The questionable patina of a grinning Bastet

Ciao fellow art crime enthusiasts! Firstly, apologies for the radio silence. I’ve spent the last few months traversing the United Kingdom, building up rapport with my fellow art conservators on this side of the world, searching for employment and a comfy place to roost. I finally settled in Cambridge, even bought a bike in true Cantabrigian style. The whole relocation process has left me refreshed and buzzing with new ideas so please sit back, relax and enjoy the latest wave of reads. Without further ado this week’s topic is (drum roll): fakes and forgeries.

Firstly, let us differentiate between the two terms: fake and forgery. Whilst a fake is an object that has been tampered with for the purpose of deception a forgery is an object made, wholesale, in fraudulent imitation of something else. This meaty topic piqued my interested after I discovered that roughly 10 per cent of the art market is ‘fake or problematic’ and only ‘a fraction of these works are ever identified’[1][2]. Nall believes that this estimate may even border the conservative. It is therefore safe to say that the ‘dark figure of crime’ will continue to persist if there is no consistent reporting mechanism in place[3]. So, what is being done to stymie the work of dupes and deceivers, the aggregators of this particular form of art crime? Where are the fakes and forgeries now?

The classic case of Han van Meegeren, the man who circumvented the age-test by using genuine 17th Century materials based off De Wild’s list to create his fake Vermeers in the 1930s[4]. He also mixed a thermosetting resin called Bakelite into his works[5]. Bakelite caused the binder to become heat-resistant and hard, giving oil paint the impression of maturity, whilst subsequent baking of the rolled canvas stimulated craquelure. Current technical analysis can now detect the use of Bakelite by exposing its main component, phenol formaldehyde, but there was another far simpler technique available at the time…

Figure 1: Han van Meegeren painting a fake Vermeer, October 1945, viewed 10 February 2020 <https://it.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:HanVanMeegerenOct1945.jpg&gt;

What could have been the greatest flaw in Meegeren’s grandiloquent plan even went under the nose of Hermann Goering himself. In order to imitate the accretion of dirt Meegeren filled the craquelure with Indian Ink and, despite convincing some of the greatest art critics of the century, a simple visual analysis with a magnifying glass would have exposed the deception. (Sometimes all it takes is a little common sense, a splash of criticality and a loud bid for integrity to see things right.)

Eric Hebborn is another great example of someone who successfully avoided forensic detection by using contemporary materials. Hebborn worked from the pages of old books printed in the century he was imitating. He flooded the market with thousands of paintings, drawings and sculptures executed in the style of various Old Masters, many of which were subsequently sold as originals at major auction houses[6]. This is a second example of how connoisseurship, being so hyper specialised, can embody the psychologically potent enthusiasm that Hebborn, van Meegeren and the aforementioned Myatt and Drewe (see ‘No strings attached’ published on July 26 2019) took advantage of.

Faking elements of artistic expression is a reality check against cultural heritage protection. It is a crime considered too lightly according to our lecturer Noah Charney who labelled it ‘more prankster than gangster’[7]. Jokes aside, I firmly agree with Charney: it is paramount that we acknowledge the scale and capacity that fakes and forgeries have in the contemporary art market. Although it is impossible to check every object forensically and whilst it is not in the best interest of the trade to look too closely for fear of loss in value, surely suffering financial loss is preferable to furthering illegal trickery and dishonest manipulation?

My recent escapade to Anglesey Abbey put me face to face with Bastet, the Egyptian cat. This bronze on basalt figurine of the goddess of home, domesticity, women’s secrets, fertility, childbirth – and cats – was long thought to be the Abbey’s most ancient relic. For many years she took on the undisputed title of ‘oldest object in the collection’ until an Egyptologist from the British museum was called in to value the work [8]. He observed the questionable patina, the heavy blockish inscription, and the fiddly gaps in the artefact’s provenance and in the end reported that poor Bastet was not what she was purported to be. Lord Fairhaven had no doubt left the cunning fraudster wringing his/her hands in glee, bouncing off Bastet’s successful sale and onto the next, thus filtering the art market with more cheap knock-offs to hoodwink great collectors.

Figure 2: Bastet, British Museum, viewed 10 February <https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:British_Museum_Egypt_101.jpg&gt;

In Australia the criminal justice system would appear to be well suited to meet the challenge of art crimes, in particular fraud-related offences. There are nine jurisdictions in Australia ‘each of which will have its own specific statues’[9]. However, success is only attained with clever, manipulative traversing of this legal minefield on the part of investigators and prosecutors. In the context of Aboriginality alone the traditions, issues of responsibility and custodianship in Indigenous life may obfuscate matters. Elizabeth Durack, otherwise identified by the better-known pseudonym “Eddie Burrup”, isn’t the only non-Aboriginal who took advantage of the popularity of Aboriginal art.

