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Analytical Chemistry

Fakes And Forgeries

Museum, FBI, and materials scientist reveal ploys used to produce fraudulent art

by Lois R. Ember
September 10, 2007 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 85, Issue 37

Credit: Courtesy of the Bruce Museum
"The Cotton Pickers," an oil-on-board painting in the manner of William Aiken Walker, was recently exhibited at the Bruce Museum. FBI tags on the back of "The Cotton Pickers" mark it as evidence in a 1995 investigation of Charles L. Heller for art fraud.
Credit: Courtesy of the Bruce Museum
"The Cotton Pickers," an oil-on-board painting in the manner of William Aiken Walker, was recently exhibited at the Bruce Museum. FBI tags on the back of "The Cotton Pickers" mark it as evidence in a 1995 investigation of Charles L. Heller for art fraud.

THE LOVE OF MONEY may or may not be the root of all evil, but it is definitely the root of most art fraud. Counterfeit art—both fine and decorative—has been made since antiquity. But now, with some works of art selling for tens to hundreds of millions of dollars and with demand outpacing supply, the temptation for some unscrupulous people to tap into this mother lode by producing and selling fraudulent art is irresistible.

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation, art and cultural property crime—theft as well as fraud—is a booming criminal industry, approaching $6 billion annually. To counter such crime, the bureau three years ago set up what it calls a "rapid deployment force" to investigate art and cultural property cases.

Credit: Courtesy of the Bruce Museum
Credit: Courtesy of the Bruce Museum

Not all art fraud is perpetrated for money. Some forgers have produced fraudulent works to seek revenge against an art establishment that had scorned them or whose values they detested. Some prideful forgers have simply tested their talent by looking to get their works into exhibition catalogs brimming with legitimate masterpieces.

Art experts can usually, if not always easily, categorize fraudulent works as either fakes or forgeries, though even experts sometimes lapse and use the terms interchangeably. Or they will shy away from using the two f words and resort to such terms and phrases as "copies," "imitations," "misrepresentations," or "in the style of."

In general, a fake is a piece that replicates an existing work and may or may not have been done as a deliberate deception. Artists have long copied works of art to master their craft or to work their way out of an artist's block. Such copies, reproductions, and replicas become fakes only when they are represented as originals. Perhaps the first successful lawsuit against a faker occurred in the 16th century, when the German painter and printmaker Albrecht Dürer sued an Italian artist for copying his prints and signature without permission.

A forgery, on the other hand, is a deliberate attempt to deceive by mimicking the style of another artist or replicating that artist's signature and then fobbing off the forged work as that of the other artist. Clearly, explains Nancy Hall-Duncan, a forgery "has an element of mal intent." Hall-Duncan, senior curator of art at the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Conn., recently organized a small summer exhibit called "Fakes & Forgeries: The Art of Deception," which focused on Western sculpture, painting, prints, and decorative objects from 2500 B.C. to A.D. 2006.

Sometimes, Hall-Duncan writes in the catalog accompanying the exhibition, what constitutes an authentic work is not so easy to determine "when viewed against a vast array of faked, forged, copied, attributed, and replicated work."

"Some restorers," she tells C&EN, "get a little too adventurous. If 40% of an authentic work is restored, is the restored work a fake?"

In her catalog essay, Hall-Duncan cites an Egyptian sculpture as another example to illustrate the complexities of authentication. When it first came to the attention of Egyptologist Bernard V. Bothmer in 1956, the sculpture was an ancient faceless head protruding from a pillar whose three sides had engraved hieroglyphics. In 1970, the sculpture appeared on the market, only now a face had been carved to make the sculpture more salable. The Brooklyn Museum purchased what has become known as "the head that grew a face," knowing it to be what Bothmer called a "semi-fake."

Fascinating stories like that of the Egyptian head abound in the world of fakes and forgeries and have become fodder for museum exhibitions like the Bruce Museum's or the basis for movies such as Orson Welles's "F for Fake," about art forger Elmyr de Hory. Or they can attract the attention of the FBI.

The late-20th century has witnessed not only a thriving art market but also a flourishing and growing counterfeit art enterprise that can distort the historical study of art. To combat the counterfeiters, countries have mounted dedicated fraud-busting teams. Italy's Command for the Preservation of Cultural Heritage, at 300-people strong, is the largest and one of the most sophisticated teams. Scotland Yard has its Art & Antiquities Squad, and Interpol has a two-officer Antiquities Tracking Task Force.

In response to the looting that occurred in Iraq in 2003 at the end of the initial U.S. invasion, the FBI established a 12-member Art Crime Team in 2004. These special agents are each responsible for investigating art and cultural property crime cases in an assigned geographic region. The efforts of the team are coordinated through the FBI's Art Theft Program, headquartered in Washington, D.C.

