art crime

Museum for Forgeries

If there was a museum for art forgeries, would you go to it? What would be the appeal of seeing such forgeries? The underhanded element of crime and mystery? The sheer historical interest?

Or, on the other hand, would you consider such art to be “second rate” and unimportant? Would you find forgeries to be uninteresting from a historical perspective, since the works of art are not deemed authentic and perhaps not as old as once supposed?

I’ve been thinking about all of the artistic forgeries that exist in the world. Many of them have been relegated to the storage of museums, since the authenticity for most of these works were questioned after the museum acquired the forged piece. Today I’ve been reading about the Minoan “Statuette of a Boy-God” at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), a supposedly forged work of art which Kenneth D. S. Lapatin discussed in his 2001 article, “Snake Goddesses, Fake Goddesses.”Although the SAM no longer displays the “Boy-God,” they still claim its historical provenance, as indicated on the museum website. (The museum is justified, for the most part. At this point, “Carbon-14 tests [on the SAM statue] were inconclusive because of contamination from earlier restorations. Even is contamination could be ruled out, however, science would not necessarily resolve the issue, for forgers are reported to have employed ancient materials.”1)

Wouldn’t it be nice to relieve the SAM of such a problematic and questionable statue? I think it would be fun to take these works of art out of storage and put them on display. Although I know that some temporary museum exhibitions have been dedicated to forgeries (earlier this year the National Gallery in London held the exhibition “Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries” (see a related Telegraph article here)), I don’t know of a museum that boasts a permanent collection of forgeries.

Of course, if there was one museum dedicated to forgeries, what would that imply for the rest of the museum world? Would a museum of forgeries make other art museums seem more approachable? In other words, would a forgery museum undermine the cultural snobbery (and authoritative voice) associated with the art world? Or do you think that a museum of forgeries would perpetuate the incorrect voice of authority with the remaining “legit” museums, especially if the latter was no longer associated with forgeries (and by extension, mistakes)? Does anyone think that existing museums should embrace (and exhibit) the forgeries that are currently in storage – perhaps a museum for forgeries is unnecessary?

What forgeries would you be interested in seeing in a museum? I know that I’d like to see works by Han Van Meegeren, the infamous Vermeer forger.

1 Kenneth D. S. Lapatin, “Snake Goddess, Fake Goddess,” in Archaeology 54, no. 1 (January/February 2001): 36. Abstract of the article is available here.


"Mask of Agamemnon": A Forgery and/or Misattribution?

I have just started to read David A. Traill’s book Schliemann of Troy: Treasury and Deceit.  The book functions as a biography and critique of Heinrich Schliemann, the archaeologist who excavated Troy and Mycenae.  In this book, Traill argues that the so-called “Mask of Agamemnon” (a funerary mask excavated in Grave Circle A (southern burial shaft grave V) in Mycenae, ca. 1600-1500 BC, see left) could possibly be a 19th century forgery.1  One of Traill’s main reasons is this the only discovered Mycenaean mask which shows facial hair.  In addition, the upturned “handlebar” mustache looks like it was added later; it seems like the original mustache was created to turn down at the ends of the mouth.  Traill does also posits, however, that this mask could be authentic but then Schliemann added the “handlebars” in order to give the mask a more authoritative appearance.1

Not all scholars accept this idea that the mask is a forgery, but it is accepted that this is not the mask of the fabled king Agamemnon, even though Schliemann had imagined and wished such a thing.  If Agamemnon was a real person, he would have lived about 300 years after this mask was made.

Interestingly, though, some think that this mask (shown above) is the not the one which Schliemann originally identified as the mask of Agamemnon.  Oliver Dickinson believes that Schliemann was referring to a different mask found in the same shaft grave (called “NM 623”, from northern burial in shaft grave V, see below right).3

To support his argument, Dickinson cites a telegraph by Schliemann (translated into English) which reads: “In the last tomb three bodies, one without ornaments.  Have telegraphed to Nauplia for a painter, to preserve the dead man with the round face [italics for emphasis].  This one is very like the picture which my imagination formed of Agamemnon long ago.”4

Since only three burials were discovered in grave shaft V (and one of the burials had been presumably robbed, since it was devoid of goods), these two masks are the only ones by which we can compare Schliemann’s statement.  It doesn’t take a genius to see that this second mask (NM 623) has a round face, whereas the other face could hardly be called “round.”  Could this be the mask that Schliemann originally identified as the “Mask of Agamemnon”?  It certainly seems possible to me.

