“Crisis of authentication”: true art, false art, and the science of detection

Dombrowski forger detailCunning criminality is nothing new.  But the “faithful duplicity” of some recent forgeries has stunned art experts and shaken the markets and social organizations that envelop this area of knowledge.  Stories of stolen fortunes and international detective work however, can kick-start student interest as we use fake art to raise questions about real art. The TOK questions scream to be asked:  What is a “real” work of art if a forgery is indistinguishable?  What gives works of art their value?

Stories:  truth, fakery, and stupendous fraud

When we start in TOK with a Real Life Situation (RLS) – as our course evaluation puts it – we often get the advantage of the appeal of stories.  An excellent article in a recent Guardian Weekly gives us background for narration of modern fakes and provides an account of processes of authentication: The master detective.

In our contemporary context of electronic fakery of all kinds – including the “deep fakes” on which I recently blogged – it’s not surprising that the arms race between criminality and attempts at detection should escalate in the art world.  Forgeries can take various forms – such as direct copies of authentic works while a collector keeps the original, or paintings that copy the materials and style of a highly regarded artist and are claimed to be the “lost work” of the master.  Writer Samanth Subramanian points out the dynamics of detection around recent frauds:

“The quality of these paintings – their faithful duplicity – jolted the market. The sums of money at stake in art, never paltry to begin with, have grown monstrous….

“In lockstep, the incentive to be a proficient forger has soared; a single, expertly executed old master knockoff can finance a long, comfortable retirement. The technologies available to abet the aspiring forger have also improved. Naturally, then, the frauds are getting better, touching off a crisis of authentication for the institutions of the art world: the museums and galleries and auction houses and experts who are expected to know the real thing from its imitation.”

It’s hard to grasp the sheer amount money involved.  For instance, at least 25 works sold by French collector Giuliano Ruffini, all of them now shadowed with doubt of their authenticity, total about $235 million.

Science meets art: the process of authentication

And so…enter the detective, the scientist.  Sotheby’s, the auction-house for much of the world’s pricey art, gives buyers a guarantee.  Obviously, then, it needs an expert to authenticate paintings – and at the end of 2016 it took the unprecedented step of hiring its own scientific analyst. Meet James Martin, “the art world’s foremost forensic art detective”. The Guardian article outlines some of Martin’s techniques, and an article from Wired describes further:

“’We’re analyzing samples so small they’re invisible to the naked eye,’ Martin says.

“In his investigations, he relies on research, his vast knowledge of art history, and a collection of highly specialized tools—microscopes, cameras, spectrometers—to answer questions like: Did the forger paint over another painting? Are the materials consistent with the era? Were any elements added later? Is the signature real?”

In his lab, Martin closely analyses the physical materials of paintings. In one case, he defeated a forger by finding a single polypropylene fiber stuck in the paint of a 12-square-foot painting – a kind of fiber that didn’t exist before 1958.

Clearly, the general issues here for TOK go beyond fibers in paint and link the process of art authentication with the tests in other disciplines – such as carbon dating of artifacts, historical dating of documents by their materials – and connect art with science and technology and with issues of evidence in all areas of knowledge.

Bigger question: What gives a work of art its value? 

Did Franz Hals really do the painting that is claimed to be his work?  This is question of fact – of whether a knowledge claim is true or false – and appropriately answered by reference to evidence.  This is the question that our scientific sleuth James Martin answers for Sotheby’s Auction House.

Does it matter whether Franz Hals really painted it?  What difference does it make?  This is no longer a question of fact but a question of values.  No amount of evidence will suffice to provide an answer to this question.

