More on the Fake Frans Hals

A few days ago I posted on the discovery of some faked old masters, one by Frans Hals which was brokered by Sotheby's in 2011 and was recently discovered to be a modern forgery (click HERE to read the post). The Finanical Times has just published an article on the situation, noting the painting was sold through a private sale by Sotheby's for a reported $10 million. The article now states it may be lucky if it can be sold for $10,000. Sotheby's has reimbursed the buyer.

The painting was found to have trace elements of 20th century materials in the ground and paint layers. The article also notes there was no provenance, and questions the authentication process, which is paramount but it also appears to be getting harder and harder to find a solid attribution.

The Financial Times reports
On an autumn morning in Paris in 2008, a senior curator at the Louvre headed into Christie’s grand saleroom beside the Champs-Élysées to see a newly discovered painting. “It was a special moment,” he said, as specialists handed over a small “Portrait of a Man”, seemingly by the Dutch artist Frans Hals.

The curator liked what he saw — and so did his colleagues at the Louvre, for they decided to buy it. A fundraising campaign was launched, and the picture was declared “un trésor national”. The price was €5m.

But the financial crisis intervened, and the museum was unsuccessful. The painting was subsequently sold to a London dealer, Mark Weiss, who in turn sold it to an American collector through Sotheby’s in New York in 2011, for a reported $10m.

It seems, however, that the Louvre had a close shave. This week the painting was declared a “modern forgery” by Sotheby’s. Trace elements of synthetic 20th-century materials have been discovered in both the ground and paint layers. The auction house immediately refunded the buyer. Some dispute the result. But I doubt many would now pay even $10,000 for it.

So what changed? Until recently, the picture enjoyed the cleanest possible bill of health. Before the Louvre’s campaign it was subjected to a full scientific analysis by France’s Centre for Research and Restoration. It passed with flying colours. Numerous Hals scholars also supported the attribution. And in the esteemed Burlington Magazine it was described as “a very important addition to Hals’ oeuvre”.

But one piece of the puzzle always remained elusive: provenance. Until it surfaced in Paris. the painting had been completely unknown. The only name certainly attached to it was that of the French dealer who sold it: Giuliano Ruffini.

In fact, the Old Master market has been fretting about Ruffini, or rather his paintings, for some time. After offering previously unknown works by major artists to both auction houses and dealers for some years, rumours inevitably began. As each new discovery was unveiled, it seemed statistically unlikely that one person could be a conduit for so many unrecorded works. Where had they been all these years? And many seemed to be slight variants of other, more well-known works. (This is not to say, of course, that Ruffini himself knew they were possibly fake, or was acting in anything other than good faith.)

Then, in March this year, it emerged that another of Ruffini’s paintings, a “Venus” by Cranach the Elder, had been seized by a French court amid allegations of forgery. This picture was subsequently sold to the London dealer Colnaghi, who in 2013 sold it to the Prince of Liechtenstein for €7m, having had the picture accepted by Cranach scholars. But the French journalist who broke the Cranach story, Vincent Noce, revealed last week that a new analysis of the “Venus” has raised serious concerns. The panel on which it is painted is now suspected of being up to two centuries too late for Cranach, and the paint surface shows signs of artificial ageing. Some of the Cranach scholars who once so admired the “Venus” now believe her to be a forgery.

Furthermore, Noce has also linked Ruffini to at least two other highly praised “new discoveries”; a “St Jerome” by Parmigianino, and a “David with the Head of Goliath” by Orazio Gentileschi. There is no proof yet that they are fakes. But as with the Cranach and the Hals, neither has any certain provenance before the 1990s. And what makes “l’affaire Ruffini” of acute interest to the art world is that the Parmigianino and Gentileschi have until recently been on display at two of the world’s most respected museums, the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the National Gallery in London, respectively.

Ruffini, for his part, is emphatic that he “never claimed these works were great masters”, and that it was other experts who deemed them to be by Hals and Cranach.

All of which tells us two things. The first is that if any of the paintings are indeed fakes, whoever has been making them is an artist of extraordinary skill. I must confess that I saw a good high-resolution photo of the Hals long before any question of forgery had been raised, and never doubted that it was genuine. The Gentileschi is the only Ruffini painting I have seen in the flesh, and for what it’s worth, I believe it is a forgery. But it took me a long time, and a flight to Berlin to see an undisputed original Gentileschi for comparison, to figure it out. Any such ability successfully to mimic the styles of Old Masters as varied as Cranach and Hals would be unprecedented in modern times. Equally skilful is the ability to age these modern creations in such a way as to make them look centuries old. Sadly, we don’t yet know who this genius is — or indeed where she or he has stopped. How do we know he or she wasn’t also knocking out, say, Impressionists, in many ways an easier challenge?

The more alarming consequence of the scandal, however, is how it threatens to undermine the art world’s long-established system of deducing authenticity. Shouldn’t major museums such as the Louvre be able to tell the difference between a modern fake and a 400-year-old masterpiece? While there are many who say authorship doesn’t matter, most museum visitors like to know that the painting they’re looking at really was painted by the name on the label. And of course in the market authenticity is king.

But if anything the fake Hals merely highlights an existing problem in how we determine attribution. In their quest to confirm attributions, dealers and auction houses seek the imprimatur of independent, usually academic, experts. Often that person’s “expertise” is deduced by whether they have published anything on a particular artist. But the skills required to publish a book are different to those needed to recognise whether a painting is genuine. Many academics are also fine connoisseurs. One of the few to doubt the attribution to Parmigianino of the St Jerome allegedly connected to Ruffini was the English scholar, David Ekserdjian. But too often the market values being a published writer over having a good “eye”.
Source: The Financial Times 

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