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Visual Arts

Is it really?

College of Fine Arts of UFMG develops scientific techniques capable of telling whether a work is false or genuine

It all began as technical-scientific research. Today, four professionals linked with the Fine Arts School of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG) form the most experienced group in Brazil in a precious art: discovering false paintings, sculptures and objets  d’art. The fakers work in silence, but their work, extremely specialized, is capable of heating up markets, overvaluing works by certain artists and reproducing hundreds of pieces that are non-existent in the history of art.

A case for the police, which will take a good while to be solved. Besides there not existing a nationwide law capable of regulating the penalties for faking works and objets d’art, it is difficult, as the reporters from Pesquisa FAPESP found out, for art dealers and auctioneers to talk openly about the subject, although many of them know who the gangs of fakers are and where they work.

Of the eight reports drawn up by the group from the Fine Arts School in Minas in 2002, seven works were regarded as false. One single document issued by these professionals, who besides scientific techniques use the nose of a detective, is capable of deciding whether a work is genuine or not. Generally speaking, the reports have over 150 pages, with some 200 photographs. “The fake market is growing more and more, as the crisis in the economy increases”, explains Professor Luiz Antônio Souza, the coordinator of the works.

New combinations
The good faker is the one who copies characteristics of the artist, mixing them in a new combination that never existed in an original work. Often, though, this patchwork quilt is so badly done that you do not have to go far to get the first indications of a fake. This was the case of a painting in acrylic attributed to Guignard, analyzed by Souza’s team. The piece was a nonsense, since Guignard died in 1962, and acrylic only began to be used for painting in 1969. A piece like this is rejected right away in the analysis of the materials that is carried out by the coordinator, Luiz Souza. As a chemist, he is capable of identifying the age of the material used.

This analysis, very technical, is supplemented by the work of Mário Anacleto, a technician in restoration who defines the exact age of the picture, sculpture or objet d’art. Often, the piece is not contemporary, but an object attributed to the 17th century, for example, but which is discovered to have been produced in the 18th . It is not clear to the researchers whether it is a case of faking or an artifact made by an atelier that is an heir to the 17th century one. After a technical analysis, the piece is forwarded to historian Marco Elísio.

“I analyze the formal characteristics of the work, to assess whether from the stylistic point of view the dating is consistent”, the professor explains. He worked before as an expert for the Huntington Gallery, in Ostin, in the United States. He is capable of identifying whether the work of a painter really corresponds to the phase of the decade to which painting is attributed. “One has to be alert to the fact that a true artist never copies or repeats himself. When a formal element appears several times in the work, this is a reason for suspecting it”, the historian explains.

The analyses of materials and style are complemented by a database of original signatures of artists like Guignard, Pancetti, Di Cavalcanti and Djanira. The graphic and documental analysis is the responsibility of Maurício Brandão Ellis, from the Criminalistics Institute. Using rulers and transparencies, Ellis is capable of identifying whether a signature is false or genuine, information that is collated with the other analyses for a final conclusion. “We analyze works attributed to any artist, with the exception of those who already have institutes or specialists aimed at doing this, as is the case of Portinari, through the Portinari Project”, says Marco Elísio.

The historian mentions the example of a work attributed to Pancetti and dated by means of information written on the back of the picture. His suspicions were aroused when he noticed that the muse to whom the dedicated the picture, also on the back, a habit of his for almost the whole of his career, did not correspond to the woman with whom he said he was in love in the same period that the stylistic traits of the picture revealed. “That intrigued me, because although the faker could copy the stylistic traits, he was not obliged to know Pancetti’s biography”, he recalls.

It was then that he asked Brandão Ellis for his analysis. “It was soon seen that the signature was false. We had the proof of the suspicions aroused by the analysis of style, mixed with the knowledge of the artist’s biography”, Elísio observes. The technical analyses of the group of researchers from UFMG are carried out in the laboratories of the Movables Conservation and Restoration Center (Cecor), a supplementary body of the Fine Arts School. It was at Cecor that all the research carried out by Souza and his group started.

“In the past, the service used to be offered by the center itself. Nowadays, the Fine Arts School has taken on this responsibility, but we continue to use the infrastructure of the center, besides receiving support from the Research Development Foundation (Fundep)”, says Luiz Antônio Souza. The first case of an analysis done by Souza at Cecor occurred in 1995, when he and the conservator and restorer Edson Motta Júnior were called to give an expert opinion on 150 works seized in Rio de Janeiro.

Much disclosed by the press, the case involved Italian gallery owner Giuseppe Irlandini, who was organizing a display with works by Picasso, Mirò, Boccioni, Di Cavalcanti, Guignard and others. The seizure took place after a professional connected with the Portinari Project identified a rubber stamp on the back of a work attributed to him that had never been created by the project. “The Public Prosecutor’s Office took out a lawsuit against Irlandini and over 150 works remained subject to the legal proceedings”, Souza recalls.

After analyzing 28 works, the expert discovered that they all had a white base made up of calcium borate, kaolin, titanium white and PVA. “I joke about it to this day, saying that if the works were genuine, we could say that globalization started at the beginning of the 20th century, because it looked as if all the artists bought their materials at the same store”, the researcher explains. “It so happens that Boccioni, for example, died in 1902, and PVA only came onto the market in the 20’s.”

People looking for the services of these professionals are very varied: from collectors to gallery owners, passing through possible representatives of the fakers themselves. “Many fakers plant the situation. They run the risk of trying to get a genuine opinion. That is why we have to be extremely strict. No analysis takes less than six months”, says Marco Elísio. “Whenever works appear at prices lower than normal, one should be suspicious, because it may be a faker trying to make money quickly”, Souza observes.

Marco Elísio describes where someone is suspected of being a representative of the faker, the so-called stooge. “It may be a lady who says she owns a picture by Guignard, inherited from the husband who died. She needs to sell it, and so she has to be sure that it is genuine”, he says. “Usually, when we ask more questions, she falls into contradictions.” There are also people who believe devoutly that they own works of an inestimable value, like an inhabitant of Belo Horizonte who claimed to have a Leonardo Da Vinci. “He would say that the drawing had already been through official appraisals in Europe. When we did the X-ray examination, we saw an annotation beneath the drawing: Da Vinci. It could even be part of a series of fakes including dozens of renowned artists.”

The researchers from UFMG are not the only Brazilian professionals to issue expert opinions on works of art. Their reports, though, are usually the most complete, since they involve all the fields of research connected with this activity. “Besides all the technical information, they make a point of writing on the artist’s symbolic meaning and the phase the work belongs to, when it is genuine”, Marco Elísio says.