Clearly, the two questions are related, as Subramanian points out:

“For Sotheby’s, the question of authenticity is not merely, or even primarily, academic. There is more at stake than a satisfying answer to the fundamental conundrum of whether authenticity matters at all – a debate that has been fought and refought in the history of western art. ‘If a fake is so expert that even after the most thorough and trustworthy examination its authenticity is still open to doubt,’ the critic Aline Saarinen once wondered, ‘is it or is it not as satisfactory a work of art as if it were unequivocally genuine?’ Typically, this debate comes to rest at the same place every time. Of course authenticity matters; to study a false Rembrandt as a true one would be to hobble our understanding of Rembrandt as an artist, and of the evolution of art. Now, however, the question’s philosophical whimsy has been replaced by financial urgency. At a time when the art market is synonymous with art itself, a lack of regard for attribution would derail a trade that traffics in the scarcity of authentic Rembrandts.”

So is it the market, then, that ultimately makes a painting valuable?  Or is the market price a reflection of a value ascribed otherwise?  In a class discussion, students are likely to raise a number of good points, leaving it to us as teachers to prod with further questions and then debrief main points at the end.

Art, an area of knowledge that thrives on different perspectives

As students argue for different perspectives, moreover, they are taking part in the continuing life of the arts, an area of knowledge that thrives on the discussion that surrounds works, whether they are paintings, literature, musical compositions, dance, films, or any of the other creative forms that both communicate and stimulate communication. (And I love the list of TOK titles for May 2019, which invite some truly thoughtful discussion of the arts!)

If you have my book Theory of Knowledge,  you will find chapter 15 develops some dominant critical perspectives which you could find useful in this discussion.  I’ll take brief extracts here (pages 243-246), in case you don’t have the book:

Do you evaluate the artwork with an emphasis on the ARTIST?   Critical attention focuses on the biography of the artist, the artist’s intentions, the creative process, and the artist’s view of the world.  This attention acknowledges the expressive goal of the arts.

 Do you evaluate the artwork with an emphasis on the ARTWORK itself? Critical attention focuses on the formal features of the work, its composition and technique.  This attention acknowledges the aesthetic goal of the arts.

Do you evaluate the artwork with emphasis on the AUDIENCE?  Critical attention focuses on the effect the work of art has on the audience.  This attention acknowledges the didactic goal of the arts (to teach) and, like the first, the expressive goal – but in terms of stirring of audience emotions. 

Do you evaluate the artwork with emphasis on the CONTEXT OF SOCIETY OR THE NATURAL WORLD?  Critical attention focuses on the effectiveness of the work in representation of society or the world, its role within tradition, and its role as a social and historical document or artifact.  This attention acknowledges the representative goal of the arts (to hold the mirror up to nature) and the social roles given to the arts.

Evidently, the market context of an artwork places an emphasis on the artist – the creative process, the biography of the artist, the meaning placed on a work by the authentic original creator. Yet even if the market value depends on values otherwise attributed, it can take on an acquisitive, competitive impetus of its own.

The fun of the fake

You’d be entirely right in suspecting, as you surely do by now, that I actually enjoy the whole topic of forgery!  For one thing, I like the stories and the images that can be brought into class (slideshows!).  For another, I prefer to offer students writing or life situations that aren’t perfectly tidy.  I’d prefer not to give them an article to read that sums up ideas oh-so-perfectly, with answers, because it would leave them with nothing to think through actively themselves.  The messy world, with its uncertainties and human foolishness, is more engaging.  And personally, my moral indignation over fakery is often tempered with a wry amusement at the different ways that human beings demonstrate their ingenuity and use their knowledge.


Elise Craig, “How Science Uncovered $80 Million of Fine Art Forgeries”, Wired.  December 20, 2016. https://www.wired.com/2016/12/how-to-detect-art-forgery/

Samanth Subramanian, “The master detective”, The Guardian Weekly.  June 29, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/news/2018/jun/15/how-to-spot-a-perfect-fake-the-worlds-top-art-forgery-detective

Cartoons copyright Theo Dombrowski, used here with permission.  He extends his permission to teachers using these cartoons in their own classrooms, following the conventions of acknowledgement.


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