• gerard van weyenbergh

Counterfeiters: Art or Scam? part 2

Forger, a profession of the future

In the end, Guy Ribes produced in the assembly line, without that extra soul, that was the strength of his pastiches. He needed the money. This is what caused his downfall. After serving a 1-year prison sentence, "the painter of thugs," as one judge called him, has become a celebrity whose expertise is in demand. John Travolta questioned him at length about the forger's trade when he was preparing his film "The Forger". On the set of the film "Renoir", Guy Ribes also advised Michel Bouquet, who plays the title role. "I taught him to hold a paintbrush. In close-ups, it's my hands that appear. The director Jean-Luc Léon has finally devoted a documentary to him. This is the place to remember that "the failed artist, but brilliant forger, who succeeds in deceiving scientists and connoisseurs, passes for a hero, in the manner of Arsène Lupine", analyzes Harry Bellet, author of "Illustrious Counterfeiters". His notoriety no longer has anything to envy that of the painters he once pastiched. The German forger Wolfgang Beltracchi continues to string exhibitions under his name.

But back to the kouros. The expert's intuition was, of course, not enough to authenticate it. A second geologist concluded that marble's antique appearance could be achieved in two months, using potato mold after further analysis. Thus, in the end, science came to reinforce the eye and the culture of the connoisseur. "The expert's glance is insufficient, assures Kilian Anheuser. Moreover, it is scientific analysis, not the expertise of an art historian, which caused Wolfgang Beltracchi. However, good expertise separates observation from interpretation. In the case of kouros, it was not the result of the analysis - the presence of a thin layer of calcite - that posed the problem, but its interpretation. How was it formed? "

Christiane Hoppe, from the start-up Art Recognition, recalls for her part that the stakes are too high to rely solely on the power of instinct. "Each method has its weaknesses, which is why only close collaboration between scientists, restorers, and historians can make a serious decision between the false, the true, or the probable. She adds that all world famous artists have an appointed expert. "However, he sometimes refuses to give his opinion on an artwork's authenticity for fear of prosecution. And what to do when several appointed experts reach contrary opinions? This is where scientific analysis comes in. It makes it possible to increase objectivity in this jungle of opinions", it being specified that the range of scientific examinations increases over the years.

Among the many methods, let us quote infrared reflectography, which allows to see through the pictorial layers, but also the chemical or spectroscopic analysis of physical samples (pigments, canvas) and even, in Paris, a particle accelerator unique in the world. If the cost of the expertise may seem high - between 500 and 20,000 francs per work - it remains modest compared to artists' price. "Unfortunately, these techniques have not discouraged counterfeiters who know how to adapt to advances in science," deplores Christiane Hoppe.


Leonardo's presence

Finally, it happens that scientific advice, combined with the surest instinct, is still not sufficient to authenticate a work. "It is not only the forgeries that pose a problem, continues Kilian Anheuser, but also the old heavily restored paintings, where there is very little of the original pictorial layer, and the workshop copies made by the master's students. The "Salvator Mundi", for example, has everything it takes to be the subject of endless bickering between experts. His paternity remains to this day an enigma that awaits his Champollion.

As a reminder, the most expensive painting in the world (it was sold for 450 million dollars in 2017) has long been considered as a copy, then as a work of the Leonardeschi, artists who worked with or under the influence of Leonardo de Vinci. Recent analyzes tell a different story. "High resolution photos and x-rays revealed repentance showing that Jesus' right thumb was originally placed differently," writes Walter Isaacson in 'Leonardo da Vinci' (Ed. Quanto). A copyist would have no reason to do that." The intuition of the greatest specialists corroborates these words. Pietro Marani, who oversaw the restoration of "The Last Supper," says he "felt an immediate sensation. The work was certainly damaged, but I immediately thought it was an original.

It prevents. Other experts refute these conclusions. Some claim to have read all of the Florentine master's codices - 15,000 pages written in specular writing - and dissected his "Treatise on Painting" and all of his correspondence. At no time does Leonardo allude to any "Salvator Mundi". To these elements are added the three biographies consecrated during the lifetime of the father of "La Joconde". None of them evokes, either near or far, a "Salvator Mundi".

Will the "Savior of the World" follow the fate of Nicolas Poussin's paintings? Appraised as being in his hand in the 1920s, they were "de-allocated" in the 1950s. "But for twenty years, they have again been considered as Poussin. Perhaps in twenty years they will no longer be," notes Sarah Hugounenq, journalist for "Quotidien de l'art". One thing is certain: sometimes the truth is in the beholder's eyes, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde.

Amanda Castillo for Bilan.ch