Forging Nature, time and atmosphere: the fraudsters of Impressionist art

As opposed to Contemporary art, targeted by forgers for its high value and a relative inherent lack of ‘provenance’, both Impressionism and Post-Impressionism have been considered for long a safe market. As a matter of fact, they benefit from years of ‘provenance’ research which developed catalogues raisonnés, a.k.a. the ‘bible’ of an artist’s work.

Thanks to the Impressionists’ large correspondence [1] and their frequent mentions in sales records, stock books, exhibitions and sales catalogues throughout the 20th century, experts have built an almost exhaustive knowledge on these artists. That has made Impressionism particularly popular to buyers, with only very few unreferenced, unknown and unrecognizable works. According to French art critic and dealer George Bernier (1911-2001), the compilation of these catalogues raisonnés is one of the main reasons why Impressionism — and on some level Modern art — replaced Old Masters on the market: “The complex issue with Old Masters, with risk [of forgeries] accompanying this movement, is one of the reasons which favoured Impressionist and more recent art, acknowledged as ‘safe’ on the market” [2].

However, although certainly well documented, Impressionist and post-Impressionist art is still a very profitable business for forgers because of its high market value. Also, it is important to remember that, for a large part of the 19th and early 20th century, research had not been done thoroughly on this movement yet — allowing old forgeries or mis-authenticated paintings to become part of respected collections and gain a perfect provenance through years without raising any doubts. For this reason, the catalogues raisonnés, listing by chronological order all artworks made by an artist, have to be very regularly edited to keep up with the forgeries that might have been mentioned in the catalogues before being discovered. When it comes to Impressionist and post-Impressionist art, the Wildenstein Plattner Institute remains the leading authority in this sector.

There have been forgers of Impressionist art since the beginning of the 20th century when the market for these artists started to definitely boom. As Impressionism gained more value, forgers became interested in it. Indeed, as early as January 1928, while an exhibition by Vincent Van Gogh was running at Paul Cassirer’s gallery in Berlin, the paintings lent by art dealer Otto Wacker were revealed to be fake. Wacker pretended he had bought these previously unknown paintings from a “Russian aristocrat, who had fled to Switzerland and could not be named because his family would face persecution from the Soviet authorities. Although accepted by Van Gogh scholar Baart de la Faille, who had published his first catalogue raisonné a few months earlier, the Wacker paintings were quickly denounced as fakes when they went on the show” [3]. After being revised, De la Faille’s work remains the definitive Van Gogh catalogue. But this case raised an important question: was Impressionist art actually perfectly safe to invest in?

Historically, many forgers have turned their attention to Impressionist artworks during the last century. English restorer Thomas Patrick Keating (1917-1984), who allegedly forged more than 2,000 paintings [4], was among others the ‘author’ of an Edgar Degas’ self-portrait and several Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s forgeries. A very thorough and inspired forger, he had “inferred Renoir’s techniques by studying the Frenchman’s paintings at London’s National Gallery and the Tate. He’d also read the standard textbooks from Renoir’s era, and had handled Impressionist paintings as a restorer. Most important, he’d assimilated Renoir’s creative process, reducing knowledge to habit. In his old-fashioned smock and full white beard, taking up a stub of sanguine chalk, Keating was as much in character as his model […] Tom Keating deemed himself a successor to Edgar Degas because Degas mentored the British artist Walter Sickert, who’d mentored one of Keating’s early mentors. It was a tenuous connection, reinforced in Keating’s mind by a Degas self-portrait he counterfeited in 1962. As he told the story, he’d no recollection of making the pastel. ‘It sounds ridiculous, I know, but Degas really did draw that picture through me and many others besides’, he claimed, ‘I woke up one morning and found it on the easel, in place of the scratchy, silly daub that I’d been working on the day before’ ” [5]. Keating’s goal was, as he claimed interestingly enough, not financial but to reveal the rotten system of art dealing and destabilize it. As he did not mean his forgeries to go unnoticed, he purposely left clues they weren’t genuine, such as flaws, anachronisms or material that did not exist at the time and could be easily found by forensic tests. After he was arrested in 1979, charges were dropped because of Keating’s serious health problems. He then created his own TV show to explain how he had acquired the technic to make his talented forgeries.

