February 6, 2011

The Detroit Institute of Arts' exhibit, "Fakes, Forgeries, and Mysteries", Posts Videos on YouTube to Augment Its Painting and Sculpture Exhibit

by Catherine Schofield Sezgin

The Detroit Institute of Arts' "Fakes, Forgeries, and Mysteries" spotlights museum assets of questionable authenticity and provenance. The ARCA blog gives you links to the exhibition's videos on YouTube, the media coverage, and an interview with the show's curator.

The museum posts riveting weekly videos on YouTube elaborating on work behind the exhibition. In the first video, DIA’s Director Graham W. J. Beal introduces the exhibit’s curator, Associate Curator of European Paintings Salvador Salort-Pons, who he says has special archival research skills, and the museum’s science lab -- one of the few in the country -- run by a research scientist who provides information about materials used in art.

In the second video, “Portrait of a Young Woman” discusses a painting brought into the collection in 1936 that was once exhibited in a Leonardo da Vinci exhibit and when recently examined by x-ray was shown to have pigments of zinc and chromium which were not available until the 19th century.

The third video, "Rembrandt's Son", shows the analysis of “Titus,” a 19th century Rembrandt forgery who’s canvas weave seen through x-ray showed a 19th century manufactured quality.

The fourth video is about "The Head of a King", once considered an ancient artifact and now clearly re-labeled as a 20th century copy.

In CNN’s online article by Laura Allsop, "Spot the fake: The art world's pricey problem with forgery," Noah Charney, ARCA’s founder and President, explains that forgers are frustrated or thwarted artists:
"Most of them that we know of were initially trying to be artists themselves, their original creative works were dismissed at some point in the early part of their career."
"So the primary motivation for most art forgers really is sort of passive-aggressive revenge, with financial motivation taking a very much secondary role," he continued.
While most forgers are artists, he said, some are art conservators too, so they are skilled at getting around the scientific techniques used to verify an artwork. And not only do they produce counterfeit artworks; they can also produce convincing counterfeit documents verifying their bogus works. With these skills, forgers and forgeries can sometimes go undetected for years, making it difficult to say whether or not the numbers of forgeries are rising.
The New York Times reported in an article by Eve M. Kahn, “Keeping It Real: A Show Made of Fakes”, when the exhibit opened with examples of the institution's misattributions:
“An English country-road scene with a fake Monet signature is now known to be the work of the landscape painter Alfred East. A granite head of an Egyptian king has turned out to be a Berlin carver’s 1920s handiwork. An ebony table thought to have belonged to the Medicis is actually an 1840s Florentine copy.”
Writer Emily Sharpe reviews the exhibit for The Art Newspaper and reports on how art- historical research solved the "mystery" of the misattributed Monet.

On her blog, Real Clear Arts, for the Art Journal, columnist Judith H. Dobrzynski reviews the exhibit from afar, provides insightful commentary and links to local coverage of the exhibit.

The Seattle Times provides coverage of the exhibit by David Runk of the Associated Press in the article "Detroit museum exhibit to examine fakes, forgeries" which discusses the history of "Still Life with Carnations" once hoped to be a painting by Vincent van Gogh.

Via email, curator Dr. Salvador Salort-Pons responded to a few questions posed by the ARCA blog.
ARCA blog: Dr. Salort-Pons, the director of DIA said in the first video that you have special archival research skills. Could you elaborate on the kind of work you do in authenticating or discrediting these artworks?
Dr. Salort-Pons: More than authenticate or discredit a work of art, a curator tries to understand its true nature. We attempt to answer questions such as: What is it? When and how it was created? Who did it? What does it represent? Why is it important in an art historical context? Who owned it in the past? In the process of answering these questions and others we may find new information that reveal that the work we are investigating is not what we thought it was 50 or 100 years ago. I am continuously updating and revising the information about the DIA’s painting collection. It is part of my job.

There are, in my opinion, at least three approaches (curator, conservator and scientist) when we investigate a work of art. The curator’s approach includes two types of work: 1. The art historical research, which is the work performed in archives and libraries and it is oriented to find historical and scholarly documentation related to the artwork. 2. The connoisseurship research, which is based on the curators experience in looking at works of art especially in the flesh but also through photographs. It is, many times, an intuitive approach and it requires some degree of a natural sensibility and a trained eye. In short, a work of art speaks to a connoisseur in terms of style, authorship, authenticity, et cetera. The other two approaches relate to the work of conservators and scientists. They perform different tests on the artwork in order to understand its physical characteristics, construction, and elemental composition of materials among other things. When researching a work of art in depth the inputs of the curator, conservator and scientist are equally important.
ARCA blog: This exhibit shows the museum audience the process of research and authentication. In the past some museums have hidden fakes and forgeries, or misattributions, in storage and refused to elaborate about the process. What kind of response have you received from curators at other institutions?
Dr. Salort-Pons: The response has been highly positive from my colleagues. In the past there was some concern that the discovery and publication of a forgery in a collection might damage the reputation of a museum. As one of my colleagues emailed me recently “Times have changed, and we are all more enlightened about these things now”. Just look back into history and see that the great accomplishments in any field have been achieved through intelligent hard-work that involved good decisions but also some errors. Nobody can dispute that the DIA possesses one of the best art collections in North America and that it is a world-class museum. Yes, after 125 of acquiring art extremely well we transparently acknowledge that we have made some mistakes and that it is part of the process of the DIA’s successful collecting history. Our fakes and forgeries -- some of them connected to fascinating stories -- are just a microscopic fraction of the overall museum’s holdings. The DIA’s worldwide known masterpieces are permanently installed in the galleries.
ARCA blog: Do you think this exhibit has any kind of influence on the type of paintings that might be donated by supporters? Have you or your museum been concerned about any kind of resistance from contributors?
Dr. Salort-Pons: I would answer “no” to both questions. Some of our forgeries are quite sophisticated and came to the DIA when technologies and art historical knowledge were not as advanced as they are today. The DIA is a highly professional institution that includes a group of outstanding curators, conservators and scientists. We have the art historical expertise, and we are equipped with one of the best conservation labs in the country. Furthermore, our collection committee follow clear and strict guidelines that guarantee, among other things, that any artwork accessioned is of high quality and of interest for the DIA as well as, of course, authentic. I believe that supporters and contributors of our museum are aware of this. Fakes, Forgeries and Mysteries is a good example of how competent the DIA's staff is and that our museum is a top institution in terms research and technology.
Detroit Institute of Arts' exhibit, Fakes, Forgeries, and Mysteries, is open through April 10, 2011. It's an excellent reason to visit Detroit. However, a friend of mine recently visited the museum and said, after reading about the exhibit, that she would like to return to see Fakes, Forgeries and Mysteries but admitted that in numerous trips to the DIA over two months, she found the main collection so interesting that she hadn't left time for the special exhibits. So it seems that Dr. Salort-Pons is correct, an exhibit in the museum admitting to the uncertainty in the art market won't diminish museum revenues.


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