In late March, a judge in Wiesbaden, Germany, found herself playing the uncomfortable role of art critic. On trial before her were two men accused of forging paintings by artists including Kazimir Malevich and Wassily Kandinsky, whose angular, abstract compositions can now go for eight-figure prices. The case had been in progress for three and a half years and was seen by many as a test. A successful prosecution could help end an epidemic of forgeries — so-called miracle pictures that appear from nowhere — that have been plaguing the market in avant-garde Russian art.
But as the trial reached its climax, it disintegrated into farce. One witness, arguably the world’s leading Malevich authority, argued that the paintings were unquestionably fakes. Another witness, whose credentials were equally impeccable, swore that they were authentic. In the end, the forgery indictments had to be dropped; the accused were convicted only on minor charges.
The judge was unimpressed. “Ask 10 different art historians the same question and you get 10 different answers,” she told the New York Times. Adding a touch of bleak comedy to proceedings, it emerged that the warring experts were at the wrong end of a bad divorce.
It isn’t a comforting time for art historians. Weeks earlier, in January, the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent, Belgium, was forced to pull 24 works supposedly by many of the same Russian artists — Kandinsky, Malevich, Rodcheko, Filonov—after the Art Newspaper published an exposé arguing they were all forged. Just days before, there was uproar when 21 paintings shown at a Modigliani exhibition in Genoa, Italy, were confiscated and labeled as fakes. Works that had been valued at millions of dollars were abruptly deemed worthless.
The market in old masters is also jittery after an alarming series of scandals — the greatest of which was last year’s revelation that paintings handled by the respected collector Giuliano Ruffini were suspect. A Cranach, a Parmigiano, and a Frans Hals were all found to be forged; institutions including the Louvre had been fooled. The auction house Sotheby’s was forced to refund $10 million for the Hals alone. Many experts are now reluctant to offer an opinion, in case they’re sued — which, of course, only intensifies the problem.
Adding fuel to the fire is another development: Wary of being caught, more and more forgers are copying works from the early to mid-20th century. It’s much easier to acquire authentic materials, for one thing, and modern paintings have rocketed in value in recent years.
For many in the industry, it is starting to look like a crisis. Little wonder that galleries and auction houses, desperate to protect themselves, have gone CSI. X-ray fluorescence can detect paint and pigment type; infrared reflectography and Raman spectroscopy can peer into a work’s inner layers and detect whether its very component molecules are authentic. Testing the chemistry of a flake of paint less than a millimeter wide can disclose deep secrets about where and, crucially, when it was made.
“It’s an arms race,” says Jennifer Mass, an authentication expert who runs the New York-based firm Scientific Analysis of Fine Art. “Them against us.”
But what if you didn’t need to go to all that trouble? What if the forger’s handwriting was staring you in the face, if only you could see it? That’s the hope of researchers at Rutgers University in New Jersey, who have pioneered a method that promises to turn art authentication on its head.