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Authenticity

One of the most essential questions we ask of art or experience is: ‘Is it authentic? Is it the real thing?’ With artwork, we usually mean ‘Is it by the hand of the artist?’ If ‘something is wrong with this picture’ — an uneven style, a mechanical sort of perfection, a lack of integrity — a connoisseur can usually spot it. An authentic experience is known by the depth and quality of the emotional reaction it evokes. We usually know intuitively when someone is ‘faking it’, or professing an emotion that is expected rather than deeply felt. Of course neither ‘test’ is foolproof, and therein lies the fascination of art-fakery.

The higher the financial stakes, the more fraudsters are attracted to the game of passing off copies as originals. Following the scheme of all con-men, they prey on the hopes and beliefs of their victims. Foremost is the belief in the astronomical valuations accorded famous antiquities and later celebrities. Given such a belief, the wish that a painting or drawing on offer is the genuine article can easily overcome critical judgment. Without these beliefs, the con wouldn’t work. ‘According to European police experts, Rob Sharp wrote in The Independent, ‘as much as half the art in circulation on the international market could be forged and a large proportion of those forgeries goes under the hammer in London.’

Modern forensic science and technology can help correct this self-deception by testing physical and chemical properties against what is known about the materials available during an artist’s lifetime. For example, if a certain pigment found in a painting attributed to one artist is known to have appeared only after his death, a re-attribution is in order. A painting allegedly by Goya was unmasked as a forgery when X-ray technology revealed that a layer hidden under the surface paint contained zinc white, which did not exist as a pigment during Goya’s lifetime.

Radio-carbon dating can reveal the presence of modern materials in ‘antiquities’ that have been artificially aged. Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). X-ray diffraction, infrared micro-spectroscopy, x-ray photo-electron spectroscopy, and x-ray fluorescence provide other techniques for authenticating artwork. These techniques are taught at a consortium called the Forensics Colleges, for application to a variety of criminal investigations in addition to art crime. This site also has links to other resources such as a detailed account by Peter Landesman of the scandal involving forged Renaissance drawings acquired by the Getty Museum.

Because modern forensics techniques are expensive, their use is limited to the highest-cost artworks, and even then are only deployed when there are reasonable grounds for suspicion. Connoisseurship will always be needed to identify the tell-tale sketch-gesture that doesn’t fit, an unnatural line, color that seems off, or an overall lack of spontaneity. ‘If the work is authentic,’ as one curator has remarked, ‘it all hangs together as a statement — there are no oddities about it, and it is organic and coherent.’ Forgers often have their own styles, which, though inferior to those of the artists they copy, are recognizable to those who study them.

‘The old masters,’ Landesman notes, ‘worked ink with great speed and fluidity to capture the grace and gestures of their subjects. Forgers mimic an artist’s style but never fully capture the nuances that define an artist’s ‘handwriting.’ And the lines on these drawings seemed, in Turner’s opinion, spidery and haltingly drawn. Four of them, all supposedly by different artists, had been punctuated by what Turner identified as the same clumsy hatching.’ (Nicholas Turner was the curator who identified as forgeries many of the ‘Renaissance’ drawings acquired by his predecessor at the Getty.)

So we return to authenticity, the individual response of a seasoned observer who re-creates in imagination the gestures and practices of the artist, in judging the originality and quality of a work of art. As Stanley William Hayter put it in About Prints, ‘the work itself must possess one quality, variously described as spontaneity, authority — in fact the ability to convince… This quality of conviction… is that to which the result bears witness: it is impossible to fake, and its effect on the observer demonstrates it.’

Printed from: http://www.kamprint.com/views/?p=732 .
© Peter Miller 2019.