The Connoisseur

The detection of fraudulent antiques and curios and other bogus works of
art has become a science. Phædrus, who lived and wrote in the time of
Tiberius Cæsar, tells in his fiftieth fable of how his contemporaries
carved the name of Praxiteles on their marbles and the name of Myron on
everything they wrought in silver, in order that their productions might
pass as masterpieces of those supreme Hellenic artists.

Though the Romans were an art-loving people, they openly connived at
art-fraud, but for esthetic reasons, as we learn from Pliny. He tells us
that in his time the coins of Rome were so clumsily modeled and so
basely cast that several artists made new molds, treating the designs of
the mint more carefully, and produced spurious coins which were eagerly
sought in place of the inartistic legal tender.

Michelangelo, piqued at the extravagant attention paid the antiques (to
the exclusion of interest in his early struggles for recognition),
conceived the clever idea of doing an Eros in marble after his own
design, burying the work in mud for some months, and then digging it up
in the presence of certain noble collectors. These gentlemen went mad
over its beauty, proclaiming it to be the greatest relic antiquity had
left them. Michelangelo finally disclosed to them his own initials,
which he had carved in a hidden fold of the wings, and was highly amused
at the discomfiture of his companions. They, however, came to their
senses and had the good grace to recognize the towering genius who stood
laughing before them. Indeed, one of them became his foremost patron.

This was a harmless trick conceived for salutary purposes, and not at
all to be classed with the exploits of Gambello, Bassiano, or Giovanni
del Cavino, whose forgeries of Roman medals were particularly skilful,
though not proof against modern scientific methods of uncovering frauds.
No wonder one of the ancient writers declared that, “the very nerves and
sinews of knowledge consist of believing nothing rashly.” This was
especially true in the days of the Renaissance, when a study of the
antique came so quickly into fashion, and in the train of it such
efforts to collect ancient objects of art that some of the unscrupulous
but skilful artists and artisans of the time could scarcely resist the
temptations offered by the ease with which clever art-forgeries were
palmed off upon the gullible, who paid enormous prices for them. We know
how Andreini of old-time Florence forged Greek signatures to ancient
unsigned intaglii and how Flavio Sirletti lent his skill to it with the
aid of Pliny’s record of ancient sculptors. The collection of Prince
Poniatowski, nephew of the last King of Poland, contained some three
thousand fraudulent engraved gems! As all of these gems were very
beautiful in themselves, and as nearly all of their subjects were
original with their engravers, it is unfortunate that such excellent and
exquisitely done work could not have stood forth on its own merits to
cast fame and not shame on the cunning hands that produced them.

Some counterfeiting is too laborious for profit, but it is marvelous to
see some of the things that emanated in the early days from the
shameless fake-factories of Pietro Fondi and others at Venice and in
Corfu. The Sienese, too, were skilful copyists of the various trecento,
quattrocento, and cinquecento objects of art. Terra-cotta figurines and
Greek and Etruscan vases have ever been subjects for the hand of the
forger and fabricator of antiques.

Pottery and porcelain have always seemed to tempt art-forgers and
imitators. The way of the collector of Chinese and other Oriental
porcelains and pottery has been made especially difficult in
consequence. Even Bernard Palissy is believed by some to have imitated
the wares of Briot, and in turn imitations of these imitations were once
acquired by a museum. In our own day Palissy’s own ware has been
imitated by Lesnes, Barbizet, and M. Pall. Perhaps the London Jarman was
the prince of fakers. He obtained undecorated Sèvres pieces from France
and had a Quaker potter from Staffordshire, one Randall by name, add all
sorts of delightful scenes. They were purchased by the royal family, who
took the pieces on good faith as being Sèvres decorations.

European enamels and early ivories have not escaped attention at the
forger’s hand. When Sir A. W. Franks was innocently attempting to
arrange the purchase of the _Diptychion Leodiense_ for eight hundred
pounds in England, he discovered that this object was nothing more than
a clever combination of copies of two other panels of unquestioned
authenticity.

And so things go merrily on, even in this day and generation. But your
_true_ collector is one who studies the objects he collects and he is
not likely to be easily deceived. Photography has stretched forward a
helping hand and by means of enlarged photographic prints of a subject
in dispute, the minute comparisons between authenticated and merely
attributed works of a period may be studied. It was Juvenal who coined
the name “_rara avis_”; and the impatient collector who would acquire a
“rare bird” of art as it flies toward him from the horizon of
opportunity must be sure he knows something of its “ornithology” before
he rushes recklessly forth, perchance to put the salt of good money on
some worthless tail.

There is told the story of a certain Bavarian collector who began to
doubt the authenticity of a little statuette in his possession. Finally
he sent for a noted authority on the subject, who tried to reassure him.
As the collector did not seem convinced, the expert, as a last resort,
made mention of a certain test that might, though with danger to the
object, be applied. The collector insisted on the attempt, in the course
of which the statuette was hopelessly defaced, though the accident
confirmed the expert’s opinion. “Ah,” moaned the owner, “why did I let
you touch it!” “Ingrate!” replied the other with grim humor. “Have you
not now the satisfaction of knowing your fears to be groundless, and my
own knowledge to be trustworthy? Look at the pieces–without doubt the
statuette was genuine!”