The End of Authentication

Woo-hoo! You just discovered a Vermeer in your aunt’s basement. But who will verify if it is real? In part four of this series, we find a surprising answer: maybe no one.


A few years ago, an intriguing television series, Fake or Fortune?, popped up on the BBC. The conceit was as simple as a minimalist sculpture:

  1. Find a painting of questionable authenticity.
  2. Apply forensic and historical analysis.
  3. Determine if it is a forgery.

Or as it might have been pitched:

Artistic fakery meets reality television — a perfect match!
The hosts of Fake or Fortune, journalist Fiona Bruce and art historian Philip Mould.

Over the course of three years, the series has analyzed a total of ten paintings, all (hypothetically) by master painters, including Rembrandt, Chagall, Degas, and Monet. But one name sticks out like a sore easel: Han van Meegeren. (Discussed in part one of this series, Van Meegeren was the infamous forger who became a Dutch hero by fooling uber-Nazi Hermann Goering.)

In a particularly splendid episode of Fake or Fortune?, intrepid art sleuths scrutinize “The Procuress,” a relatively obscure painting of dubious paternity. Two wildly different options are proffered as the painting’s progenitor:

  1. Dirck van Baburen, a mostly-forgotten 17th century painter.
  2. Han van Meegeren, an infamous 20th century super-forger.

Here is the painting in question:

“The Procuress” (c. 1622 or c. 1938).

Wait. Does it look familiar?

It might, if you remember those scant 35 Vermeers from part one in this series. This animation of a renowned Vermeer, “Lady Seated at a Virginal,” might jog your memory:

Vermeer’s “Lady Seated at a Virginal” (c. 1670–72), animated to highlight “The Procuress” in the background.

If there were a 17th century equivalent of having a favorite background desktop wallpaper, “The Procuress” would have been Vermeer’s, as it was also embedded into the background of another of his celebrated masterpieces, “The Concert”:

Vermeer’s “The Concert” (c. 1664), animated to highlight “The Procuress” in the background.

Because Fake or Fortune? technically falls in the genre of reality television, a recap seems in order, spoilers intact. This episode hypothesizes (and eventually proves) a bizarre series of events:

  1. In the 17th century, Johannes Vermeer placed a seemingly random image into the background of his paintings.
  2. In the 20th century, Han van Meegeren created a forgery of the painting found in the background of those Vermeers.
  3. In the 21st century, the museum that owns the background painting requested it be verified — as a forgery.

Why would a museum prefer a 20th century forgery over the 17th century original? Because, in the case of “The Procuress,” the copy is more valuable than the original. This scene from the show explains:

Fake or Fortune, season 1 episode 3. This is actually the entire episode, cued to a specific moment, but the whole thing is highly recommended viewing.

In other words, the Replicant wins again.


The Fake Is the Fortune

Reality television is a foreboding medium. Like a glimpse of the serpent slithering into the garden, it foreshadows the fall of the documented culture — a rotten apple, bitten; ejection from Eden, nigh. (I’m sorry, it’s true, Jersey Shore.)

The results of Fake or Fortune? are, in that sense, prophetic. Of the ten artists that were analyzed, three works were declared fake. That’s hardly a valid sample, but it is telling.

However, another stat is more revealing: Around half of the show’s verdicts have since been contested, with a few disputes even resulting in legal action.

Not a Marc Chagall.

The most dramatic incident relates to the episode involving a presumed Marc Chagall painting. In a surprisingly violent act, the Chagall Committee not only declared it a forgery, but also sentenced the painting to death: The fraudulent artwork will burn.

If that sounds like a desperate act committed by a cartel clinging to its fleeting authority, then you have some insight into the precarious state of the art authentication industry today. With the invention of so many advanced forensic technologies, art authentication should be in a Renaissance. But these are actually the Dark Ages.

Joe Simon sued the Warhol authentication board after this self-portrait was rejected as authentic.

The fall from grace began as it always does, unsuspectingly, when the Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board shuttered itself after being sued for refusing to authenticate a suspicious Warhol from Joe Simon. That announcement had a chilling effect, inducing a chain reaction among artist authentication committees, which continue to drop faster than Damien Hirst prices.

Here is the shortlist of official artist authentication groups that have either entirely disbanded or become embroiled in costly legal battles:

Those are the known examples. With the spectre of litigation hanging ominously over experts, scholars, and authenticators, the full effects are unknown.

As Orson Welles suggests in F for Fake (1973), experts are often the crooks.

However, it would be a mistake to blame the downfall of the authentication industry on the corrosive power of litigation. Experts are often complicit in corruption. For instance, do you remember forger Pei-Shen Qian from part three of this series? It turns out that an “expert” who was paid a $300,000 consulting fee to verify all those forged paintings has been named as a defendant in the lawsuit.

As The Times put it in a headline, “Selling a Fake Painting Takes More Than a Good Artist.” It takes a complicit authenticator.


The Invisible Hand of Authentication

If art accreditation services continue to lose their authority, who will validate disputed art works? Or, more dramatically, what happens if you discover that magical 37th Vermeer in your aunt’s basement?

The answer, increasingly, is that capital itself decides.

As discussed in part one of this series, jerkonaire Steve Wynn was able to effectively manufacture a new Vermeer by putting a ton of money behind a perceived forgery. The painting bought its authenticity.

“Saint Praxedis,”
maybe Vermeer

Last week, another Vermeer with suspicious provenance came up for auction. Leading up to the sale, press reports lavished Christie’s with praise for bringing forth a 37th Vermeer that has been verified through “scientific analysis.” It was a forgone conclusion that we had a new Vermeer.

But the enthusiasm waned after the sale. This proxy Vermeer failed to receive the Wynn bump — it sold for $10 million, less than the expected value. If the painting had sold for, say, $30 million, we would undoubtedly be celebrating a new Vermeer. (“Time to update the catalogue raisonné!” someone, somewhere surely would have effused.) But instead, we are left shrugging. So it seems we are stuck, for the moment, with 36 Vermeers.

If history is told by its victors, then art history is told by its investors.

Up next: In part five in this series about art authenticity, we will examine the appeal of the art heist. It will be published in August.