It's a fake!

Exactly how many originals of one masterpiece can there be? Art collectors are fooled more than you may think.

After almost four years, the case is closed (sort of).

Dewey Lane Moore pleaded guilty in early February to mail fraud in his attempt to sell, through a Florida auction house, almost 300 flea-market pictures that he had attributed to Degas, Frankenthaler, Johns, Manet, Matisse, Picasso, and other renowned artists.

The problem was that they were all fakes.

Now comes the hard part: What should the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which confiscated the counterfeit works, do with all those pictures?

The FBI would like to see them destroyed. It has seen too many instances where counterfeit art eventually gets back into circulation if it isn't eliminated.

But that doesn't always happen. Some of Mr. Moore's works could wind up at schools like Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum, where they are used in the classroom. A few become "famous fakes": Museums sometimes organize shows displaying them. And some deceived collectors even decide to keep their fakes - for sentimental reasons or because the works have become valuable in their own right as clever copies.

While Yale University didn't express interest in Moore's fakes, the school does use counterfeits to teach about authenticity.

"We use these paintings to help students develop connoisseurship, to build their skills in identifying what is authentic and what is not," says Helen Cooper, curator of American painting at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Conn.

Margaret Holben Ellis, chair of the conservation center at New York University's graduate-level Institute of Fine Arts in Manhattan, says that "fakes and reproductions are very educational. Students can examine something up close to see why a work is or isn't what it purports to be, based on its physical characteristics."

Unfortunately, while the cache of fakes is often large, the interest from schools is not. They rarely accept more than a handful every few years or so.

"We receive maybe one or two per year," Ms. Ellis says. "We're located in a very small townhouse, and there's not a lot of room for storage."

Christopher Tahk, director of the art conservation department at Buffalo State College in New York, says that "we regularly get offered things, but our students can use the same pieces again and again, so we don't always need more."

Finding that a work is an intentional counterfeit is only one way it can lose its status as authentic.

New techniques in determining authenticity have led many museums to reevaluate works in their own collections, sometimes leading to new (often downgraded) attributions for once prestigious pieces: For example, at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., a painting "By Rembrandt" was retitled simply a "Baroque Portrait" after close scrutiny.

Increasingly, museums are raising the issue of authenticity themselves in the form of exhibitions that show how physical analysis (X-rays, ultraviolet light, chemical tests, etc.) and connoisseurship are used to evaluate which works are properly attributed.

What museums do with works that were badly misattributed or that were intended to deceive is up to each institution.

"There is no industry standard for what to do," says Mimi Gaudieri, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors. "We would hope that fakes are not returned to the market" (see story below).

Often museums make the best of the situation. In 1971, Kirk Varnedoe, now director of the Department of Painting and Sculpture at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, organized a show of authentic and counterfeit drawings by the French sculptor Auguste Rodin called "Rodin Drawings, True and False," at the National Gallery of Art in Washington. The show highlighted 132 actual drawings by the artist and 28 intentional forgeries from the collections of a number of museums.

When the exhibit closed, the forgeries were placed "in the study collections of various museums," says an assistant to Mr. Varnedoe. "Nothing was destroyed."

After Algur Meadows, the head of an oil company and noted collector of European painting, donated his collection of Spanish art to Southern Methodist University in Dallas in the 1960s, it was discovered that almost all of the works by the most important artists were badly misattributed or outright fakes. "The man who sold Algur Meadows these works - there were about 40 or 50 - was nothing more than a professional con artist," said Alec Wildenstein, an Old Masters dealer (now deceased) who was asked to find out which works were authentic. Few were.

Museums generally prefer not to destroy embarrassing works. The Victoria & Albert Museum in London, in fact, has a permanent gallery devoted to 19th-century fakes that curators have discovered in its collection. "I can't imagine destroying them," says Robert Cohon, curator of ancient art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City, Mo., who organized two exhibitions of fakes found in the museum's collection ("Discovery and Deceit" and "Treasures of Deceit"). "They have a certain charm."

"Once it's part of the collection, it stays part of the collection or part of our education department," says Chris Boulis, associate registrar at the University of Pennsylvania's Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.

Another reason not to destroy or sell was offered by Steven Kornhauser, conservator at the Wadsworth Atheneum: There's always the chance they might be real. "Twenty years later, they may be reattributed again to what they were 20 years earlier," he says.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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