarzella, says that his client should be described as a 'collector' and not a dealer. In my FT piece I described Ruffini as a dealer, given the number of pictures he has placed into the market over a period of time. The Hals was, Ruffini says, bought by him in 2000. He then began the process of selling by at least 2005, when it was brought, by Christie's in Paris, to the Louvre's attention. I think under British interpretations (for example, how one is taxed whether selling as a collector or a dealer) such a turnaround within five years would make you a dealer. But I am happy to take Ruffini's assertion on face value. Scarzella also reminds us that the chain of events behind the Cranach ending up in the hands of Colnaghi, the London art dealers, is far from straightforward. Ruffini says he consigned the picture to a middle man, and that this person or people then sold it to Colnaghi (with it seems some invented provenance too). He did not sell it directly to Colnaghi. That being so, then I should have thought that the Liechtenstein collection, if it wishes to get out of the picture and seek a refund, has a fairly easy case to make - since title was allegedly an issue.

For more background on all the above, put 'Ruffini' and 'Cranach' etc into the search box top right.

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