A different profile of Impressionist forger is John Myatt (born in 1945), a British artist who led with his partner in crime, John Drewe, an elaborated scheme considered one of the biggest art frauds of the 20th century [6]. Myatt supposedly made 200 forgeries (out of which about 60 have been found), accompanied by false provenance certificates to be sold to famous, international auction houses such as Christie’s, Sotheby’s and Phillips through Drewe’s intermediary. Myatt made several Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings, explaining that: “When I paint in the style of one of the great, Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh… I am not simply creating a copy or pale imitation of the original. Just as an actor immerses himself into a character, I climb into the minds and lives of each artist. I adopt their techniques and search for the inspiration behind each great artist’s view of the world. Then, and only then, do I start to paint a ‘legitimate fake’ “. Myatt was arrested in 1996, completed four months out of his one-year sentence, then started legally exhibiting his artworks under his own name [7], attracting a reasonable amount of success. He also uses his talent for the greater good, working with law enforcement to expose fraudsters [8]. Meanwhile, John Drewe was accused of creating false provenance, after gaining access to famous institutes to corrupt their archives and insert records for Myatt’s forgeries in catalogues — including at the Institute of Contemporary Arts and Victoria and Albert Museum in London [9].

Two of the most famous forgers of modern times, Elmir de Hory (1906-1976) and Wolfgang Beltracchi (born in 1951) found an interest in Impressionist art. Using aliases, then through the intermediary of a French dealer, De Hory sold counterfeited paintings (including Renoir’s) first to U.S. galleries, then to European dealers [10]. While German forger Walter Beltracchi is known for his forgeries of Modern artists, such as Max Ernst, he also made Impressionist artworks, by Monet and Gauguin among others [11].

Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery (Studio Kimstim, 2015)

In the 1970s-1980s, artist and autodidact Tony Tetro (born in 1950) led a legitimate business of artistic copies. When several of his paintings were found in a forgery scam, Tetro blamed the art dealers who had ordered him copies [12]. But he became again part of a major forgery scandal recently involving a Claude Monet painting, exhibited in the collection of Prince Charles of England. According to him, the painting, along with several others, had been ordered by British businessman James Stunt to decorate his home. Stunt had then loaned the paintings as genuine to the Prince of Wales’s charitable foundation, who briefly put them on display at Dumfries House, even if they clearly would not have passed forensic tests, being made with modern paint [13].

Another elaborate forgery business of Impressionist and post-Impressionist art involved art dealer Ely Sakhai: for more than 15 years, he purchased genuine masterworks and ordered copies based on them. He would sell the original version to a U.S. gallery and the copy to Asia (with the certificate of authenticity of the real one). The sale of two versions of the same Gauguin painting revealed the fraud scheme: both copies were simultaneously sold at the same time in two different galleries [14].

Impressionist paintings have not been the only ones counterfeited and reproduced: Paul Gauguin’s sculpture The Faun, bought by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1997 as one of their “most important acquisitions in the last twenty years”, was revealed to be a forgery, made by British forger Shaun Greenhalgh [15]. It had been sold by Shaun Greenhalgh’s mother, under her maiden name, at a Sotheby’s auction sale in 1994, as soon to be “included in the catalogue raisonné being prepared by the Wildenstein Institute”. First bought by London dealers Howie and Pillar, it was then sold to the chief curator at the Art Institute, for $125,000, as the museum did not own any Gauguin sculpture. A few years later, it was displayed at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. Along with his family, Greenhalgh sold a large number of fakes, produced between 1989 and 2006, to museums, auction houses, and private collectors all over the world, before being arrested and sentenced to four years and eight months in jail in 2007 [16].

While forgers had different goals, with some ironically gained fame under their own names, the reasons for their interest in Impressionism were similar. The Impressionists’ very recognizable and iconic style or subjects made it easier to copy than, let’s say, a Raphael or Delacroix. This focus on precise subjects was repeated by the artists over and over again, with the goal to show the effects of the evolution of time, space, and atmosphere at different hours of the day and under various weather conditions. Once forgers have mastered the ability to paint like these artists, the motif choice is easily found: focused on Nature, each of them associated with very specific subjects. Monet with waterlilies, flowers of his garden or Normandy seascapes at different times of the day; Gauguin with Tahitian figures in vivid contrasting colours; Van Gogh with sunny fields in the South of France, vases of sunflowers and colourful, distorted figures; Cézanne with still-lives, and so on. Forgers may also choose to paint in the style of these artists’ early careers, as it is a lesser-known period of their lives.

Some of these artists have been particularly favoured by forgers. As one of the fathers of Impressionism, Claude Monet’s highly valued artworks have been forged many times — including by Myatt, Beltracchi etc… This might sound surprising as his large production has been thoroughly researched by institutes, first and foremost thanks to the Wildenstein Plattner and their catalogues raisonnés. But, even now, there are still ways to introduce into the market Monet forgeries: drawings, sketchings or paintings might be unknown, especially from the artist’s early career. Also, some of his works could have been lost, possibly destroyed [17] or could have been kept in unknown locations. The recurring subjects in Monet’s work make it an easy target for imitators: even without having the artist’s gift in capturing fleeting moments, the result may be convincing enough to the eyes of not very suspicious buyers, sometimes excited to have found a new Monet and make a great investment.

