Eye-catching alterations

    Why are forgers and their fakes so popular? Is it really that amusing to see so-called art experts being made to look like fools by the skilled imitator and the cunning counterfeiter? Of course it is. Watching pompous art-world know-alls turn before our eyes into gullible art-world know-nothings is a deeply rewarding public spectacle. Indeed, few sights in art are quite as enjoyable. But that is probably not why the National Gallery has decided to devote an ambitious exhibition to this prickly subject. Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries considers many aspects of replication. And the fact that some of the show’s most pleasing moments are those in which the National describes how it, too, was sold a pup is surely a coincidence.

    I pronounce on these matters from grim personal experience. At least twice in my career as a pompous art-world know-all, I have been publicly fooled by scuzzy little fakers, then turned to watch the stomachs of my delighted audience heaving like 18th-century chimney bellows. The first occasion concerned a Gauguin sculpture acquired by the Art Institute of Chicago for a quarter of a million dollars. It portrayed an impish faun, half man, half goat, who, fascinatingly, appeared to bear Gauguin’s features.

    To my eyes, it was entirely in character for Gauguin to have made something of this sort at the time he was said to have sculpted The Faun. So, when I made my two-hour, award-winning BBC2 biography of Gauguin, I gave The Faun pride of place and could be seen extolling its virtues for several ecstatic television minutes. A few years later, the police arrested a middle-aged loner from Bolton called Shaun Greenhalgh and revealed that he had fashioned Gauguin’s faun in his garden shed! Apart from me, Greenhalgh had fooled the British Museum, the Van Gogh Museum, the Henry Moore Foundation, everyone at Sotheby’s and most American galleries. He is now in prison, but I see there is a Facebook page devoted to his release. I urge you to join it. All Greenhalgh ever did was give us what we wanted.

    I have less time for a twit called Jamie Shovlin, who exhibited a project at the Beck’s Futures exhibition in 2006 devoted to the German electro-doom band Lustfaust. Posing as a fan of the band, Shovlin organised huge amounts of information about Lustfaust into an archival cornucopia that appeared to follow the boys from rise to stasis. To me, the project displayed something of the archival obsessiveness pioneered by Jeremy Deller, winner of the Turner prize in 2004. I had never heard of Lustfaust, and German electro-doom is not my bag, so there was absolutely no reason to suspect the band was an invention. Only years later, when someone got onto my Wikipedia page and gleefully edited in the Lustfaust story, did I even realise I had been duped.

    The moral to both tales is: in art, perception matters more than reality. People see what they want to see. And if I have a criticism of the National Gallery’s entertaining examination of the grey areas in its own collection, it would be that the show might profitably have dug deeper into the issues it raises: our obsession with signatures and the motivation of the forger; how the hunger to buy drives the hunger to sell.

    In 1924, the National acquired a Renaissance Mother and Child, supposedly painted by Francesco Francia in 1480. It turned out to have been made at the end of the 19th century by a particularly talented Italian forger called Umberto Giunti. So skilled was Giunti, the tiny cracks in the surface that seemed to authenticate the picture’s age were hand-painted.

    The fake Francia is so convincing that most people would, I suggest, have been fooled by it.

    There is less excuse for accepting the authenticity of a Botticelli Madonna in which the central lovely has, as someone quipped at the time, “something of the silent cinema star about her”.

    Or the “Renaissance profile portrait”, also bought in the 1920s, populated by egregious modern faces that belong in an advert for Fairy Snow. How could anyone ever have imagined this was the produce of 15th-century Urbino?

    The gallery presents its examples in a tabloid style that risks no ascension over anyone’s head and reduces much of the information-swapping to a Blue Peter level. “These two paintings are very nearly identical,” it says of Frans van Mieris’s Woman Feeding a Parrot. “Can you spot the difference?” I couldn’t. It turned out one was painted on copper and the other on wood.

    “Who transformed this painting and why?” howls the placard next to an interior by de Hooch, in which the injured man who originally lay on the ground has been replaced by a plateful of dead game birds. Apparently, the picture was altered by its 19th-century owner, an art dealer called Ignatius van Regemorter, who was trying to make it more saleable. The next time you feel like castrating the Chapman Brothers for altering a Bruegel, remember that four centuries of crooked Italians, Belgians and Germans were doing it before them.

    Having admitted to the out-and-out fakes in its collection, the National moves thoughtfully into other areas of acquisitional blurring. In a room dealing with Transformations and Modifications, we encounter paintings that entered the collection as one thing and turned out to be another. There’s a small, square Dosso Dossi that began life as a large, round one. And a sombre Bellini portrait of a monk into whose head someone has embedded an axe in a dramatic effort to sex him up religiously.

    Most of these deceptions were motivated by greed. Pictures were cut up, repainted, reassigned, touched up and lied about in order to sell them. This is what you encourage when you worship the brand: it’s as true of paintings as it is of handbags.

    Occasionally, the transformations were prompted by more interesting reasons. A demure Renaissance brunette with innocent eyes emerged, after cleaning, as a fiery Renaissance blonde with nipples popping like champagne corks. Some 19th-century prude had altered her to fit the ideal of the Victorian woman.

    Another section deals with mistaken attributions made by the gallery when hope triumphed over reason. Such as the occasion when a fine Courbet self-portrait turned out to have been painted after the artist’s death. My favourite exhibit, though, is the portrait sketch by “Delacroix”, donated to the gallery by the painter Walter Sickert. On closer examination, the picture looks nothing like a Delacroix. But an awful lot like a Sickert.

    In the big central room, the confusing past of some of the gallery’s best-known images is left interestingly unanswered. Who painted the Dead Toreador by Velazquez that is not a Velazquez? Or the troubled old man that is not a Rembrandt? Or the Verrocchio saint that is not by Verrocchio? In most of these cases we will never know the answer. And are therefore free to enjoy the paintings as paintings.