In R v John Douglas O’ Loughlin (2002) NSWDC the wrongful defendant and fraudster O’Loughlin claimed that Clifford Possum had made him an honorary “cousin”, giving him to right to embellish and complete his paintings. This case raises the issue of authorship based on thematic content within art objects, ‘a consideration quite absent from traditions of European art’ and thus a spanner in the works of Australian legislation[10]. So how does one begin to navigate authorship of Dreamings in art through law, as typified in the O’Loughlin case? The issue of authorial ethics gets even more complicated when (as with Turkey Tolson or Ginger Riley) ingenuine works are signed legitimately or produced collectively.  The complexity of these situations may inspire new questions such as: is the object an authentic Aboriginal work and is the artist in fact Aboriginal? Are they entitled to use the thematic material he/she is projecting?

Since the 1970s Aboriginal art in Australia has been driven by market demand, setting forth an evolution of styles, and whilst legal proceedings require consideration of authenticity ‘issues are likely to shift to the question of deliberate deception, and the nature of intentional dishonest conduct involved’[11]. Both James and Polk determine that trends in the Australian criminal justice system regard fraud and forgery as ‘more serious crimes than theft for dealers and individual artists’[12][13]. This ‘…creates a complexity not associated with historical or curatorial art attribution enquiries’ and requires investigators who can work across several disciplines, professions, and jurisdictions[14].

Fakes and forgeries are everywhere. With Nall’s reinforcement, ‘They are waiting to be discovered in private homes, public and private art galleries and museums, private collections, auction houses, storage units, safes, banks and in the possession of criminals waiting for the opportunity to commit fraud by offering them for sale. They will always be around’ [15]. I’ll leave you with a lingering thought: looking forward, what can we do to muster up a pre-emptive response to fakes and forgeries? How do we change the universal mindset to gangster from prankster?


Disclaimer: this article is intended for educational purposes, and does not purport to provide legal advice. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author.

Bibliography:

[1] McDermott Q, 2009, ‘Fake: Fudging it in Australia’s art world’ in NEWS, Four Corners, Australian Broadcasting Commission (ABC), 8 June 2009, viewed 4 November 2019 < http://www.abc.net.au/news/2009-06-08/fake-fudging-it-in-australias-art-world/1706766&gt;

[2] Nall S 2014, ‘An Australian Art Dealer’s Perspective on Art Crime’ in Chappell D, Hufnagel S (eds.) Contemporary Perspectives on the Detection, Investigation and Prosecution of Art Crime, Ashgate Publishing Company, Surrey, England, p. 108

[3] Polk K, Aarons L, Alder C, Chappell D 2000, An Exploration of the Illegal Art Market o Australia, Criminology Research Council, Department of Criminology, University of Melbourne, p. i

[4] BBC 2018, Han van Meegeren (1889-1947), Fake or Fortune, viewed 10 February 2020 < http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/profiles/2r60JJtpKg07SzyZ9FTpSZP/han-van-meegeren-1889-1947&gt;

[5] American Chemical Society 1993, Leo Hendrick Baekeland and the Invention of Bakelite, National Historic Chemical Landmark, National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., November 9 1993, viewed 10 February 2020 < https://www.acs.org/content/acs/en/ education/whatischemistry/landmarks/bakelite.html>

[6] Royal Academy 2019, ‘Portrait of Eric Hebborn’, RA Collection: Art, viewed 15 January 2020 < https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/art-artists/work-of-art/portrait-of-eric-hebborn?gclid=EAIaIQobChMI3rLv7Kbt5QIVhbTtCh36egs1EAAYASAAEgKyJvD_BwE&gclsrc=aw.ds&gt;

[7] Charney N 2019, ‘Provenance Trap: Understanding the Modus Operandi of Art Forgers’, The Association for Research into Crimes Against Art, lecture, Amelia, 25 June 2019

[8] National Trust Collections 2020, Bastet, viewed 10 February 2020 <http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/object/514980&gt;

[9] Alder C, Chappell D, Polk P 2011, Frauds and Fakes in the Australian Aboriginal Art Market, 29 July 2011, Springer Science and Business Media, p. 193

[10] Alder C, Chappell D, Polk P 2011, Frauds and Fakes in the Australian Aboriginal Art Market, 29 July 2011, Springer Science and Business Media, p. 199

[11] Alder C, Chappell D, Polk P 2011, Frauds and Fakes in the Australian Aboriginal Art Market, 29 July 2011, Springer Science and Business Media, p. 203

[12] James M 2000, ‘Art Crime’, Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice, Australian Institute of Criminology, Canberra, Australia, p. 3

[13] Polk K, Aarons L, Alder C, Chappell D 2000, An Exploration of the Illegal Art Market o Australia, Criminology Research Council, Department of Criminology, University of Melbourne, p. i

[14] Sloggett R 2014, ‘Art crime: fraud and forensics’, Australian Journal of Forensic Sciences, Taylor & Francis, p. 2

[15] Nall S 2014, ‘An Australian Art Dealer’s Perspective on Art Crime’ in Chappell D, Hufnagel S (eds.) Contemporary Perspectives on the Detection, Investigation and Prosecution of Art Crime, Ashgate Publishing Company, Surrey, England, p. 108