There have been many Van Gogh forgeries, mostly because of the artist’s very high value (with paintings reaching record prices many times). Made during his well-known, short tragic life, Van Gogh’s production focuses on iconic subjects with a very identifiable style and choice of colours. The lack of success led him to sell his works for low prices, when not leaving them behind while moving to a different location: that explains why some of his artworks are still unknown or are unprovenanced. According to an investigation led in 1997 by The Art Newspaper: “More than one hundred paintings by the Dutch master have been questioned in recent studies […] Claims are being made that fakes hang in many of the world’s leading museums, including such great institutions as the Metropolitan Museum and the Musée d’Orsay, and even the Van Gogh Museum […] Why then do there appear to be so many Van Gogh fakes? The obvious answer is money. Although Van Gogh was unable to sell his work, within two decades of his death his pictures were already selling for large sums. By the 1920s, Van Gogh had already been established as one of the most expensive modern artists. Since then, prices have spiralled upwards, continually breaking the records. Van Gogh’s failure to sell his work in his lifetime also means that there are no contemporary dealers’ records which can be used for authentication. Although Vincent gave most of his paintings to his brother Theo, he also presented pictures to friends, while some were exchanged with fellow artists and others simply abandoned. All this provided later fakers with convenient stories to explain the emergence of unknown works” [18]. According to John Rewald, one of the greatest scholars of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism himself, Van Gogh may have been forged “more frequently than any other modern master [….] of the period”.

In a similar manner, forgers were attracted to Gauguin’s unique style, high value and inconsistent provenance (which challenged the elaboration of his catalogues raisonnés). False/corrupt provenance is an important issue in the market, making it more difficult for experts to detect forgeries. When Shaun Greenhalgh created the backstory for his Faun sculpture, he used the fact that a drawing of a faun had been made by Gauguin on a sketchbook, during his journey in Martinique, and that a work entitled Faun was also listed in a Gauguin exhibition at the Nunès and Fiquet gallery in Paris in 1917. Both references were noted in Christopher Gray’s Gauguin sculpture catalogue (1963) and Merete Bodelsen’s study of the artist’s ceramics: thus, Greenhalgh merely provided the missing sculpture.

The Faun, fake by Shaun Greenhalgh sold as a work by Gauguin (1994)

Even if his works reach lower prices, Pissarro has been forged as well: as a less high-profile artist, his paintings might not be questioned as much as a recently discovered unknown Meules by Monet. Some of his paintings have also been discovered just recently [19]. False provenance is easier to make and more difficult to detect than the forgery itself. The opacity of the art market might have something to do with this issue: because of confidentiality reasons, it might be easy to pass a forgery as genuine, by claiming its owner wants to remain anonymous. Some, like John Drewe, might also invent collectors’ names in the provenance documents.

When it comes to Impressionist and Post-Impressionist authentication, catalogues raisonnés remain one of the best ways to find information. But it’s also a double-edged sword: while letting experts explore a painting’s location and history, it gives away the same precious indications to forgers, thus helping them build the provenance of their fakes. Digital free catalogues raisonnés are even easier access to this information, as opposed to very expensive paper catalogues. As it has been underlined in the Art Newspaper: “the catalogue raisonné, a complete listing of all an artist’s work, is the best source for a counterfeiter to study the style and composition of their chosen target.” “Never, never include an artwork in a catalogue raisonné without an illustration!” pleaded Giovanna Bertazzoni, the co-chair of Christie’s Impressionist and Modern art department: “That’s how everyone was had by Beltracchi!” [20]. While catalogues raisonnés are the first and main source for experts and auction houses, to attest that an Impressionist painting is genuine, sharing them with a large public has been criticized. But, according to Elizabeth Gorayeb, Executive Director of the Wildenstein-Plattner Institute, the advantages outweigh the risks: “There are always going to be forgers, but there will also be astute forensic conservators who will be able to unmask their forgery” [21]. Spreading information on artworks’ provenance might also make dealers and buyers more careful.

The issue of connoisseurship has challenged those dealing with Impressionist forgeries. The leading authority on an artist (institution or expert) often gives the final word as to whereas a painting is genuine or not. But it might be complicated to entrust a sole person of such authentication: while forgeries may go unnoticed for years if not detected by the main authority on an artist, potentially genuine paintings are not always recognized as such if the lead expert does not agree, even if forensic results prove it [22]. In the high-end Impressionist market, forgeries are still circulating. The scarcity of paintings put on sale might also be a factor: if all paintings of an artist were known and located, it would raise flags to see an unknown artwork without provenance. But the main solution to this problem is, for now, extensive provenance research to identify where the paintings are, their history and to whom they belong. While forgers elaborate false paper trails, the more research is done, the less likely something sketchy about a painting will be missed. If the Art Market becomes more transparent in the future, it will also prevent forgers from hiding the provenance for mere purported ‘confidential reasons’.

