From a “Rothko” to a “Renoir,” New Exhibit Features Fakes that Fooled the Art World
Artist Elmyr de Hory is famous for his fakes. Throughout the 20th century, he forged the likes of Matisse, Picasso, and Modigliani—and did it so skillfully that he managed to pawn off more than a thousand of his own works as those of the greats.
When his deception was discovered in the 1950s, de Hory’s story became an international sensation. Writer and reporter Clifford Irving made him the subject of a 1969 book; five years later Orson Welles released a documentary film about his life. In 1976, while living in Spain and facing extradition to France for fraud prosecution, de Hory took his own life. His works have since become collectibles that are hungrily snapped up at auction.
And now that his fakes are worth something, they’re worth faking, says Winterthur Museum curator Linda Eaton.
She believes one of the paintings on view as part of the Delaware museum’s ongoing show “Treasures on Trial: The Art and Science of Detecting Fakes” is likely the work of another, anonymous forger who was imitating a de Hory fake of a Renoir.
“It’s like a double negative,” she laughs. “Do two fakes equal a real thing?”
The subject of the painting is a girl from an existent, genuine work by Renoir—which, Eaton says, was the first red flag. “De Hory would do things in the style of” an artist, Eaton explains. “He never really copied something.”
Ostensibly produced by one of the world’s most infamous (and prolific) forgers, work attributed to de Hory has been subjected to scientific technical analysis in an effort to determine authenticity, the same process afforded to famous and lucrative artists. This material fingerprint can help historians and conservationists identify those de Horys that may still be tucked away in personal or museum collections.
Some of these tests—in particular, an analysis of de Hory’s pallette—were conducted by students in Winterthur’s graduate programs for material culture and conservation. Bringing art-historical and scientific analysis together, “Treasures on Trial” features dozens of fake or suspected-to-be-fake artworks and objects, offering a window into the methods authenticators employ to outwit wily con artists.
Another artist whose materials have been carefully scrutinized is Robert Trotter, who worked out of Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, from 1985 to 1990—after which he was sentenced to 10 months in federal prison for his forgeries. Frustrated with his inability to sell his own works, he had succumbed to temptation and started to paint in the style of various outsider and American folk artists.
Trotter’s work on display in the Winterthur show is on loan from the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, New York; four more of his pieces are currently in the possession of the Yale Art Gallery to aid investigators in identifying fakes.
“At the time of Trotter’s trial, he’d identified over 50 examples of his work, but not all of them had been found,” says Eaton. “Who knows how many are out there that he didn’t admit to? And so it’s important to be able to recognize his work after his trial.”
But, Eaton notes, the line between fake and real is not always clear. She singles out a work in the show purchased by a knowledgeable art historian and collector a half century ago, with a signature that marks it as a Winslow Homer.
“There’s no provenance on this thing, it was in a local antique shop,” she says. “From the connoisseurship, could it be a preliminary sketch? We can’t say for sure. And from scientific analysis, nothing’s found that’s outside Homer’s lifetime. The signature is embedded in the paint, not something that was added later.”
“So we genuinely do not know. And we do not know of a way to prove it one way or the other.”
The star of the show, however, is most definitely a fake—one of the most talked-about in years. With the help of her co-curator, founder and director of D.C.-based Art Fraud Insights Colette Loll, Eaton managed to procure a small fake Rothko that was embroiled in the long-running Knoedler scandal.
One of New York’s oldest and most venerable galleries, Knoedler abruptly shut down in 2011 when it came to light that its former director Ann Freedman had (according to her, unwittingly) sold $70 million in fake Abstract Expressionist paintings to her clients. Rather than coming from the hands of Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, and other masters, the Knoedler works had been churned out by a Chinese artist in Queens and peddled to Freedman by Long Island dealer Glafira Rosales.
Luke Nikas, Freedman’s defense lawyer, lent the fake Rothko on view at Winterthur. Before that, the painting had been hanging on his office wall.
Forgery, of course, is not the sole purview of the art world. One display features a worn leather baseball glove, sold as Babe Ruth’s for $200,000; another holds a purported Stradivarius violin that doesn’t sound quite right.
What drove the creation of these fakes was the pursuit of money. But Eaton notes there’s a secondary factor that resonates beyond the wallet.
“Many forgers take great pleasure out of fooling the art world,” she notes. “Whether or not that’s their primary intent, they get great pleasure out of it. That’s also a reason why exhibitions on fakes and forgeries are popular with a general audience. People like thinking that rich people and the art world can be fooled.”