Dr. Noah Charney Paints a Clear Picture of Art Crimes
Daydream’s Exploring Our World events connect us with residents who love discovery and lifelong learning as much as we do. By bringing in a wide range of outside experts to discuss intriguing subjects, we recreate the feel of an inspiring intro college class, right in their own homes. At our recent Art Crime event we spoke with best-selling author and Pulitzer finalist Dr. Noah Charney to find out more about the multi-billion-dollar art industry and the illegal art market that shadows it. It didn’t take long to see why Dr. Charney has been named “The Sherlock Holmes of art theft.”
How rampant is art forgery?
There are many false statistics circulating. For instance, I’ve heard that “20% of all museum collections are forgeries.” This is not possible to know, and certainly isn’t true. It is true that quite a lot of art in museum collections may be misattributed–but if we knew it were misattributed, then it wouldn’t be attributed that way anymore. Art forgery is very rare when it comes to valuable art. It happens more often with cheap things (beware buying any antiquity via online auction sites, as the objects may be either looted or fake). Think of big forgery cases like serial killers in the history of crime. They are pretty rare but they make for great stories.
How difficult is it to forge a painting?
It depends on the type of art you’re forging. A drawing is easier to forge than a painting. A minimalist painting is easier to forge than a realistic one. Most forgeries are not very good. In retrospect, you would be surprised they fooled anyone. The key has nothing to do with how the forgery appears. There have been many unimpressive-looking forgeries that have fooled even experts. The surprise lesson I find is that forgeries themselves are not very convincing when examined in a vacuum, but they fool even experts when accompanied by a compelling enough story. This is what I call the provenance trap.
With so much money involved in the art market and so many vested interests in the authenticity of a work of art, is it difficult to get to the truth about a work’s origins?
It certainly is difficult. There are very few proactively criminal parties in and around the art trade, but there is a lot of non-malevolent wishful thinking, hoping for the best, turning a blind eye, that sort of thing. There can often be conflicts of interest. The art market is a multi-billion-dollar a year annual industry and the illegal art market runs alongside it, in the shadows. There is much gray area, with questionable objects sold as legitimate. Such cases are in the news on a daily basis, though most people don’t notice until it’s a really big, sexy case.
Tell me about a particularly interesting example of art forgery.
It was one of the strangest trials in Dutch history. The defendant was an art forger who had counterfeited millions of dollars’ worth of paintings. But he wasn’t arguing his innocence – in fact, his life depended on proving that he had committed the fraud.
Working in the early part of the 20th century, Han van Meegeren, like most art forgers, was an artist whose original works had failed to bring him renown. Embittered towards the art world, van Meegeren set out to imitate famous painters so convincingly that it would make fools of all his detractors.
Van Meegeren learned all he could about the Old Masters – their biographies, their techniques, and their materials. The artist he chose for his deception was 17th century Baroque painter Johannes Vermeer—an ambitious decision given Vermeer was famed for his carefully executed and technically brilliant domestic scenes. Van Meegeren knew better than to try to forge a known painting. Instead, he created an entirely new one called The Supper at Emmaus, presenting it as a lost early Vermeer.
Secretly working alone over the course of six years, the forger perfected his art, copying numerous works as practice. He mixed his own paints after researching the raw materials and pigments available in Vermeer’s time, and even acquired rare ingredients like ultramarine. He bought 17th century canvases and created his own brushes. Finally, he aged the completed works by applying synthetic resin and baking them in an oven to dry and crack the paint.
A forensic test could have detected the resin. But at the time, such tests were neither advanced nor widespread, and even today they are only used supplementally. A positive verification still relies on the assessment of art specialists. As such, it is always a matter of their subjective judgment – as well as their reputation. And this is where van Meegeren truly outwitted the art world. From his research, he knew contemporary historians believed Vermeer had an early period of religious painting influenced by Caravaggio. And while none of these works had surfaced, scholars would be eager to take credit for any such discovery. So Van Meegeren gave them exactly what they wanted. When the painting was shown to Abraham Bredius, the leading authority on 17th century Dutch art, he could scarcely hide his excitement, declaring it the masterpiece of Vermeer’s ouvre. Once this was established, any stylistic inconsistencies could be made to fit the narrative. After all, these were early works, produced before the artist had come into his own. With the stamp of approval from the art world, the fake was sold for the equivalent of over $4 million in 1937.
The success prompted van Meegeren to forge more works supposedly by Vermeer and other Dutch masters, earning the equivalent of $60 million. But his greed would soon get the better of him. As the Nazis occupied Holland during the Second World War, Hermann Göring, one of Hitler’s top generals, sought to add to his collection of precious artworks looted from all over Europe. Van Meegeren obliged, selling him an alleged early Vermeer painting titled Christ with the Adulteress.
But as the tide of the war turned, so did van Meegeren’s luck. Following the Allied victory, he was arrested for delivering a priceless piece of Dutch heritage to the Nazis– an act of treasonous collaboration punishable by death. To prove the painting wasn’t a national treasure, he explained step-by-step how he had forged it. But he faced an unexpected obstacle – the very expert who had enabled his scam. Moved to protect his reputation, Bredius appeared in court to defend the painting’s authenticity. With few options left, Van Meegeren set to work on a ‘new’ Vermeer from his prison cell. When he presented the fake to the court, they finally believed him. He was acquitted for treason – and sentenced to a year imprisonment for fraud.
The publicity of the trial transformed Van Meegeren’s reputation from that of a greedy collaborator to a folk hero who had swindled the Nazis. Thanks to this newfound notoriety, his works became valuable in their own right – so much that they were later forged in turn by his own son. The same canvases went from revered classics to despised forgeries to authentic forgeries, based only on the stories people told about them.
How did you become interested in all of this?
I came to this world rather backwards. I wanted to be a playwright or Indiana Jones, coming out of college. I moved to London to study art history while seeing as many plays as I could. I gained experience behind the scenes in the art world. I got an agent for my plays, but she said that, if I wanted to make a living as a writer, I should write a novel. So I decided to write one. It was The Art Thief and I was very lucky as it became an international best-seller. While researching for this work of fiction, I realized how little academic material there was on the study of art crime, so I turned my academic studies to this under-developed field. I was doubly lucky in that, just as The Art Thief came out, I was also the subject of a big New York Times Magazine feature about my having established this field of study. These two promotional tools helped me found ARCA, Association for Research into Crimes against Art, the world’s first art crime research group that is still going strong today.
Noah Charney is one of the world’s leading experts on art crime. A Pulitzer Prize-nominated author and founder of the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, he has published hundreds of articles and numerous books on the subject, including the novel The Art Thief, which was a best-seller in five countries. His book The Art of Forgery, detailing the world’s most famous forgeries, provides an authoritative survey of the artists and criminals who faked great works of art. More about Noah Charney can be found at noahcharney.com.