Even if that gave information to potential forgers, spreading to the public the details on known paintings could prevent the elaboration of forgeries and false provenance. For this reason, the Wildenstein Plattner Institute has recently digitised its entire archive and library to be published online in open access. Forensic tests are still one of the best ways to identify forgeries, when detecting pigments whose dating is incoherent with the artist’s lifetime [23]. In all, when it comes to Impressionist and post-Impressionist art, the best way to defraud forgers may be through a convergence of science, art, and the human mind: that is, forensic tests, stylistic study and comparison, and solid provenance research.


REFERENCES

[1] Indeed, Vincent Van Gogh’s letters to his brother Theo are considered the most useful tool to identify his paintings. Meanwhile, letters from Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Camille Pissarro etc… to their appointed dealer, Paul Durand- Ruel, and other dealers, collectors, critics, friends and family have helped establish a thorough description of their lives and work.
[2] George Bernier, L’Art et l’Argent. Le Marché de l’Art au XXe siècle, Paris, Robert Laffont, 1977.
[3] Martin Bailey, “At least 45 Van Gogh may well be fakes: The Art Newspaper investigates”, in The Art Newspaper, July 1, 1997.
[4] Donald MacGillivray, “When is a fake not a fake? When it’s a genuine forgery”, in The Guardian, July 2, 2005.
[5] Jonathon Keats, “Masterpieces For Everyone? The Case of the Socialist Art Forger Tom Keating”, in Forbes, December 13, 2012.
[6] Mark Honingsbaum, “The Master Forger”, in The Guardian, December 8, 2005.
[7] According to his website, John Myatt is currently represented by the Castle Fine Art gallery group.
[8] Vanessa Thorpe, “Art forger finds Hollywood fame”, in The Guardian, July 15, 2007.
[9] David Levinson (ed.), Encyclopedia of Crime and Punishment, Sage, p. 69.
[10] Clifford Irving, Fake! The Story of Elmyr de Hory, The Greatest Art Forger of Our Time, McGraw-Hill, 1970.
[11] Artlyst, “Wolfgang Beltracchi, German Art Forger, Completes Jail Term”, in Artlyst, January 19, 2015.
[12] Paul Dean, “An Artist of Talent And, Some Say, Genius, Tony Tetro Is Charged With Forging The Works of Chagall, Miro, Dali, But He Claims Only To Be…: The Repro Man”, in Los Angeles Times, January 20, 1991.
[13] Mark Seal, “The Prince, the Flash and the Forger”, in Vanity Fair, April 2020.
[14] Kelly Devine Thomas, “Gallerist Goes to Prison on Art Forgery Charges”, in Artnews, July 19, 2005.
[15] Martin Bailey, “Revealed: Art Institute of Chicago Gauguin sculpture is fake”, in The Art Newspaper, December 15, 2007.
[16] Deborah Linton, “Family con that fooled the art world”, in Manchester Evening News, November 16, 2007.
[17] Such as Monet’s Waterloo Bridge, stolen from the Kunsthal museum in Rotterdam might have been burned down by the thieves who stole it (Liz Alderman, “Romanian’s Tale Has Art World Fearing for the Worst”, in The New York Times, July 18, 2013).
[18] Martin Bailey, “At least 45 Van Gogh may well be fakes: the Art Newspaper investigates”, in The Art Newspaper, July 1, 1997.
[19] Pissarro’s Le Jardin de Maubuisson, l’Hermitage, Pontoise (1878-80), sold in 2019, was recently authenticated after a thorough investigation and conclusive results to forensic tests, provenance research and stylistic comparisons (led by Pissarro’s expert Claire Durand-Ruel): it is indeed still possible to discover Impressionist artworks, even more than a 100 years after their creation.
[20] Georgina Adam, “Why the catalogue raisonné is the forger’s bible”, in The Art Newspaper, December 19, 2019.
[21] Anna Somers Cocks, “Secret papers on famous artists including Gauguin, Renoir and Monet to be revealed, in The Art Newspaper, January 14, 2020.
[22] Andrew W. Brainerd, On Connoisseurship and Reason In the Authentication of Art, Prologue Press, 2007.
[23] The discovery of anachronistic pigment, in fact, led to the unmasking of Beltracchi’s forgery scheme.

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