Faking it

Although still relatively uncommon as a crime, the art of faking fine art is not entirely uncommon to South Africa. Kim Gurney looks at its history and also highlights some recent examples

A frustrated young American artist does a neat business in forgery in the 1997 movie Incognito. Harry Donovan (Jason Patric) is commissioned by unscrupulous art dealers to create a believable ‘lost’ masterpiece by the Dutch Old Master Rembrandt van Rijn. The movie documents a slick forgery process which results in an artwork so believable that when the painter needs to prove it a fake he is dismissed as a liar.
But fine art forgery is not only the fanciful preserve of scriptwriters. New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 1996 exhibited Rembrandt/ Not Rembrandt that comprised every work in its holdings thought to be by the Master painter alongside those discredited since entering its collection as works by pupils, contemporary followers or later imitators.
History is dotted with examples of forgeries from the post-Renaissance era when originality became more of an issue. Back in the sixteenth century, German engraver Albrecht Dürer reportedly added an inscription on one of his works: “Be cursed, plunderers and imitators of the work and talent of others”. Far from it, fakes have since become big business internationally. Fast forward to 2004, when a New York art dealer agreed to pay back collectors $12.5-million after dealing in forgeries.
Our local art world has its own stories to tell albeit on a much less dramatic scale. One of the earliest public exposures of art fraud occurred in 1934, according to Esmé Berman in her seminal book Art & Artists of South Africa (1983). A Cape Town dealer who represented Tinus de Jongh was brought to court on allegations of printing thousands of De Jongh’s etchings upon which the dealer forged his signature. Writes Berman: “There are a number of plates and blocks by earlier South African artists still in existence and from time to time etchings have been fed onto the local market which are highly questionable in respect of source and date-of-printing.”
However, Berman said it was paintings that were most commonly targeted for ‘actual’ forgery, which amounted to copying works, imitating styles and applying false signatures. Their incidence related to demand and the ease with which an artist’s style could be imitated. Hence Pieter Wenning and De Jongh were popular targets for early fakes. Frans Oerder felt the sting in the 1950s while works by Wenning, Maggie Laubser, Wolf Kibel and Irma Stern were among a large number of suspicious paintings implicated in a 1967 Cape Town scandal.
Louis Schachat of Die Kunskamer, who is renowned for handling South African Masters, said he had not encountered any meaningful incidence of more recent forgery and did not think it was a major concern for collectors, provided they dealt with reputable dealers and auctioneers who were established and creditworthy. Other art dealers reiterate his position. Andries Loots of Cape Town gallery 34Long says reputable dealers are unlikely to sell any work unless they are “dead sure” of its provenance. But he says buyers of works from small auctions in town halls or antique dealers should exercise caution.
Loots says part of the reason forgeries are not that common in South Africa is because the price tags have not been high enough to act as a criminal incentive. He says the main concern for collectors is that there is no central authority to refer to when it comes to establishing the veracity of a work. Usually, specialists will give an opinion on the authenticity of a work but the obligation is often placed on the buyer in conditions of sale to be satisfied with provenance.
Collectors do get duped. A few years ago, there was a scandal around the work of recently deceased Frans Claerhout, whose close friend confessed to creating and selling forgeries. The effects are still being felt: just a few months ago, the gallery director of the Association of Arts Pretoria, Pieter van Heerden, identified two forged Claerhouts, one faked Otto Klar paintings and a forged JH Pierneef. The arts association has a committee which offers a verification service; the said works were among those brought for inspection.
Van Heerden says the Klar work was signed with a different pen. “When we took it out of its frame, we could see it was not the real McCoy,” he said. The Pierneef almost had him fooled but opening up the frame revealed its falsity too. The underside of the mounting board, which in older works often records an imprint of the painting, had the echo of a completely different work. And the “too sweet” faces in one Claerhout work also raised suspicion.
Van Heerden says collectors often review their holdings infrequently, which makes detection less common and sometimes too late, years after the trail has run cold. Contrary to Loots, he thinks the incidence of fraud might be on the up. “We are going to see more of this because people think they can make a quick buck.”
Van Heerden agrees with other experts that the problem is mostly with private sales. “If you buy a forged work from an auction, the best thing is to go back immediately,” he advised. “But if it is from someone you don’t know, don’t buy expensive works from people who do not have a big name.” Even so, reputable auction houses are certainly not immune from error. One recent South African dealer’s catalogue included a work ostensibly by Alexis Preller that was in fact created by Jeanne Kotzé Louw, whose style Van Heerden correctly spotted. He now shows this fake Preller canvas, with Louw’s name painted out, as a warning to other collectors.
Forgers are helped today by advanced technology but so are detectors, who can use various means from common sense to chemical analysis. The weave of a canvas, for instance, and inscriptions on the reverse side of a painting can help authenticate a work, says Loots, though forgers have been known to use old canvases or tear blank pages from antique books to give the appearance of age. Undocumented work and inconsistent signatures further complicate detecting forgeries; William Kentridge, for instance, signs his print works and one-off pieces differently.
Sculptures can also be faked; replicas of Anton van Wouw’s bronzes were cast from existing sculptures. This kind of forgery is more easily spotted, says Loots, because of inevitable shrinkage and loss of detail. But new Van Wouw bronzes also appeared that Berman says were created from the original plaster casts — apparently with the authority of his heirs. “The fact that, on death, artists often leave behind them in their studios any number of half-finished works, or works that they rejected but did not destroy, contributes to the temptation to ‘restore’ such items and enhance their sale-ability,” she writes in her book.
So what recourse do fooled investors have? They can at most hope for their money back. Forgery is a crime and can be reported as fraud, although this is not often done. Australian Institute of Criminology director Adam Graycar said at a Sydney art crime conference in 1999 that it was often a ‘hidden crime’: many public galleries were concerned about their security being seen as inadequate and private collectors might not wish to draw attention to themselves. In addition to nominal costs, Graycar said galleries faced indirect costs associated with authenticating works and, if found guilty, damage to reputation too.
There are no hard and fast statistics of forgery available. Superintendent Bernadine Benson of the SAPS Organised Crime desk said that for private sales or sales where provenance was not clear, investors should consult a third party. With many of the ‘best’ examples of forgery still undetected, naïve buyers hoping to chance on ‘bargains’ are reminded to heed the long-held property law doctrine: caveat emptor, or buyer beware.