Federico Zeri, one of the most famous Italian art historians (also for having resigned from the Board of Directors of the Getty of Malibu ‘following the acquisition of a Kouros later proved false), a tireless researcher and distinguished populariser, who on his death in 1998 left a gigantic photo library at the University of Bologna, went more than once on the subject of forgery in the art market.
But it is perhaps in the detective story, set in Rome, and published just before his death “F. Zeri-Carmen Iarrera, Mai con i dipinti. Romanzo, Milano, Longanesi, 1997”) that he lets himself go to a confession without havoc on the tongue: rich but arrogant collectors, unscrupulous merchants and conniving professors, thanks to a market without rules and without control, where, however, transitions are millionaires. But he also covers scientific analyses that are able to uncover fakes and forgeries … when they are done by professionals.
Here are some more brazenly impudent excerpts, for those who already know and for those who still dream …
For this reason, trusting their own nose (and the antiquarian who managed to get into their graces), rarely asking for the opinion of an expert, they pay without blinking astronomical sums, with no questions asked, satisfied to have got their hands on any crust that they considered something unique, rare, precious.
They are even more satisfied if you give him the illusion that the painting, kept for centuries in a family of ancient lineage, was on sale for half of its value only because the family was pressured by unpleasant, contingent, ineluctable financial necessities.
Old practice, this of “supporting” a painting. It is actually enough to find a suitable canvas, to have it restored if needed, to find an expert who attributes it to a more or less illustrious painter and to have the complicity of some fallen nobleman who, well oiled, swore that this painting came from the ancient and famous collection of his grandfather or that it was found by chance, after decades of oblivion, in his old aristocratic country residence.
Making a fake from scratch today is very difficult. In paintings, I mean, because for example in sculptures it is easy. It is enough to melt ancient coins to make a beautiful Greek or Roman fragment with a bronze that, of course, will be ancient to all analyses. Or you take a marble bust of good workmanship, save the face and chisel the drapery well, copying, for example, the style of Donatello’s drapery and attributing it to him or his school. Only an extremely skilled eye, at that point, could establish that the sculpture was manipulated. For paintings no. For paintings it is different because quartz lamps or infrared rays do not forgive.
“So you can’t cheat?”
The lieutenant laughed. The one who wants to cheat, cheats anyway. He takes a ruined picture, sometimes even a crust and corrects it to make it appear by another author. Or he manipulates it.
“I’ll give you an example. There is a painting school in Seville. They are all still lives, painted on oblong horizontal paintings. Generally, they represent tables with three groups of objects. A basket of fruit, or say, of loaves, of quinces.
If we have a dishonest merchant he takes the picture, he cuts it in three pieces, takes the basket with peaches, and passes it off as an Italian still life, Lombard, for example of Fede Galizia or Panfilo Nuvoloni, and earns a lot of money.”
“But can’t you see it?”
“Of course you can see. It would be enough to go and look at the margins to discover that the canvas is cut. But who does it?”
“Well. Of course there are those honest and competent, but there are also the so-called experts who are neither this nor that”.
“Most of the so-called experts work in agreement with the antique dealers and promote real poor paintings by attributing them to this and that, producing expert reports full of gaps where, for example, they never specify, and never means never, the conservation status of the object”.
“And is there no control?”
No. Because there is no register of authorized experts. And whoever does an assessment practically does not bear responsibility for it. At worst, he says he was wrong. His or her prestige is at stake, but they do not end up in jail. It would be enough to make a law in which it is established that whoever signs an appraisal is responsible for half of the value attributed to the object and then, yes, we could be certain. Instead, as things are, anyone can write that a crust is a masterpiece. There are certain university professors who do not deny an expertise to no one, and most of the time they do not even pay taxes”.