Pretend you are a wealthy art collector. Before you are two medieval manuscripts, both painted on vellum, both showing centuries of wear. Unfortunately, one is a fake.
How will you discern which manuscript dates back to medieval times and which was painted by a notorious Spanish forger in the 19th Century?
You might start by honing your connoisseurship at Pomona College's Montgomery Gallery, where "Artful Deception: The Craft of the Forger" is on display through Dec. 2. The exhibit, which is traveling across the country, was organized by curators at the Walters Art Gallery in Baltimore.
At this unusual show, viewers get a glimpse of more than two dozen fakes--from 16th-Century Russian icons to the "Mona Lisa" to ancient busts of Roman youths. In some cases, the fakes are paired with genuine works in the same style. Viewers are invited to study them, read about the actual artist's style and background, then choose which piece they think is authentic. Sliding open a panel reveals whether the viewer has a future in art scholarship.
As compelling as the "whodunit" tests are the cloak-and-dagger tales that accompany the forgeries, many of which have been exhibited as genuine for years.
For instance, the "Spanish forger" who faked the medieval manuscripts was a highly skilled and clever painter who went to great lengths to disguise his forgeries by using vellum that dated back to the Middle Ages, painting in the style of medieval illuminators and then "aging" his works.
The forger, who art historians think was actually a Frenchman working in Paris during the Victorian era, went undetected in his own time. But 20th-Century art historians notice--as Montgomery patrons may also--that the forger was undone by his faces. To the contemporary eye, they smack of the cloying sweetness of the Victorian era and do not reflect the more somber, pious style of painters who worked in the Middle Ages.
Copying important works of art is a practice that dates back to ancient Egypt, says Montgomery Gallery Director Marjorie L. Harth, who points out that not all fakes and forgeries were initially meant to deceive.
The Romans, for instance, loved the classical Greek style and commissioned numerous copies of Greek art that were considered legitimate and highly desirable.
Other artists were illicitly copied during their own lifetimes. Painter and wood engraver Albrecht Durer went to court in the early 16th Century to halt reproductions. On the other hand, Rubens and Rembrandt encouraged their students and assistants to copy their work as a way to learn the master's style.
And Jean Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875) occasionally signed his students' works to help them professionally in their careers, thus muddying the waters for generations of art historians to come. As a result, says Harth, practically all Corots--especially landscapes such as the one represented in the Pomona show--have come under suspicion.
The public's fascination with art and forgeries may be heightened by the millions of dollars that masterpieces command today on world markets, Harth says. A Van Gogh self-portrait in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art was recently removed from display when its authenticity was questioned. Ditto the "Kouros," a classical Greek bust of a youth displayed by the J. Paul Getty Museum, which came under suspicion when a very similar sculpture known to be a fake appeared on the market.
The Pomona show explains the high-tech tools today's art historian uses to detect fakes: X-rays, infrared photographs and pigment analysis. One work in the show, a supposed early 16th-Century "Venetian Renaissance" panel painting of St. George slaying the dragon, was revealed as a 19th-Century fake after the Walters Conservation Lab noticed some suspiciously heavy overpainting on the canvas.
An X-ray revealed a late 16th-Century painting of the Last Supper underneath. Subsequent analysis showed that the scene of St. George and the dragon was painted over the earlier work in the 19th Century. The curators have removed several sections of the forgery to reveal the head of one of Christ's disciples and the small dog at Christ's feet, giving patrons a fascinating glimpse at a forgery exposed.
In addition to technical tools, historians use their knowledge to match artistic styles and flourishes with the appropriate cultures and epochs.
Harth calls it "the complicated, interrelated workings of eye and brain." Perception, he says, is determined by context, "by the conditions, physical and intellectual, under which we see the work."
"Once you know which one is authentic, it will look better than it did, and the one labeled fake will look worse," Harth promises.
Fakes provide fascinating reference points for art historians. Like a slightly warped mirror, they reflect a skewed view of artistic reality--but as with any illusion, they draw the viewer in.