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Vermeer’s Secrets: Why Are We Fascinated by Forgeries?

Vermeer’s Secrets: Why Are We Fascinated by Forgeries?

Mark Landis, one of the most prolific forgers in US history, spent 20 years pretending to be a philanthropist, donating forged documents he created to more than 50 nonprofit museums. “I have never been treated with such respect and dignity in my life,” he said. “I’m addicted to it.” Despite the fraud, Landis never made any money from it, so it didn’t appear to be a crime.

Wolfgang and Helene Beltracchi profited handsomely from their crime – passing off their designs as works by artists such as Max Ernst and Fernand Léger and selling them for millions before being caught in the wrong pigment. Both have served long prison terms. But when they were interviewed for an upcoming book, they said they had a “kick” at cheating in the “fraudulent” art world. “For some frauds, I think it’s kind of pathological behavior,” Wiseman said. “It’s an interesting subculture.”

Tricks of the trade

Crime writer Peter James interviews real-life art frauds to research his latest book, The Picture of the Dead. In the book, he reveals the secret to getting real painter’s pants from this period, so that all the fabric fibers built on the painting accurately show his story.

Counterfeiters are tricky, agrees Fletcher. “Good writers will do their research. They will know that pigments made after the supposed creation date should not be used. That’s what happened to counterfeiters 50 years ago.” He’s heard of counterfeiters sending test tubes to dedicated labs to check they’re on the right track. Fraudsters are likely to target artists who have an estimate or uncertainty as to how many works they have produced in their lifetime, so there is less suspicion when an unlisted ‘new’ work suddenly appears on the market.

But if fraudsters get better, technology can catch them too. “I would hate to be an impostor now because I think scientific techniques and imaging techniques have improved so much,” Wiseman says. “It is possible to identify where a particular mineral pigment comes from, say a region in Afghanistan.”

Scandals like Knoedler’s make the industry more suspicious. “It’s pretty obvious that the biggest names in the business have been misunderstood,” Fletcher says. “And some galleries and auction houses have more reputation at stake than others.”

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