An art forger must be at least somewhat proficient in the type of art he is trying to imitate. Many forgers were once fledgling artists who tried, unsuccessfully, to break into the market, eventually resorting to forgery. Sometimes, an original item is borrowed or stolen from the owner in order to create a copy. Forgers will then return the copy to the owner, keeping the original for himself. In 1799, a self-portrait by Albrecht Dürer which had hung in the Nuremberg Town Hall since the 16th century, was loaned to Abraham Wolfgang Küfner [de]. The painter made a copy of the original and returned the copy in place of the original. The forgery was discovered in 1805, when the original came up for auction and was purchased for the royal collection.
On the night of St Patrick's Day in 1990 when the attention of Boston was focused elsewhere, thieves entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and made off with art valued at $500 million, including three Rembrandts, one of only 34 known paintings by Vermeer, and works by Manet and Degas. Because the eccentric Isabella insisted in her will that nothing be changed in the museum (nothing!), the empty frames remain on the walls as a sad reminder of what has been lost.
According to former art consultant Beth Fiore, people don’t normally buy art with cash in the US; “Cash payments for art happen in Russia [and the] Middle East” more often. So if you’re keeping your fortune under your mattress and don’t live in either of those places, you’ll need to get your money into a bank account without alerting the authorities. One way to do that is by smurfing. Despite the mental image of a blue cartoon character riding a surfboard that you may have conjured, smurfing means depositing money into a bank account or several bank accounts by breaking it up in to many small amounts that are deposited at different times, by different people. US banks must report any deposits over $10,000 to the IRS, so in order to stay sneaky, you’ll need to make a series of deposits that are less than that amount. You can hire “smurfs” to help you, who are often ordinary people willing to make an extra buck by opening up a joint bank account in their name, that you or your company has access to, and depositing money into it every day.
Less clear is whether the standards that exist in the art world about what should be included in the provenance are followed with any regularity or even can be followed as a practical matter. While theoretically intended to be a “chain of title” that should include every owner of the work since its creation, provenance typically tends to be a non-exclusive listing of interesting facts concerning the background of the work, such as notable former owners (at least those who are willing to have their identities disclosed) and the exhibition of the work at prestigious venues. Should galleries which held the work on consignment be listed? Does a seller have potential liability if the provenance provided to the buyer turns out to be inaccurate in any material respect? What if it is merely incomplete?
At any point in a work of art's history, its authenticity can come into question. Often, art is accompanied by documentation, commonly known as provenance, that confirms its authenticity mainly through ownership history. Good provenance (ownership history) leaves no doubt that a work of art is genuine and by the artist who it is stated to be by or whose signature it bears. Unfortunately, numerous forged or otherwise misrepresented works of art are offered for sale with fake or questionable provenance at online auctions, at fixed-price art websites, and at bricks-and-mortar establishments. But nowhere is the proliferation of art with problematic provenance more pervasive than at online auctions.
Our current market, geared toward the ultra-wealthy, is helping few and hurting many. It stomps down all the emerging and midlevel dealers, artists, curators and even collectors who can’t play in the big-money game. It’s also hurting all the art lovers, current and future, who deserve work that’s conceived to address artistic issues, not to sell well to robber barons. If forgers can help burst our art bubble, blessings be upon them.
He uses what is called Raman spectroscopy, which can help detect historically inaccurate pigments. That’s what cut Beltracchi’s career short. He was sentenced to six years in a German prison. His wife, Helene, to four. But the chaos they wrought has not been undone. Now, galleries and auction houses who vouched for his forgeries have been sued by the collectors who bought them.
Sometimes it is necessary to remove small bits of materials from a work and subject them to various analyses. Chemical analysis is particularly valuable in determining the pigment used because many of the paints available to the modern forger were unknown in earlier times. Today titanium, a 20th-century product, is used to make the white pigment in most oil paints, whereas white lead was the element used in the time of Rembrandt. Many ancient colours were manufactured by grinding natural minerals such as lapis lazuli for blue and malachite for green. Today cheaper synthetic chemicals are used. Some chemical tests, however, require the removal of more ancient material than is desirable. In that event a speck as small as the head of a pin can be analyzed spectrographically. From the burning of a minute sample a photographic record of the spectrum of the light emitted is analyzed to reveal the elements present and their relative percentages.
Many forgeries still escape detection; Han van Meegeren, possibly the most famous forger of the 20th century, used historical canvasses for his Vermeer forgeries and created his own pigments to ensure that they were authentic. He confessed to creating the forgeries only after he was charged with treason, an offense which carried the death penalty. So masterful were his forgeries that van Meegeren was forced to create another "Vermeer" while under police guard, to prove himself innocent of the treason charges.
Another area of art fraud motivated by the demands of the art market involves the smuggling of works of art out of countries, especially from developing countries, where the value of the work may be poorly understood. Though smuggling is in itself a crime, art fraud may also occur when the smugglers minimize the value of the art to guardians of cultural patrimony or to customs officials. Goods thus transported are often offered elsewhere for high prices. There are sanctions against museums that buy artworks obtained in that manner, but governments of the originating country have little recourse when the objects disappear into private collections.