Recently, a painting at the Met has been reattributed to Velazquez. The painting, a portrait of a man in his 30s appropriately known as “Portrait of a Man”, initially entered the museum as a Velazquez in 1949, and some 30 years later it was demoted when experts declared that it was the work of a follower rather than the master. Thanks to a recent conservation effort, however, layers of yellowed varnish and rather poor previous conservation efforts have been removed, allowing the fine brushwork of Velazquez to show through, leading to the reattribution.
This little saga reminded me of an excellent book I just finished by Edward Dolnick titled The Forger’s Spell. This book tells the tale of Han van Meegeren, a Dutch artist and forger who, during the 1930s and 40s, managed to fool some of the greatest Vermeer experts of his day, as well as Hermann Goering and Adolf Hitler. His Vermeer forgeries look obvious and clumsy to us today, but at the time they were considered among the greatest masterpieces in the world. There were a handful of experts at the time who saw through his ruse, but most of the world was taken in. The story of how and why they were duped is fascinating enough, but I think the best parts of the book are when Dolnick goes further with chapters about more recent forgers. He also quotes Whistler at one point, who stated he could tell a genuine Velazquez because “I always swoon when I see a Velazquez.” Wonder what he would have made of this portrait?
Connoisseurs can no doubt recognize true masterworks on sight (similarly, I’ve seen wine connoisseurs correctly identify a bottle with a few quick sniffs from the glass), so it would be pointless and unfair to dismiss these experts as mere fools – much better to ask just how they were fooled. As Dolnick points out, as with any con, the real trick is to get the mark to want to believe. Dolnick recounts the story John Myatt, an art forger convicted in 1999. Myatt forged Van Goghs, Picassos, Cezannes, Chagalls, Giacomettis, Matisses…some 200 in all. Only 80 have been uncovered and, presumably, the remaining 120 are still hanging in private, perhaps public, collections. Interestingly, often rather simple scientific tests could confirm whether or not the paintings are authentic (tests of the paints used, the canvas and supports, and even the dirt in the cracks of the picture surface can all expose a fake). But, honestly, what would a collector have to gain from learning his prized Rembrandt is only twenty years old? Furthermore, there is simply no scientific test to determine if a painting is indeed by the hand of the master. And, as van Meegeren himself noted, “Yesterday this picture was worth millions of guilders, and experts and art lovers would come from all over the world and pay money to see it. Today, it is worth nothing, and nobody would cross the street to see it for free. But the picture has not changed. What has?” More pointedly, just what is it we appreciate in a work of art?