1 David A. Traill, Schliemann of Troy: Treasury and Deceit (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1995), 169-172.
2 Ibid., 172.
3 See Oliver Dickinson, “The ‘Face of Agamemnon,'” Hesperia 74, no. 3 (July – Sept. 2005): 299-308.


Caravaggio Painting Recovered (and Bones Discovered)

Caravaggio continues to make headlines this year (which celebrates the 400th anniversary of Caravaggio’s death).  You may have noticed my recent tweet that scientists believe that they have found Caravaggio’s bones (see left).  This is really exciting news, although I wish that we could determine the exact cause of Caravaggio’s death through analysis of these bones.  If only bones could talk…


In other exciting news, Caravaggio’s painting The Taking of Christ (also known as “The Kiss of Judas,” c. 1602, see right) was recently recovered (see here).  This painting was stolen from Ukraine two years ago, and it recently appeared in Berlin.  Two thieves have been apprehended; they apparently tried to sell the painting to a German collector.  The recovery is really exciting, but its really disheartening to see the damage incurred by the theft (see image of the damaged canvas at the end of this post).

(FYI: There is another version of The Taking of Christ which is located in the National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin.  Don’t be confused if you’re recently seen this painting on display!)

UPDATE: This recovered painting has been reexamined by experts and determined to be a 17th century copy of Caravaggio.  See this post for more information.


Destroying Art in the Name of Art

I’ve been thinking about Alexander Brener lately. You may have heard of him: he’s the Russian performance artist who in 1997 painted a green dollar sign over Malevich’s Suprematism (White Cross) (see left). Brener claimed that his gesture was protesting the role of money in the art world. The media coverage focused on the monetary damage done to the painting (which was valued at €6 million), which Brener said exactly proved his point.1

Other artists have also decided to destroy or manipulate another work of art in order to make an artistic statement or protest. If you’re interested in seeing some examples, I would recommend that you read this fascinating post. The author mentions several examples of art destruction (including the story of Mark Bridger, who spilled black ink into one of Damien Hirst’s formaldehyde tanks). I learned from this post that a couple of artists have urinated on/in Duchamp’s Fountain at different times in the past two decades. Ha! I think that idea might have been clever the first time, but the repeated attempts seems a little silly.

Obviously, such destructive artistic statements go against the ethics and standards for societal conduct. But this has got me thinking: should art be ethical? I can’t bring myself to completely say yes or no. But I don’t think it’s right to encourage unethical or criminal behavior among artists. (Or do such artists think that they are exempt from the societal rules and constraints? If so, then someone should break the news that postmodernism doesn’t embrace the “artist as genius” mentality.)

But, all that being said, I do have to admit one thing: such destruction can make me think about a work of art from a new perspective. And that’s one of the things that I like most about art.

What do you think? Should art be ethical?

1 Don Thompson, The $12 Million Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008), 184.


Lastest Art Theft: Museum of Modern Art in Paris

The world of early 20th century painting may have just sustained a serious, permanent blow. If you follow the happenings in the art world, you may have already read that the Museum of Modern Art in Paris was robbed last night. Five paintings were stolen, totaling around $123 million. The especially sad thing about this news? Only 12-15% of stolen paintings ever resurface. Here are images of the five stolen works:

Modigliani, Woman with a Fan, 1919
Picasso, Dove with Green Peas, 1912
Matisse, Pastoral, 1905

Braque, Landscape with Olive Tree, 1906
(Isn’t it fun to see Braque’s work from his Fauvist days, before he and Picasso delved into Cubism?)

Leger, Still Life with a Chandelier, 1922
I hope that the museum ends up offering a reward for the recovery of the paintings. As discussed in a blog for The Economist, sometimes offering a reward is the most effective thing that a museum can do.
Whenever art gets stolen, I always have the secret hope that someone in the art world hired thieves to steal the art, with the intent of later staging a recovery for the stolen goods. When art is stolen-and-recovered, it tends to bring higher prices at the art market. After all, wouldn’t you want to own a work of art that was famously stolen in a museum heist? And wouldn’t you like the reassurance that a painting was valuable, since someone took the time to steal it? The history behind any work of art always affects its market price.
In other art crime news, last week the Feds arrested three people involved with an art heist conspiracy in the Seattle area. A disgraced gallery owner (who had served three years in prison for art theft) had conspired with a cellmate to steal works by Picasso, Renoir, and other Northwest artists. You can read the full story here.

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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.