Master forgery: '17th century work exposed as a fake'
A Dutch Golden Age painting in one of Britain's foremost art collections is actually a fake painted by a notorious forger, it has emerged.
Courtauld's '17th-century' painting - a brothel scene titled The Procuress
By Dalya Alberge
5:25PM BST 02 Jul 2011
It was believed that The Procuress, at the The Courtauld Institute of Art in London, was a 17th century anonymous copy of a 1620s brothel scene by Dutch master Dirck van Baburen.
After tests for a BBC One show, Fake of Fortune?, it is now accepted that the work is a forgery by Han van Meegeren, a Dutch forger who died in 1947.
As recently as 2009, the respected Art Newspaper revealed that curators at the Courtauld and the National Gallery (NG) believed the painting had “every appearance of being of 17th-century origin”, as the latter put it.
Now, scientific tests commissioned for the BBC programme detected a synthetic resin similar to Bakelite mixed into the paints to mimic age.
Research was supervised by Philip Mould, an Old Masters dealer with a track record of discovering genuine works.
He said: “Some of the most prominent specialists … have speculated that it is a 17th-century picture – but … Bakelite was [Van Meegeren’s] unique fingerprint.”
At the outset, Mould doubted the 17th century attribution. “To my eyes, it was a Van Meegeren”, he said.
Ironically, that was also the opinion of Geoffrey Webb, the man who donated it to the Courtauld in 1960 for study purposes. Webb, as a British officer responsible for the restitution of looted Nazi art – Goering was among those duped by Van Meegeren – considered it a fake, partly because it was recovered in 1945 from Van Meegeren’s own villa.
However, the master-forger also possessed genuine paintings and, in the late 1970s, historians began to reconsider the picture as genuine 17th-century.
Van Meegeren swindled his buyers out of some £65m in today’s money, driven by the bitterness of his own paintings being dismissed as derivative. His forgeries fooled leading art galleries, including the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, which paid a record figure, today’s equivalent of £12m, for one work – now a fake in its storeroom.
He was arrested in 1945, not for selling a fake, but for selling to Goering what the Dutch thought was a real Vermeer, a treasure of Holland’s heritage.
This laid him open to the charge of collaboration, and execution as a traitor. His only way out was to admit to selling his own fake. During his 1947 trial he confessed to forging seven old masters, but 21 have since been identified and there may be more.
Documents relating to Van Meegeren’s trial mention the Courtauld’s picture, the forger insisting that his former wife bought it in 1938 in an antique shop. But Mould said: “I don’t believe it … He lied in paint … and he twisted the truth.”
Part of the technical research for the BBC was undertaken by Aviva Burnstock, the Courtauld’s conservation head. With a Dutch expert, and the latest forensic tests, she studied materials seized from Van Meegeren’s studio in 1945.
They included his paint pigments – one, crucially, labelled “artificial resin”. Analysis confirmed that it was phenol formaldehyde, better known as Bakelite, only invented in the 20th century, but which Van Meegeren mixed into his paints to harden them like an old painting.
“Paint almost acts like blood at a crime scene,” Mould said. The Rijksmuseum also allowed minuscule flecks of paint to be taken from its own genuine version of The Procuress and its Van Meegeren fake, to be compared with the Courtauld picture.
Burnstock told the BBC: “It’s gone back and forward between being a fake by Van Meegeren or a genuine 17th century painting.” After seeing the evidence, she adds: “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such an unequivocal result. This is absolutely … Van Meegeren.”
A National Galleries spokeswoman said: "Attributions of paintings can – and will inevitably – change as more is known about them. This can be based on new art-historical information or technical results."
The Courtauld said it did not display the picture as a 17th century work.