A lot of the techniques and technologies used in art analysis and restoration can be applied to help identify fakes. Last week Humans Invent spoke to one of the best fine art restorers in the country, Simon Gillespie who has become the go-to man when people suspect a painting they own or are considering purchasing is a fake.
Over the years Gillespie has become so good at reading a painting, he can sometimes tell instantly if it is a fake – what he describes as a ‘gut reaction’. Of course, he doesn’t rely just on this reaction; once suspicion sets in he will start carrying out analyses to see if there is any weight behind his supposition.
There are well known fakes in the National Gallery – there are even fakers who have come out and said, ‘I did this’
Gillespie says, “As soon as you think there’s something wrong and you start thinking, ‘these cracks don’t look right’ you have to then ask, ‘well why don’t they look right? Why is the paint so flat or why is it so slick? This is a 17th Century picture but it looks like it has got 20th Century colours in it?’ and so on.”
The ‘greatest’ faker: Han van Meegeren
In 1913 he sets out to become an artist proper but his heavy reliance on the Dutch Masters for inspiration such as Hals and Rembrandt saw critics deride his work as old fashioned and regressive.
He turns to forgery in 1923, selling fakes of Vermeer and Hals. So successful are his fakes he manages to fool the greatest critics and experts of the time.
During World War II he sells one of his Vermeer forgeries to Hermann Goering. After the war this is discovered and he is put on trial as a collaborator –an act of treason which carries the death sentence.
In order to avoid this he admits the painting is a forgery – painting a ‘Vermeer’ from his cell to prove this.
He is only sentenced to one year in prison in 1947 but dies of a heart attack before serving time.
It is estimated that he managed to earn more than $25 million in today’s money from his forgeries.
Cracking in painting occurs as the paints dry with age. It is hard to imitate this exactly and just by looking at the surface someone like Gillespie can see whether these cracks have been created on purpose – often they will look far too organised and even.
Another clue is the use of certain colours. Prussian Blue, for example, was invented around 1724 when it was first published in Philosophical Transactions of The Royal Society of London – the world’s first science journal. If a painting dated to before this time has Prussian Blue in it, then it will almost undeniably be a fake.
Chemical analysis of the pigment can also provide evidence. If synthetic compounds such as Bakelite, which was only developed in 1907, are found then of course the painting can’t date back to before the 20th Century. Scientists can also test for the presence of certain chemicals that may have been applied by a forger to ‘age’ the painting.
Analysing the painting’s support can give away vital clues too – canvases made from hemp only came into use in the renaissance. Before that wooden planks were used. On a simple level, the planks were usually imperfect with knots and snubs on them so if the board is too smooth it may indicate a fake. However, for more technical analysis Dendrochronology can be used to discover how old the wood is.
“Dendrochronology is the science of dating trees by looking at tree rings and from this finding out how old a piece of wood is which can determine the earliest period a painting can come from.”
In different years the tree rings will be larger or smaller depending on the weather. If it is a very wet season the ring will be very wide and, likewise if it is dry it will be thin. By assessing these patterns scientists have managed to map 4,000 years worth of Oak trees in three key areas: Northern Europe, the Baltic and Ireland. This makes it very easy to establish the date of a wooden plank that has been used by an artist. However, Gillespie cautions, “It doesn’t always help because forgers and fakers have cottoned onto that as well so they will take an old piece of furniture apart and paint on that.”
Infrared reflectography is also employed in assessing a painting’s validity as it shows up the drawing lines underneath the paint. Gillespie explains, “By looking at the drawing lines you can actually see whether they are consistent with other examples of drawing lines from that same artist.” He does point out though that not all artists use drawing lines. Picasso for example used to paint directly onto the canvas.
In essence, there is no one way of proving a painting is a forgery, it merely comes down to mounting evidence gained through an application of myriad techniques and there can sometimes be serious disagreements between respective parties. There are paintings that Gillespie believes to be fake but he, understandably, is guarded about saying which ones because of the furore it can create in the art world not to mention the legal issues which may arise.
By looking at the drawing lines you can actually see whether they are consistent with other examples of drawing lines from that same artist
He explains, “Say somebody has bought a picture for £100,000 and is wanting to sell it for £200,000 or more to museums, that’s his reputation against mine and I really can’t afford a lawyer to protect me when they come down and say, ‘prove it.’”
Despite Gillespie’s knowledge and the fact he has been called as an expert witness on numerous occasions it still comes down to one’s word against another’s. Even respected art institutions may not be prepared to concede they house forgeries. Gillespie says, “There are well known fakes in the National Gallery – there are even fakers who have come out and said, ‘I did this’ – and some curators and museums still don’t believe that some of the pieces they have got are fakes.”
If you ever find yourself in the privileged position of being able to afford to buy a painting worth a six-figure sum it is certainly worth talking to an expert like Gillespie before money changes hands.