Historical Examples and the Marketplace Today

Sharon Lorenzo explains provenance, connoisseurship and forensics. 2021

There has been a very active art market in the isolation of the COVID virus with sales of art online and in virtual auctions. I thought it was an opportune time to introduce some data on how the innocent buyer can detect evidence of either a fake or forgery to avoid a mistaken purchase in the art arena. A fake work of art is one that is a copy of an original work of art. Today there is a high tech printing process which produces something called “giclee prints.”  These are high resolution images and can easily be mistaken for originals.

By contrast, a forgery is a work of art created by someone whose intention is to convey to the art market and the innocent buyer that this is the original work of art with perhaps the original signature of an artist. An example of this is the work of Henricus van Mageren (1889-1947) which even fooled Hermann Goering, who was the master of the Nazi air force and a major collector of art. He traded 137 works from his collection for this fake work which copied Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), a renowned Dutch artist, according to the curator at the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D.C., Nancy Yeide.[1]

 Jesus Among the Doctors, 1945. Oil on canvas. Copy of a similar work by Johannes Vermeer.

There are a number of resources that buyers of art can access to make sure they are purchasing a real work of art. First of all, the high end auction houses, Sotheby’s, Christie’s and Phillips, have authenticity guarantees associated with their sales where the buyer’s money is refunded if the work is later acknowledged as a fake.  Sotheby’s has even recently purchased a forensic laboratory business which uses the latest scientific techniques to authenticate a work of art. James Martin of Orion Analytical moved his entire business from Williamstown, Mass. to New York City in 2018.  He and his staff can analyze a work of art by using technologies which examine the paints, canvas, stretchers, and frame of a work of art to verify the signature of the artist and even his/her fingerprints.  His testimony in a recent trial involving the Knoedler Gallery proved that the works allegedly by artists Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, were indeed fakes. They were painted by a Chinese artist, Pei-Shen Qian, who had been hired to copy original works of art. The age of the paints were identified by Martin as those invented after the death of the artists, thus the works were indeed forgeries.[2]

 James Martin, Sotheby’s Conservation Lab

 Fraudulent copy of Mark Rothko (1903-1970).

Art law specialists name three concepts which are important to the authenticity of a work of art: forensics as discussed, provenance or the history of the ownership of a work, and connoisseurship, the vote of specialists in the field of study.  Nancy Yeide, noted above, has published a workbook that can train both art historians and lawyers how to use online indexes to trace the ownership of art works. Her publication was begun after American museums united in the Washington Principles of 1998, agreeing not to acquire works that were looted during the World Wars.  [3]

An example of the use of experts for authentication is the wonderful case of a work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art which had been donated in 1949 but never cleaned of its 19th century varnish which had aged and darkened the surface of the work.  The head of the conservation department, Michael Gallagher, removed the old varnish and then summoned the curator of European Painting, Keith Christiansen, and a noted scholar and professor of Spanish painting, Jonathan Brown, to see the cleaned work. They were blindfolded and given what they named the “five second call”. When the painting was revealed from under a cover, they were to give either a thumbs up or down about the work. In this case, they both voted that indeed it looked like an authenticate work of the noted Spanish artist, Diego Velazquez. It was renamed as such and returned to the gallery with a new label.  Brown even postulated that it was a self-portrait of the artist himself.

 Self- Portrait of Diego Velazquez, Jules Bache Collection, Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1635.

Recently I had an intriguing encounter with all these issues because a painting came home from my husband’s office acquired from a former corporate entity. I did some research based on the labels on the back of the picture that said, Theo Van Rysselberghe, Ghent, Belgium, 1862-1926. I looked on a website called artnet.com and found that he was a rather celebrated artist in the end of the 19th century. A work of his had sold at Christie’s in May of 2020 for $9 million dollars called Barques de Peche.

Barques de Peche, oil on canvas, Theo Van Rysselberghe, 1892

I took the work to both Christie’s and Sotheby’s and their European painting departments said it was “not important enough” for their sales, and they recommended a smaller auction house in New York named Doyles. I took the picture there, and they said they would send a letter to the family of the artist who had assembled the catalog raisonne of his work for the cost of $1200.  I agreed to same and a month later got a call that it was not in the catalog raisonne of the artist according to his family.  I took the work home and now have what is known as an “orphan” work which I can give away or just keep as an unidentified floral composition.

Theo Van Rysselberghe, 1861-1926. Oil on canvas.

In August of 2018, a work alleged to be by Leonardo da Vinci, sold in a Christie’s auction to the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammad bin Salman, for $450,312,500. It is supposed to be a picture of Jesus holding a globe of the world in his hand. The world experts on this artist were consulted, and some agreed it was an authentic work and others turned their thumbs down.  After the sale, the work vanished from view and rumor has it that the Crown Prince has it on his yacht.  Some speculate that he would not lend it to the Louvre or other institutions because of the worry that experts would say it was indeed a copy or forgery of Da Vinci. This is one example where the auction house went out on a limb, hoping the buyer would accept the lukewarm connoisseurship endorsement.

Leonardo da Vinci, Salvator Mundi, 1500. Oil on canvas.

These noted examples illustrate the complexities of the art market. Certainly, if a buyer is paying top dollar for a work of art, all three items of provenance, connoisseurship and forensics should be addressed. This three legged stool is the key to avoid buying something that could be a fake, forgery or giclee copy.  Just as one does research before you buy a house, a yacht, a stock or a bond; a savvy art purchaser does his or her homework before closing the purchase.  Services such as the International Foundation for Art Research in New York are also helpful in securing specialists to help in this arena.



[1] Nancy Yeide, Beyond the Dreams of Avarice: The Hermann Goring Collection, 2000.

[2] The Big Fake.  The Final Knoedler Gallery Lawsuit. Art News, August 28, 2019.

[3] Nancy Yeide, American Association of Museums Guide to Provenance Research, 2001.