The Big Question: How many of the paintings in our public museums are fakes?

Why are we asking this now?

The National Gallery is just about to mount a major exhibition about faking in art. It reveals in the course of the exhibition that the gallery itself has been duped again and again in the past. A work said to be by Botticelli, for example, one of a pair purchased in the third quarter of the 19th century, was later discovered to be the work of a pasticheur, painted in the style of Botticelli. Works by other old masters have been proven to be by studio assistants, friends of the artists, or even by fakers who may have lived hundreds of years later.

Is it easy to fake a masterpiece?

Not as difficult as you might think, though some would be more difficult than others. A faker should concentrate upon the present – or the relatively recent past. Tom Keating, the most famous forger of our times, did precisely that.

It is, for example, much easier to replicate a work by Picasso than a major work by a painter of the Renaissance. Picasso is much less fiddly. What is more, he often worked very quickly, painting a single painting – or even several paintings – in a day. His paintings are relatively easy to characterise and to caricature. Technically, many of the 10,000 or so that he produced during his inordinately long life would be relatively easy to replicate. They seldom get bogged down in onerous detail. What is more, the kinds of paints he used – or their equivalents – are still widely available today.

Does the gallery world's eagerness to promote culture as a leisure pursuit encourage fakery?

Undoubtedly. And especially so in America. This is where forgery and faking begins to merge with, and meld into, the world of restoration almost seamlessly. There are few things more dazzling than a well restored painting, and the Met in New York and the National Gallery in Washington are full of them.

That is how people want to see them. The public, having paid its money, expects perfection. So dingy old paintings, little by little, are re-painted, with painstaking lovingness. It happens all the time. By the time in 1994 when the Sistine Chapel was restored to the condition in which it would have been when Michelangelo painted it, was it still by Michelangelo? Or is it by now a modern fake – or as near as damn it? This is a moot point. The Chinese are much more honest about these things. If you go to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, you will find that the plaque on the wall of this splendid wooden structure will say: first constructed in 1420. Why pretend otherwise?

Why does it matter if a painting is a fake?

It matters hugely to the institution who owns it. In the case of a painting newly re-attributed to Michelangelo at the National Gallery in Washington – Saint John the Baptist Bearing Witness – it matters the difference between £400,000 and £150m. That is the difference between its value when attributed to Michelangelo and its value when attributed to his slightly older friend, Francesco Granacci.

And why did this mighty leap in value suddenly occur? Because Everett Fahy, former head of European Paintings at the Met, had a "eureka moment" as he put it, when he looked at the painting again. It's as simple as that.

Does it matter so much to the average gallery-goer?

Much less so. For the most part, we know most of the paintings that we love by looking at them in reproduction. It is images of these reproductions that we carry around in our heads, and if being face to face with the originals gives us a qualitatively different experience, all to the good. What is more, the very fact that a painting may have been restored and re-varnished repeatedly, means that the authentic historical object has withdrawn from us. What we see is an object willed into renewed life by loving restorers.

So are there many fakes in our museums?

This is too crude and unseemly a question; better to ask the same question in a more nuanced way. As the National Gallery's forthcoming show will demonstrate, many works were bought because they were, at the point of acquisition, believed by the harumphing experts of the day to be by painter X, without a doubt my dear boy.

When the next generation's experts come along, they may be inclined to disagree. So the real question is this. Of the paintings which are owned by, say, the National Gallery, how many of them are no longer by the person they were first thought to be by? What is more, it will be easy for a major gallery to pull the wool over our eyes because most of these paintings of doubtful attribution will now be in store, so they will not be on the walls of the gallery for us to scrutinise them.

But exactly how many are fake?

A reasonable estimate might be that at least 20 per cent of the paintings held by our major museums, some up on the walls, many others in the vaults, will no longer be attributed to the same painter 100 years from now. Another matter worth bearing in mind is this: the less money the institution has to spend on restoring its paintings, the more likely it is that the paintings will be in a condition which resembles how they would once have looked. You see proof of this in many of our smaller provincial museums. Suddenly you find a dingy Blake. It seems barely worth a second look. Do look again though. This may be Blake untouched and neglected, as authentic a specimen as you are ever likely to see.

Is faking on the increase?

Undoubtedly. It is thriving, especially in the field of architecture. But it is not called by the gross name of faking. Go to St Petersburg or to Dresden where great buildings were destroyed during the Second World War, buildings which had helped to define a nation – the Frauenkirche in Dresden, that great Baroque church which was rebuilt stone by stone; or Catherine the Great's palace, with its newly recreated Amber Room, just outside St Petersburg. They look so brash and so brazen, these monstrous, gleaming edifices, that they must be fakes. And so they are. But in a sense they are not. They are also the past, brought back to miraculous life, a past that a populace is desperate to rescue from oblivion and the terrible depredations of war.

Is it possible to limit fakery?


* Museums should be more stringent in their attribution policies

* If in any doubt, don't buy. That may discourage pedlars of forgeries

* Educate the public to buy new art and to hate copies and the problem will be solved


* Fakery has been an easy way to earn money through the ages. It will go on being so

* There will always be a demand for copies of masterpieces, whether regarded as fakes or not

* The copying of masterpieces has long been regarded as a form of apprenticeship

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own