Fraud or for real? The Taft and UC team up to bring forgeries into the public eye

Is imitation truly “the sincerest form of flattery?”

In the art world -- as in most spheres -- the answer is complicated. In the exhibit “Fakes, Forgeries, and Followers in the Taft Collection,” the Taft Museum of Art
presents a curated selection of pieces that have proven to be -- or are presumed to be -- either imitation works or intentional forgeries.

Imitation and authentication
The Taft has a private collection of almost 800 works, mostly European paintings, European decorative arts, American art, and Chinese art. Pieces from its permanent collection, as well as rotating exhibits, are on display throughout the sprawling 1820 historic home and modern gallery.

Unlike some art museums that are constantly acquiring more works of art, the Taft rarely accepts new works into its collection. This exhibit was an opportunity to dig into some of the pieces the museum rarely puts on display.

“The majority of our collection has been firmly authenticated for decades,” museum curator Tamera Muente explains. “We decided it would be fun to revisit some of the works of art that have been in storage because they've been questioned in the past by experts. We wanted to tell the story of the science and scholarship that goes into authentication.”

While preparing for the exhibition, the museum was contacted by Christopher Platts, assistant professor of art history at the University of Cincinnati, regarding art authentication work he’d been doing in collaboration with UC’s science faculty. The timing was perfect for a partnership between the museum and the university.

In preparation for the exhibit, an interdisciplinary team of researchers in UC’s College of Arts and Sciences and the College of Design, Architecture, Art, and Planning came on board to help the museum investigate the authenticity of two pieces in its collection.

The first, “Panel with the Crucifixion,” is a depiction of the Crucifixion on a golden background and wooden panel. For this piece, the research was helpful but inconclusive. Based on paint sampling, they now know that it’s not authentic to the Renaissance era, but it’s unknown whether it’s an intentional forgery or merely an imitation.

The other piece the UC team researched was “Landscape with Canal,” a painting that bears the style and signature of English painter John Constable. Experts believe it was likely painted by Frederick Waters Watts and UC’s experts are likewise skeptical of its attribution to Constable.

Their research was not conclusive, but it was helpful and informative. Scientific research has a lot to offer in understanding and appreciating these mysterious works of art.

Imitation and presentation
Imitation in art can be a complicated issue to navigate. Muerte explains that some artists are simply emulating a style of particular artist with no intent to deceive, but at other times, artists create intentional forgeries to pass off as originals. At times, works have been attributed to one artist and then later identified as forgeries.

“They are still beautiful works of art in their own right,” Muente says. “At times it can be informative to show a forgery, even when it is properly identified as a
forgery. It can help us really appreciate and learn more about the real thing.”

Muente says her favorite example of this is the painting “Man Leaning on a Window” from the current exhibition. It was once thought to be by Dutch painter Rembrandt van Rijn, but it was researched in the 1990’s by the Rembrandt Research Project using x-ray, infrared photography, and comparisons to known Rembrandt works. It is now presumed to be a forgery.

“Because Rembrandt had so many students and followers, and because his work was so sought after by collectors in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were many works mistakenly identified as by Rembrandt on the market, as well as outright forgeries. This painting -- and another one in the show by a follower of Rembrandt -- tells us a lot about Rembrandt himself, as well as the collecting trends (and the art market) during the time the Tafts were putting together their collection.”

Want to do your own investigation? Visitors can compare “Man Leaning on a Window” to the real Rembrandt that is on display in the Taft museum’s Music Room.

Catch the exhibit before it closes on February 5.
The Taft Museum of Art is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tickets range from $10-$12. Taft members, military, and youth are free and Sundays are free for everyone.

The museum is located at 316 Pike Street, in the Lytle Park district of downtown Cincinnati.

Read more articles by Liz McEwan.

Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.