I spent many enjoyable hours researching art forgery for my book Benicio’s Bequest and I found it fascinating. I grilled my painter niece about the use of linseed oil and the time it takes to dry. I read up on the methods used by Han van Meegeren who had conned Göring and others during World War II into believing that his painting Christ With The Adulteress was an original Vermeer. Van Meegeren confessed and revealed his secrets when faced with charges of collaboration with the Nazis, but even more truths about his
methods have been exposed recently, thanks to new technology.
Van Meegeren knew the importance of using white lead, as the Old Masters had done. However, the type of white lead they used was no longer available in the 20thcentury, and Van Meegeren’s modern white lead came from different sources, some as far away as Australia. This was only detected in some of his works as recently as the 1990s, some fifty years after his death.
More recently, German forger Wolfgang Beltracchi (born Fischer) started small in the 1980s when he realised that old landscape paintings with skaters in them sold for higher prices than those without figures. He bought some old landscapes, carefully added a few skaters and resold the paintings at an inflated price. However, three decades and several forgeries later, a purchaser demanded a certificate of authenticity, and the legitimate dealer who had brokered the deal blew the whistle when he discovered that no such certificate existed. The painting in question was tested and found to contain a pigment that hadn’t yet been invented at the supposed time the painting was done.
How do I feel about these so-called “criminals” of the art world? Well, I have to admit to a certain admiration that they got away with it for so long. And I’m a bit envious too. I’ve been on the fringes of art all my life. Art projects at school consisted of drawings, sketches and plans for the final work – the painting. My line drawings and sketches were pretty good, even if I say so myself. But no matter how hard I tried, my painting always sucked. I was one of those students who got full marks for the preparation but never for
the final painting. So I can understand the pride and satisfaction that a forger might feel when the world accepts one of his or her paintings as a grand Old Master. We should all be so lucky!
Beltracchi himself admits that it was easier to forge paintings 30 years ago than it is now. I can’t help feeling sorry for him in his current disgrace. His exposure as a forger has pinpointed the fact that modern methods of detection can take the fun out of conning the art world. This is good for art, but bad for novelists who are trying to write a convincing modern-day story.
So how does a modern-day forger do it? I’m sure it's hard work, but it can probably be done. The trick, I feel, is to forge the painting in plain sight. I am speaking in a purely literary sense, of course.
If there is no reason to suspect that a painting has been forged or that the verified original has since been substituted with a forgery, then it could escape detection for several years, possibly until the gallery decides to undertake careful restoration or loan the artwork to another gallery for an exhibition. The subsequent insurance and security measures necessary for such a task could reveal unwanted surprises. Only then might they discover the cuckoo hiding in the nest.
Either way, it all makes for a great story line.