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Art forgery

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A fake is an imitation of an original work of art, which is not presented as a copy, or an original work of which an attempt is made to attribute authorship to an artist who is not the author, and which is generally more famous.


A City on a Rock - Goya - Eugenio Lucas Velázquez (A City on a Rock, long attributed to Goya, is now thought to have been painted by 19th-century artist Eugenio Lucas Velázquez. Elements of the painting appear to have been copied from autographed works by Goya, and the painting is therefore classified as a pastiche.)


The notion of art forgery in art closely relates the following four terms: “copy”, “imitation”, “counterfeit” and “forgery”.


The term “copy” has its roots in the Latin term “copia“, which means “abundance”. In the Middle Ages, around 1250, this definition evolved and became “to reproduce a writing”. From the 17th century, this word was used in printing to denote the final reproduction of a text intended for printing.

Until the first quarter of the 17th century, the term “copy” was used in the context of the identical reproduction of a work devoid of any intention to deceive others. However, the word is also used in the 17th century to refer to the reproduction of works of art; “copy” no longer has the meaning of reproduction, it takes on the meaning of imitation. The verb “to copy” also means “to imitate and steal the invention […]”. This is how the term “to copy” became pejorative, denoting the impersonator of others, a plagiarist linked to the theft of intellectual property, a legal concept that emerged at the beginning of the 18th century, among others in England.

In the 21st century, this term means “to reproduce” or “to fraudulently reproduce”, according to the dictionary; another dictionaries specifie that the copy is made by someone other than the original. When the artist produces several copies of a work, we speak of a replica.


“Imitate” appears in the 15th century in religious vocabulary. It designates the act of reproducing examples of virtue and morals. This verb is linked to the field of the arts because it is a question of taking “the style, the spirit, the genius of another author [of a painter]”. In the 17th century, Robert’s dictionary defined “imitate” as the act of “counterfeiting a commodity, a writing” and became synonymous with “counterfeiting” when the intention is to deceive others.

The Latin root of the word “imitate” establishes a link with the term “counterfeit” since to imitate comes from the Latin “imitari” is the same origin as “contrafacere“.

Today, “imitate” has retained this double definition. This verb means “to do or seek to reproduce” as well as “to reproduce with the intention of passing off the reproduction as authentic”.


The word “counterfeit” is a matter of intention: that of deceiving. This term is necessarily linked to the intentional theft of intellectual property. It has two Latin roots. The first, “Imitare“, means “to transform”, “to disguise” and by extension “to counterfeit a person in the gestures”, or more literally “to disguise his hand to transform it into the hand of another”. In the 16th century, this term evolved to take the meaning of “pretend to deceive”. In the 17th century, “counterfeit” means “to imitate something and try to make it similar”, approaching the original definition. The term expands, takes more breadth in its second Latin root, “adulterare” which means “to falsify”, “to imitate”.

In the 21st century, “counterfeit” has retained a meaning close to that defined in the 16th century. This term means “to reproduce by imitation” or even “to change the appearance (of something) in order to deceive”.


The term “falsify”, “false” means “to counterfeit something” or “to alter by a bad mixture”. The purpose of falsifying is to deceive someone, to deceive others. This bringing together of the terms “counterfeit” and “falsify” seems to confuse the two words to make them synonyms.

In the twenty-first century this term has a double meaning: “to alter voluntarily with the aim of deceiving” or “to give a false appearance to (something)”.


Historically, we must try to distinguish whether a forgery was made with fraudulent intent or not. This is the essential point: the intention, for example, to pass off a copy as an original work.

Since at least the 15th century, it has been common practice for students in painters’ workshops, working in society, to imitate or paint in the manner of a master in order to learn: the artist, head of his studio, gives an idea to his apprentices and collaborators, who then perform. It was not until the 19th century that we spoke of an “authentic” work only when it was conceived and painted by the master alone. The definition of a “fake” is therefore recent with regard to the history of art. We must also take into account paintings modified over time by other artists for moral, religious, political convenience (for example, the figures of the Last Judgment by Michelangelo). We must also take into account repainting, restorations. Finally, it is necessary to understand that some forgeries are just works that have been misattributed in the past. The real forger copies a painting (or several elements borrowed from several canvases) that he modifies if necessary and signs it with the name of the artist with the aim of deceiving.

