Forgers, Copyists, and Authenticity/Authority

I remember being surprised to learn that the Ghent Altarpiece (1432) that exists today is not entirely a product of the fifteenth century.1 One of the panels in the altarpiece (“The Just Judges“) was stolen in the 1930s, and was repainted by the copyist Jef Vanderveken in 1945 (see left).

I think it’s telling that none of my art history books mention anything about Vanderveken or this copied panel. And when I traveled to Ghent to see this altarpiece in 2003, I don’t remember seeing any information about any other artist than van Eyck. I think there’s a reason for this “cover-up”: the altarpiece doesn’t appear to be a product of pristine history and genius with the knowledge that not everything is “authentic” (i.e. by van Eyck’s hand). And I would argue that by extension, to undermine the genius of van Eyck’s work would also undermine the genius and authoritative voice of the art historical discipline.

This connection between authenticity and the authoritative voice is interesting. One of the most prominent places to encounter an authoritative (and institutional) voice is within the museum setting. Pieces of art are displayed within the museum, and an unspoken authoritative voice tells museum visitors, “This is important and authentic by the mere fact that it’s on display.” And museum visitors do not question that implied statement (at least, they’re not encouraged to do so!).

But what happens when a work of art in a museum collection is determined to not be authentic? This change in status (i.e. artistic genius) reflects poorly on the museum because it loses a measure of authority. (Museums don’t want to admit that they make mistakes, too!)

I’m particularly reminded of the forger Han van Meegeren, who duped the art world into thinking it had discovered several paintings by Vermeer (among a few other artists). Van Meegeren’s forgeries are now scattered throughout the world in many prominent collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the National Gallery (Washington, DC). However, from what I can tell, these paintings are not on permanent display at most of these museums. Instead, the forgeries are shuttled down to the depths of storage, to hide the blemish of mistake and allow the museum to still “speak” authoritatively.

Furthermore, whenever Van Meegeren paintings are on display for temporary exhibition, it appears that they are almost always labeled with “Imitator of Vermeer” or “After Johannes Vermeer.” Even though Van Meegeren was exposed and we know who made the forgeries, museums don’t give him any credit for his work! It’s as if the museum world still wants to try and tap into the genius of Vermeer by association, even though we know that the paintings are fakes. Bah!

Do you know of any other instances where a question of authenticity has undermined the authority of a museum/art appraiser/work of art/art history textbook?

1 In fact, the Ghent altarpiece was not entirely a product of Jan van Eyck “hand.” It appears that the Ghent altarpiece was begun by the painter Hubert van Eyck, Jan’s brother. See my post on the topic here.
  • heidenkind says:

    Yup! This reminds me of the topic I did my BA thesis on–paintings that had been misattributed to Jacques-Louis David. The most famous one is Young Woman Drawing by Marie-Denise Villers (; that's the one where, when it was attributed to David, it was hailed as his most accomplished and beautiful portrait; but when it was re-attributed to a woman, the critic in question tore it apart as a technical and aesthetic failure. To be fair, though, the Met does still have it on display and it's attributed to its original artist now.

    I also have to admit that there have been times when I've been researching something and thought to myself, "That painting has got to be misattributed." But I never did anything about it because I didn't have the time or energy to stir up that mess of worms. When you question the attribution of a piece in a museum, you're not just challenging that attribution, you're challenging an institution. So you better have some pretty damn good scholarship behind you to back you up.

    There's no doubt in my mind that museums and their desire for good reputations plays a major role in art scholarship–so does the art market! Just look at all the hooplah around that (probably fake, but what do I know) long-lost Leonardo a few months ago. I bet there were art historians throwing themselves all over that project like Julia Roberts at Richard Gere. Not that I'm jealous or anything…. 😉

  • M says:

    Your thesis sounds really fascinating, heidenkind! I've never heard of Villers before, but that painting is quite stunning. If you have a digital copy of your thesis, would you please email it to me? I'd love to learn more.

    I'm not surprised that the painting was hailed when attributed to David, and then criticized when Viller's name was attached to the work instead. The exact same thing happened with van Meegeren's forgeries. Now art historians and critics seem to delight in pointing out the technical problems in van Meegeren's paintings – which is ironic, since one of Van Meegeren's paintings was dubbed as Vermeer's greatest masterpiece before it was exposed as a fraud.

    The art world is so fickle…

  • e says:

    I really enjoyed reading this.
    It's interesting to get some insight to forgeries, especially how museums feel they have to hide them in storage. I kind of feel that forgeries have their place — I mean, they can be really beautiful!

    I also wanted to tell you that Banksy is doing work in Park City!
    My friend says he's there because of a documentary that is going on at the film festival about him. He's starting to leave art around the city (see it here. I think it's cool to think that Banksy art is now in Utah. Who would have ever thought it'd end up there?

  • heidenkind says:

    Sure, I can e-mail it to you. I actually got the whole idea for it from Sister Wendy. 😀

    I wouldn't say the art world is fickle… more like spoon-fed and unoriginal. 😛 That might a little harsh, but really–incidents like that just highlight how people parrot one another's opinions. It makes me wonder if any of the pieces we're taught are masterpieces would still be so if we managed to erase the last 500 or so years of art history.

  • Breanne says:

    I've thought a lot about how placement in a museum setting sets preconceptions about a work, i.e. "this is worthy to be in a museum" really has an effect on how we view a piece. When I worked at the BYU MOA, we knew there were forged pieces in the collection, but a lot of beauraucratic tape wouldn't allow us to deaccession them… so they remain in the museum setting, taking up valuable art storage space. But they always made it seem as though they would deaccession them if they could.

    In the BYU MOA collection, two drawings were loaned to someone on the east coast and forgeries were sent back to the museum. It wasn't until years later that one of the curators was looking at the drawings and realized that they weren't authentic. The MOA was remarkably able to get the originals back, but they haven't deaccessioned the forgeries. Classes regularly examine both the originals and the forgeries to see if students can guess which is which, and then they illustrate the importance of authenticity and caution when loaning things. So in this instance, the museum is using the unauthentic works to an educational advantage.

  • M says:

    Breanne, thanks for your comment! It was nice to read something from the museum perspective. I think it's great that the MOA uses forgeries within an educational setting. That's really cool.

    e, I also read that Banksy was in Park City (well, I read someone's speculation that it was Banksy, and your link confirmed that it really is him. Bizarre! I guess Park City can do with a little more artistic diversity! 😉

    heidenkind, your comment about the spoon-fed art world made me think of the Barbara Kruger piece "You Invest in the Divinity of the Masterpiece". If the art historians didn't invest time teaching people what is supposed to be a "masterpiece," I'm sure that different works of art would be revered today.

    Wouldn't it be interesting if no one knew which artworks were supposed to be a great masterpieces? People would approach art in an entirely different way (without the expectation of needing to "invest" in something).

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.