William Aiken Walker

William Aiken Walker was born in Charleston, S.C., in 1839 and came of age when that city was the center of industrial and cultural life of the South before the Civil War.

He was considered something of a prodigy and was well-educated. He learned to speak Spanish and French, play the piano and violin, and write poetry—all talents that, along with his natural charm, stood him in good stead all his life.

His love for art surfaced early, and by all accounts, he exhibited his first oil painting in 1850 at the age of 11. He never stopped painting, and by the time he died in 1921, just months shy of his 83rd birthday, he had painted, by some estimates, more than 2,000 works.

Charleston in Walker's youth had a slave-based agricultural economy and was a major port for the highly profitable export of cotton and rice. It was also where the Civil War erupted. Walker joined the Confederate Army in 1860 and served as a private in the 2nd Palmetto Regiment of the South Carolina Volunteers. He received a medical discharge in 1861 and, for the next year, continued to work as a draftsman for the Confederate Engineer Corps in Charleston.

Walker painted the shelling of Charleston by Union troops in 1863 and created a highly collectible deck of American playing cards in 1864. Some of the cards are miniature paintings depicting the bombardment of Fort Sumter or feature Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Stonewall Jackson as kings.

By 1868, Walker had settled in Baltimore, though "settled" is not an apt word to describe him. He traveled extensively to New York and Cuba, and he set up shop on street corners and at resort areas throughout the South, painting and selling his small paintings to tourists for a few dollars. He was probably one of the first artists to make a decent living from the tourist trade, but he was also fortunate to sell major works, sometimes for up to $100.

In his early career, Walker painted traditional subjects—still life pictures of game and fish, scenes of Charleston and military camps, and portraits. After the war, he found his niche painting genre scenes of the lives of former slaves in the rural South.

He is as collectible today as he was in his lifetime. His appeal to collectors coupled with the fact that he is not a well-known artist makes him ripe for forgery.

The Art Crime Team cooperates with and assists other countries' art crime squads in investigations around the globe. In the U.S., the Justice Department has assigned three special trial attorneys to aid the FBI in the prosecution of art crimes.

Members of the Art Crime Team receive "specialized training in how to investigate art and cultural property crimes," says FBI spokeswoman Denise Ballew. Still, some of the team members, such as Special Agent James P. Wynne in the FBI's New York field office, have been investigating such crimes long before the Art Crime Team was set up.

Wynne has been probing art theft and fraud for "close to 20 years," says James Margolin, spokesman for the New York field office, and was involved in the case investigating forgeries of the Southern painter William Aiken Walker. A Walker forgery, "The Cotton Pickers," was exhibited in the Bruce Museum show.

Art expertise is not an essential element of Wynne's or any other team member's work. Rather, Wynne and his brethren engage in retrieving evidence and locating cooperative witnesses and interviewing them, explains Margolin. Wynne has no formal background in art or art history but has acquired what expertise he needs on the job, Margolin says.

Determining whether an art object is authentic or fallacious falls to experts in the art world, including materials and conservation scientists. Such assessment is not easy, because forgers have resorted to unbelievable stratagems to hoodwink experts with authentic-looking works of art. The art scammer's toolbox is chock-full of such devious tricks as doctored or forged documents, false provenance or history of ownership, and the use of historic materials and techniques.

To ply their trade, forgers have resorted to time-consuming methods. Among their tricks is scraping paint off old canvases. But if they are really creative, they will bury painted canvases in the ground or bake and fold them to accelerate the aging of pigment and varnish or to artificially reproduce the web of cracking, or craquelure, that appears on the surface of old paintings. For sculpture, some forgers have applied an "old" patina to the surface chemically.

Also to confound experts, forgers have sometimes used rare and costly but historically appropriate materials such as the blue pigment lapis lazuli or vellum from pages of medieval choir books to produce their forged illuminated manuscripts. Even old boards have been use to produce "old" panel paintings.

As the deceptive strategies and technologies of practitioners of fraud become more sophisticated, art experts must rely on equally cunning devices to unmask fakes and forgeries. These specialists conjure up a triad of tools—connoisseurship, art research, and technical analysis—to determine the genuineness of a work of art.

Connoisseurship is the subjective, though time-honored, process by which an informed specialist reaches an opinion about the art work's creator and the date and place of the work's creation. Most important, Peter C. Sutton, executive director of the Bruce Museum, writes in the exhibition catalog, the specialist is looking for clues such as the similarity in style and execution to other works by a known artist. Still, in the end, connoisseurship often boils down to the eye and gut feeling of a specialist who has spent years examining the works of a particular artist.

