From art forgers to fake art history

byMaría Magdalena Ziegler

The year is coming to its end, but fake art seems to be finding its way to the beliefs of many. Art History must make a stand about it or sooner rather than later we will easily find a “hidden” Michelangelo at Florence’s Porcellino Market.

It is true that forgers are seen as art world’s antiheroes -as Noah Charney calls them. He has said that, in general, it is thought “that it is ok to admire them, even cheer for them against the authorities.” And we all, at certain point, enjoy a story about an art forger that fools the elite.

But let’s make it straight and clear: an art forger takes a masterpiece and re-creates it to deceive experts and connoisseurs. And that is a fraud no matter the point of view we choose.

Nevertheless, an art forger plans to delude experts. What happens when experts consciously mislead everyone? It is a fraud, of course. It is also another level of fraud. It leads the public opinion to praise what they know is fake art.

The art experts turn

These experts create a frame for huge investments in a work of art they perfectly know is a deceit. They even hid any reasonable doubts about the authorship creating an alluring discourse to mask historical and artistic facts.

“Salvator Mundi” being auctioned at Christie’s last November.

We have seen this around the Salvatore Mundi affair. Sold for more than $400 millions last November to who it turned out to be “a little-known Saudi prince from a remote branch of the royal family, with no history as a major art collector, and no publicly known source of great wealth” – according to David D. Kirkpatrick.

The controversial “last Leonardo in the world” (as it was referred to in the news) was highly criticized as a fraudulent painting. Christie’s even used recognized experts to state how wonderful this painting was and how miraculously it is that a Leonardo would appear these days.

[Read our opinion about the Salvator Mundi affair here]  

In recent days, there has been a little fuzz in social media about two brand new Leonardo’s that might be available for purchase some day. Wait a second! Wasn’t Christie’s “Salvator Mundi” the last Leonardo in town? Are there two more? Well, we may need to redefine “last”.

Let’s take a look at those two Leonardo’s that might enter the art market at some point. One of them is the Madonna of the Yarnwinder or the Buccleuch Madonna as it is also know. The second one is known as the Lansdowne Madonna. Both of them in private hands at the moment.

Buccleuch Madonna
“The Buccleuch Madonna”, c. 1500-1501

The Buccleuch Madonna has been on display at the National Galleries of Scotland since 2009. It has been in the Collection of the Duke of Buccleuch for at least 250 years. It was stolen in 2003, but recovered 4 years later.

“The Lansdowne Madonna”, c. 1501

The Lansdowne Madonna takes its name from its owners in the 19th Century, the Marquesses of Lansdowne. In the early 20th Century it was bought by Nathan Wildenstein and René Gimpel (art dealers) after a consultation to the renowned expert in Italian Renaissance art Bernard Berenson. He attributed the piece to il Sodoma (one of Leonardo’s followers), but believed that the master himself could have been responsible for the cartoon stage.

Later, art historian Wilhelm Suida attributed parts of the painting (the Child and background landscape) to Leonardo, but the attribution to Sodoma remained the most solid opinion in the art world. The piece hasn’t been in great shape in the last 100 years, suffering damages and being restored repeatedly.

The trouble with so many Leonardo’s

In brief, these two «new Leonardo’s» are not well established in the art history circle as artworks from the master of the Renaissance. Why is that? Well, just take a look at them! They are not solid masterpieces. Their many flaws are evident even to the untrained eye.

The Buccleuch Madonna is a cut-out silhouette stamped in a landscape, in a amateur landscape. While the Lansdowne Madonna shows a little more of the subtle paint brush stroke similar to Leonardo’s, the famous sfumato shines by its absence in the first.

If the Buccleuch Madonna is a real Da Vinci, then the master suffered from a severe lack of memory since he forgot how to blur the edges as he so masterfully did in his paintings. To compare the Monalisa with the Buccleuch Madonna is to immediately acknowledge these works have different authors.

Madonna Leonardo Monalisa

The Lansdowne Madonna, in the other hand, shows the efforts of a more talented artist, who might have wanted to paint «alla maniera di Leonardo» as it was fashionable in the first half of the 15th Century. The background landscape is remarkably similar to those made by Leonardo, but anatomical incorrectness in Mary’s figure would never be a good imitation of the master.

So, what is wrong here? Are we talking about a new fake art episode? Some experts seem to be paving the way to present these paintings in short term as «new Leonardo’s». Everyone in art history world should be aware.

Art historian Martin Kemp, stated in his book Leonardo da Vinci’s Madonna of the Yarnwinder: a historical and scientific detective story (Artakt & Zidane Press, 2011) that Leonardo might have been only responsible for a preparatory study of the Buccleuch Madonna. In 2017, he expressed: “That’s a Leonardo’s” -when talking about Salvator Mundi and evoking at the same time the expertise this artist had to blur the edges, to perfect anatomical drawing, to make mathematical correctness his goal.

If that is so, why has he also explained that: “Technical analysis shows that Leonardo worked simultaneously on both pictures [the Buccleuch and the Lansdowne Madonnas]”? He has even added that:  “We can see from the under-drawings that he was very actively involved. The hair, the moist eyes—we can tell it was Leonardo.” There’s no coherence here.

Being such a perfectionist as he was, Leonardo would had never painted this two works and we think Mr. Kemp (as some others) knows it. For some reason he has changed his mind, it is clear.  It all began with Salvator Mundi and seems to continue with these two «new Leonardo’s» in a path of fake art headlines.

The legend of Robin Hood that -in the public eye- fits so well to art forgers does not fit at all to professionals who are becoming the new oracles to certify hidden masterpieces. In fact, art forgers are just fancy burglars, swindlers who make a living out of faking art. And, let’s face it, art scholars could become art history forgers when their coherence is lost. Beware!


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You may also like to read: There is Joy in the History of Art / Ten reason why Art History Matters / Museums & UX Issues

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