The Proliferation of Forgery

Large numbers of forgeries of antique works have invariably followed directly after great archaeological discoveries, e.g., the 18th-century unearthing of Pompeii and Herculaneum resulted in quantities of forged Roman paintings. Museums are among the principal victims of such handiwork: Pietro Pennelli's fake antique terra-cotta pottery found its way into the Louvre in 1873. Copies of Parthenon sculpture in England were determined as forgeries by Bernard Ashmole in 1954. A bronze horse, purportedly an antique Greek work, and an Etruscan warrior are two famous cases of forged sculpture brought to light at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Thousands of lesser faked objects are displayed in private and public collections. Museum authorities, in an effort to avoid being duped, are sometimes overzealous in their rejection of works that are difficult to integrate within accepted concepts of stylistic development. The Fayum portraits of early Christian Egypt were just such a case. There is, of course, some opposition to revealing known frauds; an object's reputation may stand in an uneasy limbo of doubted authenticity for years.

The 20th cent., with its ever-increasing emphasis on the financial value of works of art, has witnessed the discovery of two master forgers. Alceo Dossena of Cremona (1878–1936) was a sculptor expert in the carving techniques of antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. His work was of the highest quality and not made in deliberate imitation of the styles he admired; rather he was inspired by them to the creation of his own, similar works. His Virgin and Child in the 15th-century Florentine manner is at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Hans van Meergeren (1884–1947), a mediocre Dutch painter, claimed to have discovered several lost paintings by Vermeer. He sold them to Hermann Goering and was put on trial after World War II for selling national treasures. Van Meergeren proved himself innocent by painting another "Vermeer" in his jail cell.

Controversy has often raged over the authenticity of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre; each of five other versions has been credited with being the original. The number of forgeries of the works of Corot and of the American painters A. P. Ryder and R. A. Blakelock greatly exceeds these artists' actual productions.

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The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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