We bought forgeries, says National Gallery

Exhibition to showcase counterfeit Holbein and Botticelli works

A collection of paintings that have caused art aficionados to turn a deep shade of purple and have provoked upset and anger throughout the art world are to go on show.

The forged works include a fake Botticelli, which was bought for a higher price than a genuine work by the artist sold at the same time. A gallery director almost had to resign because of another one, a fake Holbein.

In an unprecedented spirit of public transparency (and perverse pride), the National Gallery in central London is dusting down its holdings of forged paintings, accidentally bought as genuine works, supposedly by Botticelli, Holbein and Durer, among others, and showing them off to the public.

Some experts within the gallery actually prefer the fakes to the real thing, they revealed yesterday. Rachel Billinge, a research associate in the gallery's conservation department, said she sometimes looked upon the forgeries with more admiration than the works by their genuine counterparts. "Sometimes you can appreciate their techniques, and the effort they put in, more than the original that was churned out by a bored apprentice at a workshop," she said.

The last known fake bought by the gallery was in the late 1950s, when it acquired a painting believed to be a genuine Rembrandt, An Old Man in an Armchair. Signed and dated falsely, many curators have marvelled at its extraordinary technique and artistic achievement.

Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries, to be staged in June over six rooms, will display more than 40 paintings that were bought under false pretences. The principle reason for the exhibition is to illustrate how far technology and scientific analysis has come in the past few decades.

While the date of a painting can now be accurately determined, its authorship cannot. Ashok Roy, the gallery's director of scientific research, said: "I don't think we can make mistakes over dates in the future. But in terms of who painted it, that [decision] relies on art historians."

The gallery's mistaken acquisitions have at times paid off: some paintings thought to have been by unknown artists or copies of genuine works have since turned out to be the real thing, created by the hand of the greatest Master Painters. The downgraded paintings, do, however, outnumber the upgraded ones.

One of the gallery's most embarrassing acquisitions was A Man with a Skull, bought in 1845 as a work by Holbein, although even at the time many experts doubted the attribution. Modern analysis which determined the age of the wood panel has since shown the painting post-dates Holbein's death in 1543. The gallery's then director, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, was deeply compromised by the revelation, a couple of weeks after it was bought.

And in June 1874, the gallery paid more for a fake than a real Botticelli, when two pieces were purchased at the same time. The Gallery bought Venus and Mars, which is now one of the most beloved paintings in the collection. The other, the more expensive An Allegory, was thought to be a companion to Venus and Mars, with some regarding it the more desirable of the two until it was discovered to be a pastiche, painted by a follower in the style of the great master.