Some of us may enjoy seeing experts duped, while others seek self-validation. Clare Thorp examines museums that intentionally display forged masterpieces.
A new Johannes Vermeer exhibition is always a big deal in the art world, such is the artist’s enduring allure. However, visitors to a current exhibition dedicated to the painter will discover that only half of the six works on display were created by Vermeer himself.
Shortly before Vermeer’s Secrets opened at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the museum revealed that a work previously attributed to the artist, Girl with a Flute, was not by him. “There’s been a question mark over it for years,” curator Betsy Wieseman says. The painting was thought to have been started by Vermeer but finished by someone else. Despite this, scientific research conducted while the museum was closed due to the pandemic revealed that nothing in the painting’s underlayers was more skilled than anything on top. “At every stage of the painting, there was some kind of misunderstanding on the part of the artist, whether it was how finely to grind the pigments or the proper proportions of the materials to use,” Wieseman tells BBC Culture.
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The painting was most likely done by a Vermeer associate, someone who worked closely with the artist but couldn’t quite match his technique. “It’s an honest production, made by someone attempting to imitate a specific artist, but there’s no intent to deceive,” Wieseman says. “It’s not a forgery or a forgery.” That is not the case with the other two paintings in the exhibition.
It’s difficult to imagine how the stiff, awkward figures and heavy-handed brushwork ever passed for the Dutch master in The Smiling Girl and The Lacemaker. Vermeer, who was known for his brilliant use of light and colour, which gave his subjects a trademark luminosity, would undoubtedly be horrified to be associated with them. When they first appeared on the market in the 1920s, they sparked a frenzy among collectors, particularly Andrew Mellon, who bought them and donated them to the NGA in 1937. They were displayed alongside the gallery’s other European masterpieces, but questions about their authenticity quickly arose – and in the 1970s, scientific research confirmed the paintings used materials that did not exist in the 17th century. Theodorus van Wijngaarden, a Dutch painter, restorer, and dealer who was friends with the now-infamous Vermeer forger Han Van Meegeren, is thought to have created the works.
So, why are they back in prime position on the gallery walls now? “As we’ve determined that this painting Girl with a Flute was not by Vermeer, one of the first questions people have is: ‘Well, is it a fake? “Is it a forgery?” Wieseman asks. “No, turn around and look at some forgeries on the opposite wall; we’ll go over some of the differences.”
Wieseman is particularly interested in the subject. She co-curated Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes, and Discoveries in 2010, while working at the National Gallery in London. “They’re fascinating documents about the history of taste, and of certain artists and their flow and popularity. I’m also fascinated by the techniques used by forgers. the methods they devise to make their forgery appear to be centuries old.”
In the spotlight
The NGA is not the only gallery that has chosen to display fake artwork. Fakes, Forgeries, and Followers, a collection of paintings and works of decorative art that aren’t what they seem, is currently on display at the Taft Museum of Art in Cincinnati, Ohio. “We thought it would be interesting to bring some of these works out and tell their stories,” curator Tamera Lenz Muente tells BBC Culture. “The stories of what they were thought to be when Charles and Anna Taft bought them in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and what science and scholarship goes into determining a piece is not authentic, or not what was thought to be.”
The exhibition includes works thought to be by Rembrandt van Rijn, John Constable, and Francisco Goya. According to Muente, some works were on display as recently as 2004, and not all are deliberate forgeries by the artist. “We have a genuine painting by Frederick Watts, a Constable admirer. He created works on very similar subjects and exhibited them as his own work at the Royal Academy and other venues. At some point, a dealer most likely added the signature J Constable in the corner of the painting, and it was shown as a Constable in multiple exhibitions, such as in the 1880s.”
Fakes, according to Muente, can play an important role in art history. “They can tell us about the art market at various times,” she explains. “When you have objects in such high demand, you’re bound to have people trying to cash in – not only artists imitating other eras of art, but also dealers willing to do shady things to pass something off as something it’s not. I also believe that understanding what isn’t real can help you learn more about what is.”
It may appear brave for a gallery to admit they’ve been duped, but due to the prevalence of counterfeits throughout history, most museums have items that aren’t what they first thought. “It creates a kind of patina of humanity,” says Gareth Fletcher, lecturer and seminar tutor in Art Business at Sotheby’s Institute of Art and instructor of an Art Crime course. “Not only do people who acquire things make mistakes from time to time, but they also admit it and reflect on what they’ve learned in the process. I believe we will see more exhibitions exposing the skeletons in the closet.”