Original or fake? You should provide the answer

Sep 24, 2023 | Art Word, Authentications & attributions, Exhibitions, Fakes

Often between one hypothesis or the other the difference is millions euros and the reputations of scholars and galleries. Reasons enough to arouse the curiosity of even a non-specialist public and become popular news.

However, it requires a certain courage to hold an exhibition on fakes belonging to a museum, acquired or donated, and believed to be original until a few years ago. That’s what they did for the Art & Artifice exhibition at the Courtauld Institute in London, UK.

On display are paintings, drawings and sculptures on which research has raised questions (in the case of some drawings it was actually an anonymous phone call that caught the bug!), and, generally, conclusive answers were given by scientific analyses.

For example, the alleged “Botticelli” was considered among the museum’s treasures and seemed to be the summa of the artist, while in reality it was rather a sum of various parts copied from original works. The material also seemed convincing: craquelure, woodworms, and age-related cracks. However, the x-ray found woodworm holes had been made with the drill and chemical analyses discovered twentieth-century materials.

And similarly for many others. And then signatures, gallery owners’ stamps and other details to deceive experts, and even cheap imitations of antique flea market ceramics, passed off as fifteenth-century artworks.

The Courtauld provides an excellent service not only to non-specialists, who can approach the complexity of the world of attributions, but also to historians, who have the opportunity to learn which methods and techniques have proven to be decisive.


In some cases, however, observation alone is enough. The Courtauld asks its visitors questions (and we repeat one here): which one of these two drawings below is an original by Tiepolo? And why?


The original one is the portrait of the man with the helmet. It could be the portrait of Alexander the Great. Tiepolo’s lines are simple but confident, essential but lively.

The drawing of the two seated soldiers was donated to the Courtauld in 2011 as a fake, for educational purposes. In trying to imitate the master, the forger filled the drawing with zigzag lines, heavy and insecure. Here the shadows, unlike what happens in the original, are unable to render the volumes.

In other cases, such as that of a drawing originally attributed to Michelangiolo, criticism is still divided. Infrared reflectography revealed another pattern underneath the visible one. The question is still open.

Open and interesting at the Courtauld. It’s just a shame they didn’t resort to publish a catalogue.

Anna Pelagotti
Anna Pelagotti