Wednesday 14th October 2015Fighting Forgery with DNA
Forgery is one of the most prominent and destructive problems affecting the art world today. When it's impossible to go a single week without a new headline about record breaking auction sales that are then trumped the next month or even the next week, there is a huge amount of incentive for forgers to practice their illicit craft. Conversely, of course, there is also a huge incentive for artists, auctioneers, and insurance companies responsible for proving provenance of various works to combat the forgeries using every possible means at their disposal. Sometimes, that means inventing brand new technologies that outside the capabilities of most forgers.
The newest of these technologies? Using synthetic DNA as a uniquely trackable chemical signature.
It sounds like a story out of science fiction, but we're now living in a time when technology is starting to push the very bounds of credulity. Synthetic DNA is not particularly a new idea in academic circles, but the prospect of using it in practical applications is on the very cutting edge of science at the moment. The idea of using it to prevent forgery is the brainchild of the Global Center for Innovation, a part of the State University of New York at Albany. After two years and $2 million USD of investment funds from ARIS Title Insurance Company, an insurance firm that specializes in art authentication, they finally have a procedure that may soon begin to be used in commercial applications.
“We wanted a marker that was very hard to locate and not prone to environmental issues or tampering,” said Robert J. Jones, president of SUNY Albany, speaking to the New York Times. Due to the rapidly increasing technical capabilities of forgers, many companies who used to regularly perform authentications have stopped providing that particular service, as the legal consequences of making a mistake can be staggeringly expensive. With this new technology, the synthetic DNA will permeate the work and can then be read later by authenticators. The information encoded in the DNA will create an encrypted link to a database that contains all the relevant information about the piece in question.
No matter how incredible it seems, it begs the question that as DNA sequencing technologies become more and more common, how long will this particular approach protect artists from fraud? Perhaps it's always been the case, but it seems like nothing more than the next step in the technological arms race between authenticators and forgers.
Posted on October 14th 2015 on 11:11pm
Wednesday 05th August 2015Conning the Art World
It's almost a Hollywood truism - everyone loves a good con movie. Whether it's because we love the pluck and daring involved, or the rogueish charm of a carefully flaunted set of rules (perhaps, deep down, many of us were wishing we could do the same), we can't seem to get enough of them. With auction prices at record highs, not to mention the fantastical and unquantifiable value of owning a masterpiece, the art world is constantly full of forgeries, and the cons that have to accompany them.
With that in mind, a number of books have been published recently on forgery and cons in the art world, and contain an impressively entertaining array of stories collected over the years and, in some cases, centuries. The Art of the Con, by Anthony M. Amore is one such book, which covers an impressive scope of crime, and understandably so - Amore is the chief investigator for the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. If it seems strange to you that a museum might have an on-staff position of chief investigator (which inherently implies a number of other investigators also on staff), make sure to grab a copy of the book, and you'll see why it's necessary. From entertaining stories to examinations of the techniques used by master forgers, it's quite an enjoyable read.
The monetary rewards of art forgery are hardly the only motivations for the practice, however. Many artists have found themselves decried - or worse, ignored - by critics, only to take their skills to the black market and the lucrative crimes that follow in its wake.
As Noah Charney, the author of The Art of Forgery put it, “Many want recognition. They have real skills and tried hard to make their own successes, before turning to fakes and the multiple benefits they derived—proving to themselves they were as good as past masters and showing up the critics who had ignored their own works.” Another excellent look into the world of art forgeries, The Art of Forgery has some of the most mind-boggling stories of the fraudulent art and their artists, from dealers who duplicated their masterpieces and sold both originals and forgeries to an artistic forger who was so incensed by getting away with his crimes that he sued himself in court and received 20 months in jail as a result. Enjoy!
Posted on August 05th 2015 on 03:34pm
Friday 17th October 2014The Famous Forger Turned Artist
As with anything valuable, forgery has been a plague on the art world since time out of mind. Imagine spending tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands on a work that appears genuine to even the trained eye, yet is barely worth the cost of the materials used to produce it. Such is the nightmare that keeps art collectors and museum curators awake at night, and with good reason - the fallout from such a discovery can be monumental. That being said, when a certain degree of skill is attained by the forger - when they are so good that all but the very best trained authenticators will be fooled - one can't help but admire the skill that goes into creating such elaborate fakes, even if it is remarkably immoral.
Enter the world-famous forger John Myatt, who rocked the art world in the 1990s with the revelations that his fakes had sold at auction houses around the world as original works by some of the most famed artists of the last several centuries. Among the artists whose work was faked were Le Corbusier and Matisse among many others, with even the most careful authenticators being fooled. Some of the works were sold for many tens of thousands of pounds, and not all of them have been recovered to date.
After a long and extensive trial in 1999, Myatt and the mastermind behind the scheme, John Drewe, were sentenced to prison terms, and both were released early. Since then, Myatt has gone on to make a career out of his incredible talent for stylistic mimicry, and has done quite well for himself, with some of his works being sold for upwards of £45,000. He currently has a show of original works at Castle Galleries in Exeter, England, who are also responsible for managing his sales.
"The difference between me and a forger is that I don’t do copies anymore. While there are plenty of people who will copy a master, I will create a painting in the style of an artist – and there lies a very important distinction," says Myatt.
“I know that I’ll always be known as the art forger who duped the experts but while that period of my life is definitely over, it set me on a path I never knew would be possible.”
Posted on October 17th 2014 on 08:17pm
Wednesday 08th October 2014The Great Art Fraud
Disappointingly, the creative world is often rife with theft and misattribution. Forgery has always been a part of the art world, as it is in an situation where there is a lot of money to be made, but one of the largest and longest running frauds in the art world is the saga of Margaret Keane and her ex-husband Walter. While Walter is now deceased, the saga is only finally coming to light thanks to an upcoming movie by renowned director Tim Burton starring Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz.
Dating back as far as the 1940s, the fraud had its roots in post-War Europe. Walter Keane was struggling to be an artist in Europe after the Second World War, and was incredibly moved by the strife and despair he witnessed first hand, writing “As if goaded by a kind of frantic despair, I sketched these dirty, ragged little victims of the war with their bruised, lacerated minds and bodies, their matted hair and runny noses. Here my life as a painter began in earnest.”
That, however, was the last truthful thing about Walter Keane's career. Back in the United States, he began selling portraits of children featuring incredibly huge and expressive eyes, supposedly inspired by his time in Europe. He began to amass quite a large following, and as it often does, with fame came money, and by the 1960s, he was a rich man. The only problem was that he wasn't actually responsible for any of the works - they were all painted by his wife Margaret.
Walter was apparently quite the charmer, but as in most abusive relationships, he was only charming when it suited him. He even went so far as to completely fabricate conversations and interactions in his 1983 memoir titled The World of Keane in order to prop up his status as the true artist. However, it would eventually all come crumbling down.
By the mid 1980s, Margaret had divorced Walter and filed a lawsuit against him for a share of the work. In order to prove her authorship of all the paintings, the judge had each party paint a portrait in the courtroom, which Margaret finished in under an hour - while Walter claimed he had a sore arm and couldn't paint. Naturally, Margaret won her lawsuit and was awarded $4 million USD in damages (only a fraction of what she should have earned from her work), but she never saw a penny of the money as Walter had blown it all by then.
The only saving grace from this terrible saga of heartbreak and theft is that at last the whole story is coming out - and Margaret is a part of it.
Posted on October 08th 2014 on 08:10pm