ART RESEARCH involves searching for such documentation as artists' letters and records, oral histories, and critical writings of the period. Most helpful to museum professionals, dealers, and collectors is the catalogue raisonn, which systematically lists relevant data of all known works by a particular artist.

Scientific analysis—the most objective and most recent of tools used to determine authenticity—is "indispensable," insists Sutton. "Science advances scholarship by exposing the material and technical inconsistencies of latter-day forgeries or imitations by comparing them with the physical properties of originals."

Various types of microscopy, spectroscopy, and chromatography have been used by materials and conservation scientists to identify an artwork's chemical composition. Dendrochronology (the study of tree rings), radiocarbon dating of organic materials, thermoluminescence dating of fired ceramic objects, and neutron autoradiography to determine types of pigments used are all methods employed to date objects.

Microscopic and spectroscopic techniques were used by materials scientist James Martin, founder of Orion Analytical, to aid the FBI in its investigation of Walker forgeries. Martin was also a consultant to the Bruce Museum and wrote an essay on testing techniques for the exhibition catalog.

Credit: Courtesy of James Martin
Credit: Courtesy of James Martin

Works purported to have been painted by Walker came to the FBI's attention in 1994, when a convicted felon, Charles L. Heller, sold a painting to a South Carolina dealer for $9,500. The dealer sought advice on the authenticity of the painting from another South Carolina dealer, a specialist on art of the American South and an expert on Walker paintings in particular.

The second dealer felt the painting was incorrect stylistically for a Walker and called on Martin's technical expertise to confirm his opinion. After a pigment analysis, Martin determined the painting could not have been painted by Walker, who died in January 1921.

Using Fourier transform infrared (FTIR) spectroscopy with a microscope accessory, Martin identified a yellow pigment known as Pigment Yellow 3 (PY3) in the questioned painting. PY3 was not in general use in the U.S. until the mid-1940s, more than 20 years after Walker's death.

THE FINDING of PY3 "was probably the most meaningful evidence" unearthed in his investigation, Martin says. The suspect "paintings were executed with a pigment that Walker would not have had access to, and this is called material anachronism," Martin explains.

Martin analyzed "The Cotton Pickers" and 14 other paintings for an FBI investigation of Heller's scam. Ten of the 15 were questioned paintings; the other five were authentic Walkers included in the analyses for comparison purposes. Martin didn't find PY3 in authentic works.

Credit: Courtesy of James Martin
Credit: Courtesy of James Martin

Using a stereomicroscope to examine in detail the surface of paintings, Martin found coarse aggregates of alizarin crimson, an organic pigment used by artists since the late-19th century. He says the crimson particles appear to have been dragged on the paint surface in a cometlike shape by the paint brush—but only in the forged paintings.

Scanning electron microscopy with X-ray energy-dispersive spectrometry revealed the presence of zinc white pigment in the forged paintings and lead white pigment in authentic Walkers. Both pigments were available to Walker, but he used only lead white.

The combined findings of PY3, alizarin crimson, and zinc white "pointed to common materials, a common palette, and a common source for" the questioned paintings, Martin explains. With his microscopic sleuthing, Martin also found that the signatures on the suspected paintings "were applied while the paint was wet, which goes to the intent to deceive," he says.

Walker was a good choice for forgery. His so-called genre paintings of African American life in the rural South are pleasing and as collectible today as they were in Walker's time. But they "are not high-value paintings and aren't works likely to be submitted to a laboratory for expensive analysis," Martin says.

With no technical analysis likely, all that is required to deceive is to "make the painting convincing on a visual basis," Martin says. Heller and his art scam colleagues found old boards or canvases and had a talented-enough artist approximate Walker's style. Heller fooled many dealers and collectors before the FBI's Columbia, S.C., field office, in an investigation led by Special Agent David A. Espie, amassed enough evidence to bring him to trial. Much of that evidence came from Martin's technical analyses.

Heller was tried in a federal court in Columbia in 2000 on two counts of mail and wire fraud. To avoid the fraud charges and the testimony of expert witnesses like Martin, Heller pleaded guilty to the lesser crime of "knowing certain works of art purportedly painted by William Aiken Walker were forgeries" and concealing this fact from an art dealer. He was sentenced to six months in jail and had to repay the dealer $9,500.


The artist who painted the forgeries has never been publicly named, but Espie tells C&EN that "a suspect from upstate New York was identified but was not charged due to lack of evidence."

Aside from the economic consequences of art fraud, unidentified fakes and forgeries distort the history of art and tarnish the integrity of museums that the public relies on as custodians of authentic art. Still, as the exhibit at the Bruce Museum underscored, fakes and forgeries offer "interesting stories and interesting lessons," Hall-Duncan says.


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