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Fake Botticelli, Iffy Holbein Fooled London’s National Gallery

"The Sunset" by Giorgione. The work is on show in "Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries" at the National Gallery London through Sept 12. Source: National Gallery via Bloomberg

July 9 (Bloomberg) -- An Old Master painting in a museum, you might think, will be exactly what the label says. That’s not necessarily so, as London’s National Gallery documents in a new show, “Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries.”

It’s a good exhibition for fans of detective work, provided you can put up with an approach that treats paintings as scientific specimens rather than as works of art.

The show amounts to a sequence of studies conducted by the conservation department, the police pathology unit of art history. The subjects are works in the museum’s own collection, and the case files -- old and new -- reveal the countless ways in which pictures can be disguised, confused, doctored, misunderstood and just plain faked.

The deliberate, criminal forger isn’t the only villain in this plot. Equally important sowers of confusion are art dealers, ever hopeful of putting their goods in the best possible light.

Take for instance Giorgione’s “The Sunset,” one of the better-known pictures in the collection. Most of the painting is (probably) by Giorgione, one of the most mysterious and contentious of artists. Yet the St. George killing a dragon in the middle distance is the handiwork of an early 20th-century restorer.

At that spot there is a gap in the original paint surface -- and no evidence of what Giorgione might have put there. So this isn’t exactly a fake, though it was definitely “improved” to enhance its marketability.

A lot of that has gone on, and still does. There are other pictures on show in the same category, among them a picture purchased as a Holbein. It’s an authentic 16th-century work, but it has been discreetly altered to look more Holbein-like.

Fake Botticelli

The exhibition also contains some out-and-out fakes that wound up in the gallery’s collection. Two of them -- Madonnas purporting to be by the Renaissance artists Botticelli and Francia -- are fairly convincing at first glance. It’s surprising that a third, purporting to be a 15th-century “Portrait Group,” ever fooled anyone: It looks more like an old Time Magazine cover.

When the museum bought Botticelli’s “Madonna of the Veil,” skeptics complained that the Madonna bore a suspicious resemblance to a silent-screen movie star, which she does. The work is now dated 1920-29.

Oddly enough, that picture looks much less dubious than “An Allegory,” once attributed to Botticelli. I would have dated the latter to about 1930. Yet for all its Art Deco look, this turns out to be a genuine Florentine painting dated to about 1500, though it has nothing to do with Botticelli.

Dubious ‘St. George’

The expert eye seeks out a certain suspicious look that fakes often have. The expert eye isn’t infallible, though. In the past some very knowledgeable people, including Thomas Hoving, a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, have expressed strong doubts about Uccello’s “St. George and the Dragon.” I can see why. It looks “wrong,” as the art world says -- slightly 19th-century, a bit too good to be true. Yet it passes all the scientific tests: innocent of all charges.

On the other hand, “An Old Man in an Armchair,” a painting once classified as a Rembrandt, has been demoted -- unjustly, in my opinion. The museum now ranks it as being by an unknown “follower” of the Dutch master. Yet there’s no damning, killer evidence presented here, only suspicions about an “inconsistent” handling and an alleged lack of the master’s “finesse.”

To my admittedly inexpert and fallible eye, this one looks too good to be by anyone else.

“Close Examination” is at the National Gallery through Sept. 12. Information: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the writer on the story: Martin Gayford in London at martin.gayford@googlemail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Mark Beech at mbeech@bloomberg.net.

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