***The Art of Forgery


photo: Lynn Friedman, creative commons license

By Noah Charney – In this richly illustrated book, author Charney explores many of the most notorious cases of art forgery—a deception that dates to ancient Rome—and the often colorful characters bent on deception. Like all crimes, this one depends on opportunity and motive.

While Old Masters may be a forger’s more likely and lucrative target, what about modern abstract artists? Can you tell the fakes? Take this clever quiz!


Until very recently, the perceived value of artworks and religious objects was solely expert-driven, based on connoisseurship. If a recognized expert asserted that a painting was a heretofore undiscovered Rembrandt, for all intents and purposes (especially sales value), it was.

Today, science provides museums and private collectors with increasing protection. Chemical, radiographic, and other advanced techniques can analyze paper, canvas, pigments, wood, and other intrinsic attributes of a work. A common giveaway is the use of paints that weren’t available at the time the artwork was supposedly created. But science provides protection only if would-be buyers insist tests be performed before they write out their check.

Over the years, forgers have responded by becoming more skilled in reproducing the materials and techniques of the past, so that often their work can pass all but the most detailed examination. Detailed digital replicas pose a new hazard to unwary purchasers.

Those engaged in an art forgery racket also excel in producing false documentation and paper trails. These establish the spurious lineage and history of ownership (called provenance) of a work. Forgers rarely simply copy an existing work—it’s too easily identified as already hanging in a museum or private collection. Instead, they precisely mimic an artist’s style and favored subject matter. This new work is then passed off as a “lost” or previously unknown masterwork, with all the paperwork to prove it.


Why do they do it, when the possibility of detection is ever-present? Charney says some simply like the challenge of pitting their skill against that of past masters. A German newspaper said forger Wolfgang Beltracchi “painted the best Campendonk that ever was.” Indeed, some forgers have been artistic geniuses, but underappreciated and undervalued in their own time. For that reason, revenge against an indifferent art establishment contributes to motive. Art forgery is not treated as a particularly serious crime and rarely results in lengthy jail terms (usually for fraud). Many former forgers have gained substantial fame after their misdeeds were exposed.

More rarely, copies of paintings are made and substituted for the real thing, delaying detection of the theft of the originals. At Prague’s Sternberk Palace, thieves skipped the hard part and substituted a poster for the original they stole; in Poland, more ambitious thieves replaced the painting they stole with a painted-over poster bought at the museum gift shop. It took days for anyone to notice.

Unscrupulous dealers—con artists, basically—persuade some artists to create works in a particular style. The excitement and pride collectors feel when they “discover” a lost artwork typically makes the seller’s job easier.

Charney describes numerous examples of fraudulent art from over the centuries, and his comparison photos add much to the book’s enjoyment. (Forgery of religious relics is a cottage industry in Israel and the Middle East, detailed in Nina Burleigh’s excellent Unholy Business, touched on briefly in Charney’s book.)

Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur “The world wishes to be deceived,” the book’s cover says, “so let it be deceived.”

SFMOMA Redo a Hit!


SFMOMA main stair (photo: Tom Ervin, used with permission)

After visiting the magnificent new San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMoMA), you may be tempted to hum “I Found My Art in San Francisco.” According to an article in Marin, SFMoMA was the first museum in the West dedicated to displaying 20th century art. Jackson Pollock’s inaugural exhibition was held here, for example.

The 10-story museum addition, which reopened May 14 after a three-year, $305 million makeover, is across from the Yerba Buena Gardens in SOMA (the downtown area south of Market Street) near the Embarcadero.

“In many ways, the unveiling of the new SFMOMA caps a period of transformation that speaks to forces at play in many U.S. cities — the rehabilitation of what had once been dilapidated urban cores. But the museum is also indicative of the role that high culture can play in that process. With its very presence, a museum can help shift the dynamics of a neighborhood,” says Carolina A. Miranda in the LA Times.
The 145,000-sq.ft. added exhibit space displays some 32,000 works—including large installations by Carl Andre and Donald Judd. Most of the inaugural exhibition works have not been seen before, including the impressive 1,000-piece Doris and Donald Fisher Collection, and numerous donated works by contemporary artists, including a gallery of works by color field painter Ellsworth Kelly, who died in 2015. The museum also includes a permanent center of photography and a temporary exhibit on the history of typography in graphic design.

