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May 11, 2015
Moments in Art
Fakery Foibles
by Lawrence Jeppson

The information technology world changes so rapidly that a person employed in it can discover his expertise outmoded in a fortnight.

When I was writing my book on art forgers it seemed that there was a finite number of forgers — at least those who had been discovered. A French sleuth, Guy Isnard, published Les Pirates de la Peinture/The Pirates of Painting (1955), which pretty much covered the scene.

He followed this up in 1960, with two-volumes of Faux et Imitations dans l’Art/ Fake and Imitations in Art cataloging all the fakes and fakers going back centuries. In all three books he named names.

Other scholars and sleuths, mainly in Europe, published their books on demons of fakery, and most of them noted the same individuals.

By the late 1960s, other demons began cluttering the fakers scene, most notably Elmyr de Hory and David Stein were plying center stage.

I tried keeping up with the changing scene, but it has become almost impossible. The world has become awash with individual fakers and faking cabals. Art forgery has become big business, egged on by the huge escalation of prices fetched by good stuff.

There is a limited attempt to forge old masters. I see three reasons for this. First, artists are unwilling to submit to the years of study, practice, and refinement that students in Old Master generations underwent. The skill has gone.

Second, sophisticated, scientific cataloging and detection have made Old Master fakery difficult to pull off.

Third, the art world has broken into fragments, and lots of the pieces are easy to fake.

When I interviewed the New York City District Attorney regarding Stein, he observed that Stein was successful because he imitated artists whose work was childlike and easy to counterfeit. No great art connoisseur himself, the D.A. was referring to Matisse, Picasso, and other well-known figures.

In future columns I’d like to examine some of these latter-day counterfeiters. But for today’s Moments in Art, I’ll delve into the follies of one old-timer and one from today’s headlines.

The oldie is Casper Caspersen, a skilled Norwegian cabinetmaker.

My first information on Caspersen came from a long article in a Norwegian newspaper. Although my great-grandmother came from the southern tip of Norway, Norwegian disappeared from any family knowledge after her children were gone.

I took my newspaper to the Norwegian Embassy in Washington, D.C., where a cultural attaché translated it for me and taught me how to pronounce “Munch.”

Caspersen did not have the moxie to design his own furniture. He copied what others had created. He loved the art of countryman Edvard Munch, and in privacy he painted Munch, Munch, Munch incessantly, much like the French copyist who painted Mona Lisa 1000 times.

Munch was not the easiest artist to copy. The greatest Scandinavian painter of all time, he achieved his standing because his work expressed the tumult and power of his unique emotions.

In 1944, Munch, 80, died, famous not only at home but in the world. Caspersen was 40, and he worked in the Nasjonalgalleriet (National Gallery), where he had many opportunities to study and replicate the master’s work.

In 1950, a traveling Munch exhibition began touring American museums. Soon afterwards bogus Munches began appearing in American collections. Some of them had come through Oslo dealers. The City of Oslo acquired the art which was left in the Munch estate.

Some of these paintings were so badly damaged that the way to save them was the very demanding conservation process of lifting the paint from the original canvases and attaching it to new linen.

The original frame and stretcher are removed from the painting, which is laid face down on a hard, flat surface. Strips of paper 10" or wider are pasted around the edge of the painting like a frame. The strips are then wetted with water, which makes them shrink. This stretches the canvas.

Layers of plain newspaper or tissue are then glued to the face of the picture. Any irregularities caused by overlapping sheets, wrinkles, or minute glue bumps are sandpapered away.

The whole assemblage is turned over and laid face-down on the flat surface. The technician then wets the canvas, loosening the bond between the canvas and the first layer of sizing. The sizing is dissolved, and the canvas is carefully lifted away. What remains on the table is the thin layer of paint, backside up.

After the backside has been cleaned and treated with a relining glue, the new canvas is applied. Then the newsprint and tissue on the front side can be removed, and the relining process completed.

The painting has been saved.

Caspersen was asked to make new stretchers for the restored paintings. Since the museum had no interest in keeping the old canvases, which had the artist’s markings on them, Caspersen asked if he could have them.

Caspersen put the old canvases back on their old stretchers and then painted new “Munches” on the surface. He told people he was selling the paintings for “an old lady” who had acquired them from the artist.

The director of the Oslo Municipal Art Collection began expressing doubts about Munch paintings in the Albright-Knox Gallery in Buffalo, the Phillips Collection in Washington, and several private collections.

Suspicions aroused, Oslo police began questioning Caspersen. Police and public protested: no one was ever skilled enough to paint like the master.

His ego aroused, Caspersen, in his cell, painted a new Summer Landscape in just three hours.

It was thought that the two dealers involved were not sufficiently skilled to distinguish fake from genuine, and it was decided that there was no evidence of wholesale forgery.

The case against Caspersen was dropped, and he receded into his pre-Munch oblivion.

According to Lorena Munoz-Alonzo, reported in ArtNet, our second story began in 2003, when two Spanish brothers agreed to purchase a painting they thought was by Goya for €270,000. After they laid out a deposit of €20,000, the deal dissolved because of a lack of a certificate of authenticity.

Much later the deal was resurrected. An unidentified sheikh agreed to pay the brothers ¤4 million for the Goya Portrait of don Antonio Maria Esquivel. The brothers paid an unidentified middleman ¤300,000.

Later, police would find the fake Goya in one of the brothers’ homes.

Everything came cascading apart when the brothers tried to deposit 1.7 million Swiss francs in a Geneva bank. They were told that the banknotes were mere photocopies.

The middleman with his genuine ¤300,000 and the sheikh had disappeared.

This is the most ironic adventure in the encyclopedia of art forgery: a fake “masterpiece” being purchased with fake money.


Fake Goya portrait seized by Spanish police. Photo via El Pais & Artnet

Copyright © 2019 by Lawrence Jeppson Printed from NauvooTimes.com