Detecting Forgeries

A forger often unconsciously produces a confusion of styles or subtly accents elements reflecting contemporary bias. A major example is the work passed off as Lucas Cranach's by the brilliant German forger F. W. Rohrich (1787–1834). He imbued these paintings with a touch of the Biedermeier aesthetic, prevalent in his own day, that later betrayed their falsity. The 19th-century Russian creator of the famous tiara of Saïtapharnes (Louvre), an engraved headdress in gold, supposedly a Scythian work of the 3d cent. B.C., borrowed freely from motifs displayed in 19th-century publications concerning recent excavations.

Despite modern technological advances, much forgery remains impervious to detection by other than empirical means. Critical expertise in the styles and aesthetics of various periods is still the principal tool of the authenticator. Artistic clumsiness, a jumble of styles or motifs, and a discernible emphasis on the aesthetic values of the forger's own day more consistently reveals fakery than does technical analysis. Nonetheless, such contemporary tools as X-ray, infrared, and ultraviolet photography are employed to reveal pentimento and overpainting.

In addition, craquelure may be microscopically examined. Chemical analysis and carbon-14 dating may provide relatively inconclusive testimony when ancient materials have been used. As scientific techniques grow more sophisticated, so do the techniques of forgers. The discovery of forgery results in a curious phenomenon—a work of art may be considered a priceless masterpiece one day and worthless the next. Without proof of origin its valuation as false or authentic is at best a matter of subjective human judgment.

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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