The next time you're marveling at a painting by Picasso, a statue by Michelangelo, or a carving
from ancient Egypt, don't be absolutely sure that you're looking at the genuine article. Art fakery
has been around since ancient times and is still in full swing — museums, galleries, and private
collections around the world are stocked with phonies. This fact comes to us from an insider's
insider — Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York
City. In his book False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes, he writes:
The fact is that there are so many phonies and doctored pieces around these days that at
times, I almost believe that there are as many bogus works as genuine ones. In the decade
and a half that I was with the Metropolitan Museum of Art I must have examined fifty
thousand works in all fields. Fully 40 percent were either phonies or so hypocritically
restored or so misattributed that they were just the same as forgeries. Since then I'm sure
that that percentage has risen. What few art professionals seem to want to admit is that the
art world we are living in today is a new, highly active, unprincipled one of art fakery.
Ancient Egyptian objects are particularly likely to be bogus. Furthermore, Hoving estimates that
the fraud rate for religious artifacts from pagan and early Christian times is literally 99 percent.
As many as 5,000 fake Dürers were created after the master's death, and half of Vienna master
Egon Schiele's pencil drawings are fakes.
But it isn't just current con artists making this junk; the ancients did it, too. For around a
millennia, Romans couldn't get enough of Greek statues, gems, glasses, and other objects, so
forgers stepped in to fill the demand. Hoving writes:
The volume was so great that Seneca the Elder (ca. 55
BC - AD 39) is recorded by a contemporaneous historian
as remarking that there were no fewer than half a dozen
workshops in the first century AD working full time in
Rome on just colored gems and intaglios. Today it's
almost impossible to tell what's genuinely ancient Greek
and what's Roman fakery, because those gems and
intaglios are made of material that dates to ancient times
and the style is near perfect.
Art forgery isn't the realm of nobodies, either. During
certain periods of their lives, Renaissance masters
Donatello and Verochio put bread on the table by creating
faux antiquities. Rubens painted copies of earlier artists. El
Greco's assistants created five or six copies of their boss'
work, each of which was then passed off as the original (and
they're still wrongly considered the originals).
Hoving reveals that pretty much every museum has at one time or another been suckered into
buying and displaying fakes, and many are still showing them. Of course, most of the examples
he uses are from the Met, but he also says that phony works still sit in the Louvre, the Getty, the
British Museum, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Vatican, among others. (Hoving
estimates that 90 percent of the ancient Roman statues in the Holy See's collection are actually
eighteenth-century European knock-offs.)
Revealing further examples, the Independent of London catalogs three Goyas in the Met that are
now attributed to other artists; Rodin sketches actually done by his mistress; Fragonard's popular
Le baiser à la dérobée (The Stolen Kiss), which seems to have been painted by his sister-in-law;
and many Rubens works actually created by the artist's students. According to the newspaper:
"The Rembrandt Research Committee claims that most works attributed to Rembrandt were in
fact collaborative studio pieces."
It's enough to make you question the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.