Forgery history, part 2/7
As long as the Church ensured its control over art, there were, therefore, few fakes in circulation, but when kings and princes began to collect and become patrons of artists, orders no longer emanated then exclusively religious circles.
Therefore, the artists gradually freed themselves from the hold of the Church on art by taking advantage of a commercial circuit newly created in parallel at the beginning of the 16th century. Simultaneously, the vogue for copying spread to the domain of sculpture with the discovery from the end of the 13th century of many remains of ancient Rome. There was a clear propensity to draw inspiration from ancient sculptures among Italian artists to create works representing heroes of mythology, nudes, or satyrs.
Inspiration and not plagiarism for sculptors like Donatello, Verrocchio, Pollaiuolo, Moderno, Riccio, Sansovino, Michelangelo, Jean de Bologne, Maderno and Tacca to name a few.
The emancipation of artists when they began to paint in profusion of mythological subjects but the plagiarism industry did not really take off until the beginning of the 19th century with the advent of the bourgeoisie and industrial society, both generators of new wealth.
Previously, the eighteenth century had seen the emergence of imitators of Flemish painters of the previous century, artists rather lacking in imagination whose works were however sometimes sold later as being by the hand of such or such master whose they were inspired by. However, it was not until the 1760s that fakes appeared before proliferating a century later when wealthy amateurs set their sights on sought-after old painters. Many 18th century painters such as Watteau, Fragonard, Boucher, Reynolds or Gainsborough were copied or imitated by second-rate artists whose pastiches later passed as authentic.
The fashion of the Grand Tour instituted by the English nobles at the beginning of the 18th century also gave ideas to Italian merchants delighted to be able to sell copies to naive tourists easily, but such a practice remained anecdotal until the mid-19th century.
The boom in tourism in Italy during the second half of the 19th century led to the emergence of a number of counterfeiters specializing in the manufacture of plagiarism of primitive paintings that sold like hot cakes when new techniques had been developed like the mechanical reduction, which allowed the industrial production of bronze sculptures produced by contemporary artists. In France, the Middle Ages became fashionable again under the leadership of Viollet-Leduc, and copyists were active in faithfully producing Limousin enamels created between the 12th and 16th centuries. Nevertheless, the counterfeiters were still working on a small scale, and the only case that hit the headlines at the end of the 19th century was the purchase by the Louvre Museum of
Announced as a discovery in the south of Russia, this famous tiara bearing the inscription "dedicated to Saitapharnes by the people of Olbia" was sold for a million francs at the Louvre by the Hochman brothers, two Romanian crooks, and then exhibited to the public on April 1, 1897, the very day of April fools. Still, very quickly specialists began to doubt its authenticity because this crown's reliefs looked oddly intact after 23 centuries. The Munich museum curator decreed that the tiara was a montage made up of ancient elements borrowed from all over Europe. The investigation that followed led to the discovery of a counterfeit workshop in Otchakoff (ex-Olbia) belonging to the Hochman brothers before a jeweler denounced Rouchomovsky. Still, the investigators found it difficult to believe that they were holding on to it. Vexed, the latter landed in Paris and in front of the astonished Louvre specialists, he recreated parts of the contested tiara.
In 1873, the Penelli brothers had made an Etruscan sarcophagus, which they had buried and then "discovered". It was so convincing that it was bought as authentic by the British Museum where it appeared for decades as a major piece of Etruscan art before one of the brothers, seized with remorse, confessed the forgery.
An artist like Corot quickly became excessively copied, but this fact hardly formalized the latter by welcoming his imitators into his studio, delighted to obtain his advice and judgment. Corot even went so far as to correct their copies by having the knack of adding his own signature. Overwhelmed with orders and taken by time, the latter probably saw this as a means of satisfying clients eager for his works but lacking the innate sense that connoisseurs have in sniffing out plagiarism. There was also painter Monticelli with the particular technique made of heavy impasto, which was copied extensively during his lifetime.
At the end of the 1870s, the Impressionists began to emerge thanks to the support of modern-oriented or business-savvy dealers such as Durand-Ruel, Wildenstein, Seligmann, Rouart, and others, as well as collectors with large financial resources like the Rothschilds, Pierpont Morgan, and some Russian or rich Americans who were among the first to take an interest in artists like Monet, Manet, Pissarro or Renoir. However, it was not until the end of the First World War, during which forgery workshops in Brussels sold thousands of fake Corots (at least 10,000) to officers of the occupying German army, to see the market the first plagiarism of the impressionist masters, Cézanne or Van Gogh. At its beginnings,
Finally famous fifteen years after his death, Van Gogh quickly interested forgers from the moment when his price knew a spectacular rise and when the catalog raisonné of his work was in progress. As the clientele of art lovers quickly grew during the 1920s, the temptation was also great for certain merchants and not least, such as Lord Duveen, to cheat with reality by selling paintings advantageously retyped to rich gogos.
The golden age of forgery really began in the 1925s and this, in many areas such as 18th-century furniture with the production of copies of created by André Mailfert's workshop in Orleans which were then often sold as genuine. Mailfert did not participate directly in the sale of his wonderfully made creations but, rather delighted to see the excellence of his art as a copyist; he never denounced the smart guys who poured into this fraudulent enterprise.
In the early 1930s, Hans Henricus Van Meegeren, a Dutch artist disappointed to see his talent ignored by critics, began to study very closely famous painter Jan van der Vermeer (1632-1675). From there emerged from the mind of this ignored painter the idea of bringing back lost paintings by Vermeer of Delft, essentially religious canvases skillfully created with techniques peculiar to the Dutch master of the 17th century.
Failed painter, Van Meegeren, therefore, took revenge on those who had ignored him. Restorer of paintings and professor of painting in Delft, he had already acquired a large knowledge about Vermeer's art before studying the works of this master as an entomologist. He then understood what advantage he could draw by plagiarizing this artist who had not really been rediscovered until the middle of the 19th century and whose first retrospective was only organized by the Rotterdam Museum in 1935. In 1932, he stayed in Provence and patiently began to dissect Vermeer's technique and determine precisely the pigments that this artist had used. Two years later, he used a 17th century canvas which he erased to paint a version of the "Pilgrims of Emmaus" which he then presented to the expert Abraham Bredius, who fell in love with this new masterpiece.
This fake was bought for more than 500,000 guilders in 1937 by the Royal Gallery of Rotterdam and Van Meegeren, excited by his daring move, launched until 1939 the production of other Vermeer, in particular a canvas titled "Jacob blessing Isaac" and others such as "The Last Supper" , "Christ and the Adulteress" or "Christ in Outrage" . During the German occupation appeared "La Lavandière" and then in 1943 "Le Lavement des pieds" , a painting which was sold for 1.25 million guilders at auction.
The troubled period of the war favored the juicy enterprise of Van Meegeren although specialists did not fail to question the miraculous reappearance of forgotten Vermeer paintings and their provenance, but it was not until the German defeat that the country's authorities take into account the works looted by the Nazis. It was thus that they learned that
"Christ and the Adulterous Woman" and at least four other paintings believed to have been painted by de Vermeer had been sold to Marshal Goering and Nazi dignitaries.
Arrested on the charge of having collaborated with the enemy by ceding national treasures to him, Van Meegeren swore to his great gods that he had only sold to the Nazis fakes made by himself and that he had made to the occasion act of patriotism by fooling them.
© Adrian Darmon