We speak of a work “attributed to” when doubts remain but the authenticity is plausible; a “workshop of” production when there is a guarantee that it was carried out in the workshop of a master or under his authority; “school of” when the artist has been a pupil of a master and has been influenced or helped by him; of “copy” when it is a question of the desire to have the reproduction of a famous work, fruit therefore of a commission, or for the needs of the teaching of the art; and “pastiche” when a master paints like another (for example, Rubens vis-à-vis Titian). In a case of counterfeiting, deception and fraud, a work of art can therefore be expressly and falsely “attributed to”.

History of fakes

The first forgeries date from the Roman Empire; Greek sculptures were sold to wealthy patricians at a time when Greek art was in vogue. In the Middle Ages, false relics were made by artists to be sold to religious establishments.

Also in the Middle Ages, false historical documents were produced, sometimes by large copy shops, with the hope of having them subsequently validated by an authority, sometimes successfully.

The spread of wealth that followed the Renaissance led to a greater attraction for works of art and ancient objects. This attraction extends to contemporary works and the value of these works is increasingly attached to the signature of the one who produced them. To identify them, painters began to mark their works, first with signs and then with signatures. Faced with an increasingly strong demand, the first fakes are starting to appear.

Historian Giorgio Vasari notes that Michelangelo copied drawings of masters to substitute his copies for the originals; he also sculpted a Sleeping Cupid in marble, patinated and buried it in order to artificially age it, then sold to Cardinal Raffaele Sansoni Riario on the advice of his patron Laurent de Medici, passing it off as a Hellenistic sculpture.

During the 16th century some followers of Albrecht Dürer add his signature to their own works to increase their value, angering Dürer. He thus adds to one of his engravings of the Virgin the mention “cursed looters and imitators of the work and talent of others”. Its most famous imitator is Marcantonio Raimondi. The Italian painter Luca Giordano painted a Christ healing the paralytic, attributed to Dürer, which earned him a prosecution, but pardoned by the courts.

In 1799, Wolfgang Küffner borrowed a self-portrait by Albrecht Dürer, which had been decorating the town hall of Nuremberg since the 16th century. Instead of the original, it restores a copy. The deception which was not discovered until six years later, in 1805, when the painting was sold and appraised.

Camille Corot is one of the most counterfeit artists. Casper Purdom Clark, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, claimed that 27,000 Corot paintings had been declared to US customs since the painter’s death. Corot himself sometimes signed paintings made by others with his name.

The fakes in painting multiply in the 20th century, in particular on the works of modern artists, such as Gustave Courbet, Vincent van Gogh, or, closer to us, Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Paul Klee, Matisse … After 1918 , demand exploded, especially in the United States: certain experts, during the years 1920-1930, allowed themselves to be deceived, for example in the cases of Otto Wacker and Alceo Dossena. Scientific authentication methods are, however, already operational (radiography, infrared lamp, chemical analysis of the compositions) and will not stop evolving: it is therefore not uncommon today to find in certain museum catalogs objects suddenly declassified, passing from the status of authentic to fake, objects immediately withdrawn from exhibitions.

During the Second World War, the art market in occupied France experienced a real boom which was accompanied by the creation and sale of numerous fakes.

False Etruscan remains also arise in the twentieth century, as a result of the development of renewed interest in this civilization. False “terracotta warriors” were even appraised and recognized as authentic between 1915 and 1961 by their purchaser, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. The confessions of the forger, the Italian sculptor Alfredo Fioravanti, at the American consulate in Rome, immediately bring back the experts of the museum on their certainties.

Frank Arnau recalls in 1959 in his essay The Art of the Counterfeiters that “it is no more difficult today for an expert to guarantee the authenticity of abstract paintings”. Thus, in 2012-2013, an enormous traffic in fake canvases of contemporary American painters was dismantled by the FBI, for a value exceeding 100 million dollars. Dealers and experts are often complicit in the sale of fakes, as evidenced by the quarrels between the Knoedler gallery and expert Bill Pallot.

Includes texts translated and adapted by Nicolae Sfetcu from Wikipedia

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