Late one morning David Hall got a phone tip in his Wilmington office questioning the stated provenance of a painting purported to be Andrew Wyeth’s Snow Birds, soon to go under the hammer at Christie’s Manhattan auction house. The 1970 painting, a watercolor and pencil on paper, might be a fake.
An assistant U.S. attorney who is the special prosecutor for the FBI Art Crime Team, Hall arranged for the painting to be sent to the Brandywine River Museum. Brushstrokes, composition, iconography, and pigments were all methodically scrutinized. Using Betsy Wyeth’s meticulous records of the original painting, Mary Landa was able to identify discrepancies showing the picture was a skillfully executed forgery.
“It was an exact copy, with all the little squiggles, every figure in it was the same,” says Landa, curator of collections at the Museum and an authoritative source on Wyeth’s work. “But it was clear that it was very stiff and didn’t flow like Andrew Wyeth’s work.”
Had the painting been genuine, it would expect to fetch $300,000 to $500,000. The U.S. Attorney’s Office was notified and the painting was seized from the Florida-based seller who agreed to forfeit his interest in the artwork to the United States government.
The episode marked the second time a fraudulent Andrew Wyeth painting was removed from the commercial art market. The FBI Art Crime Team also had seized a forged 1939 Wyeth painting Wreck on Doughnut Point, valued at more than $100,000.
“The Snow Bird forgery was precisely done and carefully executed,” Hall says. “It was a really good fake, that’s why it was able to get as far as it did.
“There was no arrest since we couldn’t determine who painted it. These forgeries undermine the financial market for the artist’s work. Equally important, when collectors buy something that they think is real but is not, they undermine the legacy of the artist.”
When a great master dies, you can take two things to the bank: the artist’s work soars in value, and the “big guns” of the forgery industry surface, eager to cash in. The profession of art forgery is as old as art itself. Works of art with mysterious origins have a long and glamorous history, captivating the media and filmmakers for decades. Art and antiquities crime is a $6 billion annual business globally, according to the FBI Art Crime Team.
The Delaware Art Museum houses the largest collection of John Sloan works in America. His “Ashcan School of Art” is known for a dark palette, views of city streets and working-class life in the early 20th century. At least a dozen times a year Heather Campbell Coyle will be emailed a possible Sloan image. She examines it while scouring Sloan’s extensive archives.
“I want to see if the piece is characteristic of Sloan’s work. All artists have habits,” explains Coyle, the curator of American Art and Sloan specialist. “I look at the way the paint is handled, the types of colors that artist used when painting the work, whether the work was done on paper versus canvas, checking the size of the canvas, how it is stretched.”
In 2005, Coyle was contacted regarding a possible Sloan painting Gloucester Towers that had been passed down in a family for generations. It had been out of circulation since 1919. The canvas turned out to be the right size and a correct location for the time. Most importantly, the painting that was created in 1918 matched the description in the museum’s files.
“Sloan often photographed his work before sending it out, and when he didn’t, he made sketches or wrote out descriptions,” says Coyle. “He also inscribed his canvases in typical ways. We compared this work to Gloucester paintings in our collection, specifically to Our Red Cottage, Lilacs which dates from 1917.”
The painting was No. 560 in the Sloan catalogue raisonné. The work was clearly by the hand of Sloan. It brought the family $120,000 at a Sotheby’s auction.
The Delaware Art Museum and the Brandywine River Museum evaluate but do not authenticate art works, due to liability. Over at Winterthur, it’s a different story.
Many legendary artists like Vincent van Gogh and N.C. Wyeth recycled canvases by actually painting over their earlier works. While regular X-rays can detect the outline, there are still lots of details that are a mystery to art historians. Senior scientist Dr. Jennifer Mass and her colleagues figured out how to fill in the details.
A few years ago Winterthur’s forensic scientists were called upon to analyze the N.C. Wyeth painting The Mildest Mannered Man, a dramatic fight scene published in Everybody’s Magazine in 1919. They shot the painting with intense X-ray beams using a confocal X-ray fluorescence microscope that detects chemicals used in the different pigments in the paint. Using this technique to determine the colors, the scientists were able to digitally reproduce one of Wyeth’s most famous works. It revealed a full-color representation of a hidden painting.
“Many famous artists re-used their canvases, sometimes covering one great painting with another, in order to save money or for artistic purposes–to let the colors and shapes of one piece of work influence the next one,” explains Mass who has worked at Winterthur for a decade and is also an adjunct professor at the University of Delaware.
During a recent visit to Winterthur, Mass led me through the laboratory filled with microscopes and multi-spectral cameras that scan canvases from above. The equipment is valued at more than $2 million. Nearby, stacks of paintings propped against a wall wait to be interrogated. Mass walks into a back room and emerges with a possible Van Gogh. Purportedly painted early in the artist’s career in 1879, it is the size of an iPad with a dark mood, a painting of furrowed ground leading to a factory building on a hill.
Next Mass shows me a small Picasso with his trademark luminous colors that arrived the week before from the Phillips Collection in Washington, celebrated for its stunning impressionist and modern works. Beneath the painting is a portrait of someone that curators there have been trying to identify.
Mass was asked to use Winterthur’s non-destructive imaging techniques to examine all of the pigments making up the buried image. Resolution of whether the Picasso or the van Gogh pictures are clearly authentic was still a few months away. The timing pales in comparison to a possible Matisse painting from the Barnes Foundation that Mass and her team have been trying to authenticate for nearly six years.
Mass’ passion for her forensic work is readily apparent in our conversation, but she is quick to warn that this work is only one part of the process of vetting art or antiquities. “It concerns me that people think science is the only factor,” Mass says. “It’s the curator, conservator and scientist working together.”
The evaluation process consists of studying the painting style and technique; documenting the history or provenance of the piece; determining previous owners; and analyzing the structural aspects, the frame and its materials.
Mass also explores how the works hold up, literally. Studying the works of Matisse, van Gogh, Monet, and Picasso, she has discovered that they used pigments that were not properly prepared and today those colors are losing their luster or worse, peeling off the canvases.
“Sometimes a work of art is made with materials that are never meant to last for a long time,” Mass observes. “Matisse used cadmium yellow, and over time it fades to ivory. One of his paintings of a woman in a yellow dress is no longer yellow. It’s really sad, but we can’t bring it back.”
Mass, who has appeared on the PBS show “History Detectives,” estimates that from 50 to 65 percent of the objects she examines are clever fakes. After paintings, the most prevalent scams are Chinese porcelain, painted furniture, and weathervanes that saw their value skyrocket when one brought $6 million at auction in recent years. When the economy tanked in 2008 Mass was convinced the number of fakes would slow down. Instead it intensified.
“I’m seeing more and more skillful forgers,” Mass acknowledges. “They keep doing it because the legal penalties are still not enough so as to curtail it. It’s bad for the art market because when the price of objects of art goes down they’re not preserved. More importantly, it confuses the art historical record which is extremely frustrating.
“It’s kind of like an arms race,” she adds. “The forgers become more competent using the appropriate materials and we become more sophisticated in the evaluation process.”