14 February 2015

I will tell you which one is fake, if you tell me which one is looted

Ideal view of Dulwich Picture Gallery, J.M. Gandy, 1823

by Angelina Giovani

One of the main differences in the way in which we deal with issues of authenticity as opposed to provenance, is that apparently it is more tolerable to joke and play around with authenticity.

Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London is home to hundreds of paintings. On any average day of the year, we probably wouldn’t walk around pondering over the painting’s authenticity. Let alone their provenance. Right now though, we are being asked to wonder, inquire and explore. With the intention of having its audience interact more closely with each and every artwork (even thought unfortunately they are not all at eye level, making the one-on-one interaction impossible) and question issues related to authenticity, the Gallery has commissioned an identical copy of one of their original art works at a cost of $120. The copy will replace the original in the permanent collection from February 10th until April 26, and the visitors are asked to spot the modern version, painted in China.

Source: Dulwich Picture Gallery
Dafen Village, China, where the fakes are mass produed
I should start by stating that I’m supportive of any idea that brings attention to the arts. The idea in question seems very engaging and entertaining, despite being referred to ‘as moronic’ in an article by the Guardian, last month. Anything that makes people want to spend more time in front of a painting, should be applauded and supported.

That being said, as fun as this idea is, it inevitably opens a can of worms. Our admiration of the arts, our said emotional attachment to art and all that we associate with a work’s authenticity are brought into question. What does it say about our appreciation of art, if we are trying to encourage the viewers’ involvement with one and only purpose in mind: find out which of these images is wrong?

What this experiment points to most of all is how fictitious our infatuation with the notion of the authentic really is. This process of spotting the fake will make no difference in how we see or approach the art market, and will not have anyone pondering over the real implications of people walking in a gallery and admiring fakes posing as authentic.

Here’s a more daring challenge. Ask people to spot the looted object, the unprovenanced one, the one that is not home. Let’s imagine for a moment that all the people spending their time pondering ‘if the colors are right, or if the relation between light and shade is disproportionate’ as “connoisseurs”, spent the same amount of time doing research. How did all the Poussin paintings get here? What about all the Dutch paintings?

The Dulwich Picture Gallery is offering people a great deal of harmless fun, but it is failing to educate them. That of course might not be their ultimate goal, but instead they may be merely striving to attract a crowd, in which case, I’d give them a big thumbs up. All in all I fail to see how it could be in any way helpful to be able to identify a fake, especially in a non-commercial environment, where the work is not up for grabs, and where there is no possible buyer set up for deception.

Obviously at the end there will be a winner. Someone (maybe the next Bernard Berenson?) will win the award for having successfully spotted the fake. On the other hand the result could in reality be nothing nothing more than just a lucky guess, completely unrelated to connoisseurship or actual knowledge. But what does it say about the rest of us, who undisputedly comprise the vast majority, who would never spot the fake, were we not told where to look, in the honourable attempt to keep ourselves entertained?

Tom Flynn, DPhil., professor at Kingston University, has over and over again advised his students to walk into galleries and museums and just focus on one work. For ten minutes, not so that they can spot the fake, not to find its faults, but so that they can really see it. Understand and engage. To look at something with the mind’s eyes. To turn the mere act of watching, into a mini study session, an exercise in observation.

Speculating over elements that make the work worthy and real, with no good reason, is simply purposeless. If there is one thing that we can take from this exercise, experiment, or whatever we decide to call this, is that the Chinese manufacturer that produced the replica deserves to be hanging in the Gallery walls as much as any other old masters.

As I visited the collection and even found myself enjoying it, feeling somewhat important in my task to narrow down the possible options and convincing myself I was certainly getting closer to the truth, I soon felt guilty. I realized I had fallen prey to a great marketing strategy and I was wasting my time. So now, I have decided to shake all that experience off, and set up a challenge to whomever has the power and will to give up some ‘pride’ and much ‘treasured secrecy’ in exchange for encouraging people to research and supporting a much neglected area of education.
Inside Dulwich Picture Gallery

Give us a provenance challenge. If we could turn this into a public effort, we could finally be able to approach the tainted history of hundreds and thousands works of art with a lighter heart. If the process is more open and transparent then the responsibility becomes shared’. Maybe this is too much to ask as a starting point. Maybe identifying heirs or possible claimants is too big of a task for people who have never done research, but there are many simpler questions that we could be asking, that everyone could try to answer.

Where was x work during WWII?

Through which dealers was it transacted?

Was it ever at the Jeu de Paume in Paris?

Was it ever at the Munich Central Collecting Point (MCCP)

What does its exhibition history tell us?

And in case it all somehow ties together and starts unveiling mysteries of the past, you get to take home something way more valuable and exciting than ‘a print of your choice’ from the gift shop. You get to take home this incredible story, which is certain to impress your friends way more than anything you can buy.

Please go to the ARCAblog and read an equally stimulating treatment of the Dulwich Picture Gallery at