The Trial of Lady Justice

The Art and Science of Faking Art
May 16, 2016


Take a look at the two paintings to the right. Notice the similarities. 

Both depict a woman with red hair draped in a transparent shroud wearing jeweled necklaces. Each woman holds seemingly identical balance scales in her left hand and the executioner’s sword in her right.

Both are “Justitia,” the Lady Justice, ready to weigh evidence and punish those in the wrong. One of the depictions, however, is false…"Justice" Allegedly. 

While both paintings are billed as products of the German Renaissance painter Lucas Cranach the Elder from the 1530s, and both bear signatures that attest as much, the painting on the right is a fake, according to art historian Michael Hofbauer. Hofbauer alleges that that painting is in fact the work of the still-living Christian Goller, an art restorer under investigation by the German authorities for selling art forgeries.

Forged art—either new art created and signed to resemble the work of a famous artist or old art falsely assigned to a famous artist to increase its value—can net an ubelievable amount of money. The alleged forgery of “Justice” sold for more than $150,000 at Christie’s Auction House in London. Other pieces sell for millions, and they sell frequently.

The business of forging art has been around for centuries. The demand for art grew, and as that demand grew for specific artists and time periods, forgers learned how to replicate those artists, and make their art look older to make some extra cash. Michaelangelo famously aged up his own sculpture of Cupid and passed it off as an artifact from the Roman Empire. Like Michaelangelo, Goller admits to producing paintings in the style of the Old Masters. He even appeared on a 1991 episode of NOVA cheekily named The Fine Art of Faking It, to explain how this work is done.

This fake art is everywhere. Some art historians estimate that up to 40% of the art market is one sort of forgery or another, a staggering statistic in a multi-million dollar industry.

It begs the question: “How is it possible to sneak these fake paintings and sculptors through?” Taking another look at the Ladies Justice, would a casual observer have any way to know or reason to suspect that one was fake?

Even experts have a hard time, for a few reasons. Forgers are generally extremely skilled artists themselves, who have studied the techniques of those they imitate. They can also use various techniques to make new art look hundreds of years old.

They even get help from the artists themselves, who were not the greatest at keeping records of what they produced and who they sold it to, making it easy for forgers to create false provenance—an art industry term for records of ownership, essentially a paper trail.

HandsBut astute historians and art experts can sniff out a forgery with a mixture of history, science, attention to the finest detail and old-fashioned detective work.  And so it is with Lady Justice and her allegedly false sister.

Among the first things an art expert will examine are the techniques and themes. In sculpture, an astute observer can detect how a specific piece was made and what tools were used. If a tool was used from a time period later after the supposed sculptor died, or from a region of the world in which he did not live, that method is “anachronistic.” It does not fit with the correct time and place of the work and is therefore, fraudulent. 

Finding anachronisms is a common method of determining forgeries, and one we will revisit. Technique anachronisms appear in paintings as well, but painting techniques can also indicate an artist’s style. Certain artists will use certain specific techniques and explore a few specific themes throughout their body of work, so an expert can compare a painting to others by the same author and possibly eliminate a fake that way. If you are trying to sell a Dali, it had better look more or less like a Dali.

Look again at the Ladies Justice. You can see a dark color pallet, and as the paintings present the same subject in the same context, it would be safe to assume they share the same themes. 

Technique is one place where Hofbauer claims Goller has stumbled in two particular places. Cranach, the original painter of “Justice,” according to Hofbauer has very signature hands, ones that Goller does not replicate well. Also, Hofbauer claims that the relative paleness of the alleged Goller, comes from a difference in the way he layers his paints. The two hands are pictured to the left.

The signature where an artist has signed a work and its apparent age can also be judged by an expert. Signatures can be easy to fake, but an astute expert will make note not only of alterations Real and forged signaturesin shape, as in the picture to the right, but also whether or not the signature matches the supposed age of the painting. 

We all have a natural conception of how “old things” look and art follows similar guidelines. Old oil paints crack and fade, old stonework crumbles, old wooden frames wear and get worm holes. 

Forgers, however can mimic some of these aging techniques. Fake craquelure—cracks in the art—can be reproduced using heat and formaldehyde. They can also add chemical coatings to quickly “yellow” a canvas, giving it that “hundreds of years old” look. 

Michaelangelo used acidic soil to wear and age his cupid statue. Some forgers will even drill holes in their work to make it look worm eaten. The picture below has several "age" holes in it. Experts determined that they were fake, because they were straight where real worm-eaten holes would be crooked.

Art with fake drill holesAccording to Hofbauer, he can tell the difference between the craquelure of the two Ladies Justice. That said, another art historian, Bendor Grosvenor, who followed the Hofbauer/Goller story, remarked in a blog post:

“That said, the overall 'age' of the picture, in the craquelure, does look more genuine. Therefore, if it is a fake, as Hofbauer says, then it tells that someone, somewhere has pretty much perfected the art of making a new panel painting look passably ancient.”

More rarely, experts can employ scientific techniques to search for anachronisms and validate the age of a painting. Radioactive dating with carbon and white lead can assess the age of a painting. X-Rays can reveal early sketches and paintings underneath. Genuine paintings will often have a sketch underneath the artist uses as a guide, while forgeries often do not. Also, artists sometimes paint over an old painting, but if an underneath painting depicts clothes from a different time period than the one on top, that’s a good indication of a fake.

Scientists can use atomic absorption and pump-probe lasers to detect what paints and pigments were used in the painting. Anachronisms pop up when a forger uses a material that wasn’t available when the painting was supposed to be from.

In the case of Lady Justice, the pigments all seemed to match up. Hofbauer pointed out that a knowledgeable forger would know which pigments to use, but still Lady Justice does hold up here.

In the end though, both Hofbauer and Grosvenor relied on the skeptical eye and sharp nose of a detective to come down on the allegedly false Lady Justice. Hofbauer followed the paper trail, examining the painting’s provenance. It turns out, the previous owner of Lady Justice, an Andreas Seefellner, does not exist.

Grosvenor, on the other hand, made his judgment based on the substance of the picture. Noting the body shape of the women in the two pictures, he wrote:

“This picture (the alleged fake) is most odd in the face and modeling of the body, which looks like it has come from a 1970’s tattoo catalogue, and certainly not the 16th century.”

Art historians can build these cases, compile evidence and openly questions a piece of art’s validity, but these paintings still get through. If Hofbauer’s allegations are correct, Goller has sold between 40 and 60 paintings for millions of dollars.

And often it takes years for these paintings to be outed as fakes and when they are, it’s often unclear if they are or are not fakes. Christie’s still has the alleged fake on their website, listed as a Cranach. 

In fact, its authenticity was not even questioned until another alleged Goller-made Cranach showed up at Christie’s six years later. That one was quickly removed from the auction block, but the supposed-false Lady Justice was sold long enough ago that Christie’s is no longer liable. So if Lady Justice’s scale tips false, the new owners can only rattle the executioner’s sword.

But another alleged Goller has recently come into view in the personal collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein. The 1531 Cranach estimated to be worth 8 million dollars is under investigation at the Louvre as a Goller fake. The painting headlined an exhibit in France of the most valuable art from the largest private collection in Europe.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hofbauer is among those claiming the painting is a fake, and German prosecutor Ursula Raab-Gaudin is awaiting the decision by Louvre scientists to charge Goller with the forgery. This time, Lady Justice's sword might swing, and not just at Goller. If Venus is a fake, French authorities will destroy it.

— Daniel Lane

Daniel Lane covers science, engineering, medicine and the environment in North Carolina.