Fakes, forgeries and classification blunders to go on display in exhibition
Source: The Guardian, by Charlotte Higgins
You might just be taken in for a second – until you spot the little Edwardian-style faces peeping out of the picture.
Still, it was good enough to fool the National Gallery in 1923 when it bought a work purporting to be a 15th-century group portrait of the family of Federigo Montefeltro, Duke of Urbino.
Though it looks obviously wrong now, and was most likely painted in Italy in the early 20th century, it was for a time accepted as a Renaissance masterpiece by a hitherto unknown artist.
Such gaffes are the subject of an exhibition next June at the National Gallery. Entitled Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries, it charts some of the museum's most embarrassing errors and faux pas, involving works once thought of as Old Masters but later removed from the walls of the gallery to be stashed ignominiously in the basement.
It is not only a question of paintings deliberately created to deceive, but also of works painted in good faith but mistakenly attributed by National Gallery experts.
For instance, in 1845, Sir Charles Lock Eastlake, then keeper of the National Gallery, bought a work known as Man with a Skull and attributed it to Holbein. That attribution was doubted at once, and the resulting scandal saw him resign – though he later returned as director of the gallery. In fact, the work was Flemish rather than German, and was created after Holbein's death.
Today's director of the gallery, Nicholas Penny, did not rule out that such errors could continue to be made. "The history of mistakes encourages extreme caution and extreme humility," he said.
"I wish we had more fakes [in the collection]. You only get good at spotting them by seeing them."
In his last job at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, he deliberately acquired some fake sculpture. Asked if he would consider buying forgeries for the National, he said: "It's a serious question. The National Gallery is a place where we show off masterpieces, and also study the history of art in all its complexity ... of course, we would only be interested in really interesting forgeries."
He said that the Montefeltro fake was "very clever at the time, though of course it looks pretty dumb now. It draws on several sources; fakes are not usually so subtle or ambitious."
According to the gallery's Betsy Wieseman, the exhibition's co-curator, the Montefeltro faker must not only have known his or her art history, but also created something particularly designed to pique the interest of a collector. "The faker was aiming for something that looked a bit like Piero della Francesca or Ghirlandaio, but wasn't quite like any of them. You can imagine the intrigue, the idea of finding a work by an unknown artist. If you are in a bit of a hurry and don't ask too many questions, you can present it as a grand discovery."
The work is aiming for the style of 15th-century profile portraits, such as Piero della Francesca's famous portrait of the same sitter, now in the Uffizi in Florence. It also seems to have a relationship with the painting of the duke and his son by Pedro Berruguete that now hangs in Urbino.
The exhibition will also look at paintings upgraded to Old Master status, rather than demoted. Such is the case with the gallery's Madonna of the Pinks, which Penny himself re-attributed to Raphael after it was dismissed as a copy in the 19th century.
Penny also announced exhibitions on Canaletto; the Danish master Christen Købke, and Paul Delaroche, the painter of the gallery's well-loved The Execution of Lady Jane Grey. But he acknowledged that the recession meant that "the whole landscape of international exhibitions has changed" and "people all over the world are revising their exhibition policy".
American museums can no longer plunge into ambitious, expensive travelling shows in partnership with other institutions and that in turn affects British museum exhibition schedules.
In addition, the drop in the value of sterling means that "importing" from Europe and the US has become more expensive. That means the National Gallery has decided to stop putting on international shows in the summer "because of the strain put on us through mounting three international exhibitions a year," said Penny. Instead it is putting on summer exhibitions focused on its own collection.
The fall in sterling, however, has had some positive effects, with an increase in international tourists. Footfall in the museum was up to 4.4m in 2008 compared with 4.1m in 2007. And for those unable to visit, the National has just become the first gallery to make its paintings accessible via iPhone. Two hundred and fifty paintings can be seen, along with audio and video.