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Counterfeit Art and the Methods to Detect It

January 25, 2014

The term art counterfeiting refers to a set of techniques and practices meant to replicate a famous and valuable work of art in order to deceive buyers and sell it at a high price as if it was the real thing. The origins of art forging go back a long time. This business actually started almost at the same time with art. As soon as pieces of art began being appreciated and sold for impressive prices, forgers started imitating them in order to earn money.

With time, analysis techniques have also developed. Therefore, auditors, buyers and collectors have nowadays the tools to evaluate the real value of an art piece, to detect frauds and to make a lot safer purchases than in the past. While some counterfeit art items are visible to the naked eye, the most masterfully forged cannot be spotted without the help of a specialist, and of course, of modern technology.

Methods of detecting counterfeit art

Three main methods are currently used to detect counterfeited art pieces.

Morellian analysis is the most commonly used detection technique. It consists of examining the obvious signs of authenticity such as the artistic method, the paper trail, the frames, and the signature.

Forensic authentication is another way of understanding whether a work of art is genuine or not. This is actually a set of techniques, including:

–         carbon dating for establishing the age of an item that is more than 10 thousand years old;

–         white lead for works of art that are less than 2000 years old;

–         X-ray with art pieces of a more recent origin.

A famous case in which forensic authentication is that of the painting Portrait of a Woman, long believed to belong to the Spanish painter Francisco de Goya. Art specialists used X-ray analysis techniques to evaluate the painting, just to discover that it contained zinc white paint, which did not exist in the painter’s time.

Digital authentication refers to the use digital images to decompose a painting into several pieces in order to assess their value by analyzing the texture and the strokes used to create it. This method helped detect a series of forgeries impossible to spot with previously used techniques.

With such great method of detection, art forgery was forced to reach a higher level of perfection. Some of the intended forged items are so close to art that they became the subject of research studies and they make even the topic of a museum of their own. Vienna’s Museum of Art Fakes opened its doors in 2005, and has become one of the city’s main attractions. Here you can admire some of the world’s best known counterfeit art works signed by names like Han van Meergeren, Tom Keating and Konrad Kujau. Besides learning a lot of interesting bits about the art of counterfeiting, you can also get informed on the lives of the world’s most famous forgers and find out how they succeeded to deceive the experts of their times.