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Behind the velvet ropes, million-dollar price tags and famous artists, an intriguing game of cat and mouse unfolds in the shadow of the art world. Art forgery is a crime almost as old as the oldest paintings that grace the walls of museums. What kind of minds lie behind the most infamous art forgeries and their elaborate deceptions? How can we stop them? And what can we learn about art itself from this crime of deception? We’ll explore the most infamous, expensive, intricate, and devious cases to get to the bottom of these questions.

Who is the most infamous art forger in history?

When we think of the most infamous art forgers in history, there’s one name that rises above the rest: Han Van Meegeren. This Dutch artist was notorious for his incredibly accurate recreations of Johannes Vermeer's masterpieces, forging works which tricked even the most astute art connoisseurs. Ironically, his notoriety as a forger overshadowed his own artworks, catapulting him into the limelight.

Who was the most successful art forger in history?

This dubious prize goes to Wolfgang Beltracchi. The German artist and his wife tricked art experts for decades, imitating the styles of 20th century luminaries like Max Ernst and André Derain. Beltracchi's forgeries earned him a place as one of the greatest forgers of all time – and cost him millions of dollars in restitution and six years in prison when he was caught.

“Another successful forger was Eric Hebborn. His professional business was as an art dealer who successfully sold forgeries to market experts who considered themselves connoisseurs. He created hundreds of works, including some that professionals attributed to famous artists like Rembrandt, Brueghel, and Van Dyck," says Gareth Fletcher, Director of Art and Technology at Sotheby’s Institute of Art.

"He didn’t consider his process to be criminal, but instead more of a reaction to the art world's tendency to value expert opinion over scientific analysis. He died in Italy in 1996 under suspicious circumstances, and many of his works continue to remain undetected in public and private collections.

“If we use his career to underline a single point, it would be to highlight the importance of provenance in helping to determine the authenticity of cultural objects.”

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Who is the most counterfeited artist?

Salvador Dalí is by far the most counterfeited artist in history. The high market demand and value of Dalí’s distinctive works of art made him a coveted target for art counterfeiters. Dalí also infamously blurred the lines of authenticity himself, signing blank lithographs to be filled in by other artists and signing off on selling the copies as original works. Such practices have led to disputes over the authenticity of some works attributed to him and muddies the waters for forgers to sell counterfeits.

You've likely heard of contemporary street artist and activist Banksy, whose art is also frequently subject to forgery. “For decades his work has been copied, confiscated, and commercially repurposed, which was integral in the establishment of his authentication initiative, Pest Control,” says Fletcher.

“Banksy’s insistence on anonymity also creates some interesting complications with intellectual property rights. In fact, many of their recent works sold through auction have been accompanied by little, or no, ownership history or provenance information. This may be the artist’s way of responding to forgery risks by directly consigning the work themselves."

What was the most expensive art forgery?

The Knoedler Gallery, at the time a historic commercial art gallery in New York City, purchased and sold an array of forged paintings over the course of eight years, one of which was a counterfeit Mark Rothko piece which sold for $17 million! This was part of an extensive forgery scheme that upset the art world, saddling collectors with losses estimated at a colossal $80 million.

But are art forgeries intrinsically valuable? This is a complicated question. While forgeries hold no artistic value as they are not genuine artworks, certain forgeries, like those by Van Meegeren or Beltracchi, have commanded high prices at auctions for their historical significance and novelty. It's crucial, however, to stress the illegality and ethical implications of trading in forgeries.

The recovery of authentic artworks

There are also instances where artworks initially dismissed as forgeries were later identified as genuine, emphasizing the complex nature of art authentication. One notable example is the case of La Bella Principessa, attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, which was once bought for a mere $21,800 and later revealed through scientific analysis to be a likely authentic da Vinci, now valued at over $100 million.

There have been similar misattributions to artworks by Vincent Van Gogh, a notable example being the painting Sunset at Montmajour. This work was long held in private collections and even once rejected by the Van Gogh Museum as not being an authentic Van Gogh. However, after extensive research, it was finally authenticated in 2013 as a genuine work. Painted in 1888, the piece depicts the landscape of Montmajour in Provence, and its late authentication added a significant work to Van Gogh's catalog.

How do art professionals authenticate artworks?

How, then, can we unmask art forgeries? Art professionals employ an arsenal of tools, blending provenance research and cutting-edge scientific methods, such as infrared imaging, carbon dating, and pigment analysis. But as counterfeiters refine their methods, detecting forgeries can become a cat-and-mouse game.

“Some forgers even anonymously submit examples of their work to authentication committees and technical art history laboratories to gauge the effectiveness of their processes and techniques,” says Fletcher.

How common are art forgeries?

Determining the prevalence of art forgeries is challenging, but some experts estimate that up to half of the art market might be plagued with forgeries or misattributions, emphasizing the urgency of rigorous authenticity verification.

Lurking in the shadow of the art world, art forgery not only challenges the integrity of the art market but has also long captivated us with tales of cunning and skill. In today’s world, imitation isn't just the sincerest form of flattery!

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