July 2, 2010 / 3:04 PM / 9 years ago

Revealed: Art's forgeries, fakes and mistakes

LONDON (Reuters) - A phony Botticelli, a faux Rembrandt, a Holbein hoax alongside other forgeries, fakes and mistakes come under the microscope in the latest exhibition at London’s National Gallery.

“Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries” explores the art of forgery and its detection in the first major exhibition of its kind, where 40 works which have been vetted by the gallery’s scientific department go on display.

“Roughly 40 percent of the National Gallery’s collection of around 2,500 paintings has had some form of technical examination carried out,” the gallery’s Director of Scientific Research Ashok Roy told Reuters in an e-mail.

Usually, art historians, scientists and restorers stay behind the scenes. But “Close Examination” reveals the expertise of the gallery’s scientific research department, considered a world leader in the study of the materials and techniques of Western European paintings.

Modern scientific methods such as infrared imaging, X-ray, electron microscopy and mass spectrometry have helped answer questions that vexed the gallery’s curators for years.

The exhibition spans six rooms: Deception and Deceit; Transformations and Modifications; Mistakes; Secrets and Conundrums; Redemption and Recovery and a room focusing on Botticelli.

To the untrained eye, the forged paintings look like authentic masterpieces, but hidden under the layers of paint lies a different story.


“Madonna of the Veil,” once thought to be the work of Sandro Botticelli, was in fact painted by Umberto Giunti, one of the most talented forgers of Italian Renaissance paintings. Giunti has even imitated the cracking, paint loss and worm-holes typical of old paintings.

Cross sections of paint samples taken from the canvases show how original works have been painted over by later artists, dealers and restorers to increase saleability and satisfy new tastes.

“Woman at a Window,” the work of an unknown Italian Renaissance artist, was modified in the 19th century to suit a more reserved Victorian sensibility. The seductive sidelong glance of its subject was turned into a look of wide-eyed innocence, her hair changed from blonde to brunette, and her bodice made less revealing.

In 1937, the gallery spent 14,000 pounds on four panels believed to be the work of Italian artist Giorgione. These have now been proved fake.

But the results of analysis have sometimes been more positive. An infrared scan of the National Gallery’s “The Madonna of the Pinks,” thought to be a copy of a lost original by Raphael, uncovered a detailed drawing beneath the surface which confirmed the painting’s authenticity.

There is also a short film on show, which takes viewers into the laboratory for a look at the techniques used by the gallery’s experts.

Despite the sophisticated technology available, the authorship of some paintings is unlikely ever to be known, the gallery said on its Web site.

Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries is on at the National Gallery until the 12th September.

Editing by Paul Casciato

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