Experience it Online

The eye-popping exterior redesign by Norwegian architecture firm Snohetta includes an oculus—an eye-like opening—and what the New York Times described as a “crinkly” façade of fiberglass-reinforced polymer skin that mimics the bobbing waves of San Francisco Bay. Other critics say the exterior resembles a beached cruise ship or a glacial form. An interactive article by Rene Chun in Wired highlights the museum’s many innovative architectural features.

The first floor is open to the public and includes exhibition space, a well-curated museum store and, soon, a public restaurant featuring culinary contributions from Bay Area chef luminaries such as Alice Waters. You scale a grand staircase flooded with natural light from the oculus to access the gallery floors. Once inside the galleries, a variety of well-executed architectural and artistic elements reveal themselves.

The higher floors have expansive windows running alongside the galleries, and wraparound terraces from which glimpses of the cityscape engage the eye and bring natural light in. A third floor gallery of huge Alexander Calder mobiles opens onto a larger terrace flanked by a three-story wall of native plants from nearby Mount Tamalpais that enhance the green building theme.


Author Jodi Goalstone at SFMOMA (photo: Tom Ervin, used with permission)

To minimize crowding and noise, hidden, one-way only stairs take visitors up or down along with easily accessible elevators. Another clever design element is found, oddly enough, in gallery restrooms. Higher floors’ facilities have a different, bold color scheme. The one I visited had deep purple walls and magenta stalls with soft, subtle lighting.

Because this is a modern art museum, new media is imbedded in the experience. Visitors can explore the museum with an audio tour that provides a personal docent—with a twist. One example: see the museum guided by Hall of Fame baseball broadcaster Jon Miller and San Francisco Giants pitching coach Dave Righetti.

More to Come

Coming soon is an app for virtual visits at https://www.sfmoma.org/app/. “SFMOMA’s chief content officer, Chad Coerver, calls the app ‘a cross between This American Life and the movie Her,’” according to another Chun article.

For more information on tickets, hours and directions, visit https://www.sfmoma.org/.

This guest post is by Tucson-based Jodi Goalstone, who writes the highly entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings.

Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict

Peggy Guggenheim, Alexander Calder

Guggenheim with an Alexander Calder mobile (photo: JR, creative commons license)

The new documentary Peggy Guggenheim: Art Addict (trailer) tells the story of Guggenheim’s remarkable role in preserving and presenting modern art. The niece of Solomon Guggenheim, whose New York City museum is a fixture in the contemporary art scene, she immersed herself in art while living in Paris and London in the 1920s and 1930s.

The film was directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland (interview), whose first award-winning film focused on another larger-than-life woman, Diana Vreeland. In Guggenheim, the filmmaker saw a woman who was courageous, strong, and had the “ability to believe in underdogs. These artists were not mainstream, yet she had the vision to believe in them and create a new place in history for them and for herself.”

In 1937, she opened the Guggenheim Jeune gallery in London, which showcased artists such as Jean Cocteau and Vasily Kandinsky. As World War II began in Europe, she purchased treasured works by artists such as Georges Braque, Salvador Dalí and Piet Mondrian, and as the war escalated, she arranged for over 150 paintings and sculpture to be shipped as “household goods” to New York, thereby saving seminal works from being confiscated or destroyed.

She conducted notorious love affairs with numerous artists, including Max Ernst, whom she married briefly after helping him leave Europe. Ernst has one of the best quips in the film saying, “I had a Guggenheim, and it wasn’t a fellowship!”

The documentary uses extensive interviews with art historians and curators to describe how Guggenheim became the protector and promoter of postwar art. As The Hollywood Reporter’s John Defore says, when she settled down in Venice, she would “throw great parties, tend to dozens of dogs, and watch the world grasp the scope of what she’d done.” Her Palazzo Venier dei Leoni on the Grand Canal is now home of The Peggy Guggenheim Collection, one of the most important showcases in Italy for the works of early 20th century American and European artists.

While the documentary has been making the film festival circuit, reportedly it will have a limited distribution in theaters beginning November 6.

UPDATE, 11/13: Los Angeles Times Credits Guggenheim’s perspicacity!

This review is by Tucson-based guest reviewer Jodi Goalstone, who writes the highly entertaining blog Going Yard, Offbeat Baseball Musings.

Peggy Guggenheim Collection, Piazza Venier dei Leoni, Venice

Piazza Venier dei Leoni (photo: wikipedia)