The notion of authenticity in the art world is complicated by the occasional encounter with a suspicious work of art. Thomas Hoving alleged in False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes (1996) that, during his tenure as Director of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, at least forty percent of the nearly fifty thousand works he examined “were either phonies or so hypocritically restored or so misattributed that they were just the same as forgeries.” (Hoving, False Impressions, 17) Collectors and curators take care to identify skillful copies, heavy restorations, creative pastiches, misattributed works, and outright forgeries. What does it take to identify a forgery? Expert connoisseurs, whose skills are developed and refined through saturation in the field in which they specialize, may notice a curious formal quality or incongruous iconography. It can take only moments for the trained eye to detect a tiny defect or inconsistency. An incomplete or questionable provenance can also raise suspicion. Although simple in theory, piecing together a work’s provenance – the record of ownership of a work of art from its creation to the present – is a complex exercise in micro-history. Relatively recent developments in technical analyses have introduced scientific objectivity into authentication practices. “How to Make a Fake” explores the story of a forged work of art in the permanent collection of Penn State’s Palmer Museum of Art, relating the expert connoisseurship and scientific analyses that revealed the hand of a notorious forger.
The Virgin and Child with Donors entered the collection of the Palmer Museum of Art in 1999 through a generous donation by Friedrich G. Helfferich, Professor of Chemical Engineering at Penn State and author of the influential text, Ion Exchange. The triptych was originally identified as the work of the early Netherlandish master Hans Memling, or a member of his studio, when the donor’s family acquired the work in Berlin in the 1930s. The donation of the work to the Palmer Museum of Art in 1999 initiated a series of appraisals and investigations that uniquely illustrate the complexities of attribution and authentication.
Follow the story of the investigation conducted by Maryan Ainsworth, an expert in early Netherlandish painting and pioneer of interdisciplinary methodologies at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Paintings Conservation Department. Technical studies accompany and support specialized knowledge of stylistic attributes, offering an understanding of paint handling and materiality. Review these techniques for scientific analysis, including infrared reflectography, infrared photography, x-radiography, and dendrochronology. Finally, explore the triptych using the Neatline tool to discover the details that led Ainsworth to declare the triptych to be an early twentieth-century forgery.