The dark arts of art forgery

by Jordan Green

Thosewho investigate art fakes, forgeries and fabrications operate in a realm where – similar to espionage and counterintelligence – a certain degree of paranoia is healthy.

James Martin, a trained painter who has studied art history and chemistry to become a consultant in demand by both the FBI and a number of prominent art museums, began his talk on forensic art history at Reynolda House Museum of American Art on Sunday by asking if there were any artists in the audience. Then, he asked if there were any attorneys present. There were a couple.

“Attorneys working for parties adverse to me?” he asked. One senses that this guy has accumulated some enemies. “Any experts on faked and forged artwork?” he asked. “Any producers of faked or forged artwork?” Martin noted that materials such as Phillips-head screws (developed in 1936) and polypropylene paint (invented in 1958) can establish a fake if the original artwork dates back to an earlier period. After describing how some people harvest the powder inside fluorescent tube lamps, mix it with varnish and apply it to the surface of paintings to defeat an ultraviolet examination, he half-joked, “I’m giving tips to forgers, but only because you’ve told me there are none in the audience.”

And similar to the burgeoning industry of cyber-security where the best in the business hold some experience in hacking, the best artfraud detectives hold the same skill sets as the fraudsters.

“Before I studied chemistry and art history, I studied art,” Martin said.

“And one of the things I did was to copy the old masters. And I’m really, really good at that. Which makes me really good at catching people who fake paintings, too.”

Martin described scholarly art authentication “as like a three-legged stool” that relies on connoisseurship, provenance — defined as the documented history of the art — and testing, which includes “technical examination and scientific testing.”

The audience of upwards of 50, including members and guests of the museum, ate it up.

Martin’s firm, Orion Analytical, owns a Raman microscope worth more than most cars that can analyze a speck that is a thousandth of a millimeter. He worked on an investigation that determined a purported Jackson Pollock painting purchased by a hedge-fund investor for $17 million was, in fact, a fake.

Art forgers can go to extraordinary and creative lengths to perpetrate hoaxes. Martin laid out the scenario of a forger intent on defeating a thermo-luminescence dating process by collecting bricks from a 1000 AD Chinese archeological site to assemble a fake antiquity dog sculpture. The forger might grind up one of the bricks, mix the powder with Elmer’s glue and smear it over the surface to cover the joins.

“So if you took a sample of this and submitted it for thermoluminescence dating, it would tell you that the brick, or that the ceramic, was a thousand years old,” Martin said. “But it wouldn’t tell you that the dog was created about five years ago. So one of the first things we do is put a drop of solvent on it to look for the Elmer’s glue.”

Then there’s the real-life case of Wolfgang Beltracchi, a German forger who created an entire fake collection purported to be assembled by the late art collector Werner Jaeger. The scheme, which Martin helped bring down, involved Beltracchi posing his wife in period clothing as the Jaeger matriarch with the paintings in the background to make it appear as though the collection had been in existence in the 1920s.

Similarly, John Drewe, working with forger John Myatt, created false exhibition catalogues that he planted in the research library at the Tate Modern museum in London to create a fraudulent provenance for the purpose of throwing off investigators.

But art criminals, like all criminals, make dumb mistakes. Case in point: William Toye, who faked the paintings of Clementine Hunter, a 20th century Louisiana folk artist whose paintings have appreciated from about $10 to about $10,000.

“Toye loved cats,” Martin said. “He had lots of cats. And his cats had a habit of standing on the table where he made all of his fakes. So, as you might suspect, every one of his fakes had cat hair embedded.”