A fake Marc Chagall painting, owned by a Leeds businessman who had bought it for pounds 100,000 in 1992, was ordered to be burned last month and an
The uncovering of fakes by committees comprising descendants of the artist is increasingly common and has prompted one of
"There's lots going on, from academic incompetence to really dirty stuff," he said. The manipulation is possible because the collective profession's approach is "chaotic", he said. "Documentation, scientific analysis and judgment by eye are used - and ignored - opportunistically in ways that suit each advocate, who too frequently has undeclared interests."
Kemp added: "It tends to be very selective and, even if other evidence is mentioned, then generally there's a core of what seems to be most secure, which is seized on. The more wobbly things are shoved to the side. The various kinds of evidence, their status and what job they do in proving the case are never really inspected."
Having trained as a scientist and art historian at
Scientific examination is carried out by museums and galleries or private operators. Acknowledging that some of the latter are excellent, Kemp said: "Nonetheless they're being paid as pipers to a degree, regarding a work owned, say, by a group of speculators. They accumulate big fat files, data of technical evidence which - if you know how to analyse it - mean almost nothing." He mentioned "lots of graphs and fancy data, including carbon dating", which reveal little of use.
He is alarmed by owners and syndicates of investors, with much to gain from a painting's attribution to a master, who commission tests on pictures with a "visual plausibility" and censor data that fails to back their case. If, for example, a report casts doubt on a Rembrandt attribution because tests reveal a pigment only developed after the artist's death, contracts prevent the report's author from speaking out if that information is suppressed. Kemp said: "There has certainly been some legal silencing." He observed that few art experts can stand up to "fancy lawyers" employed by owners, "bullying of the worst kind".
Money is the motivation, he said. As pictures change hands, he is sometimes sent the same picture - at about five-year intervals - by each new owner. He said: "The syndicate get a few opinions from some more easily manipulated art historians. They assemble a body of scientific data, sell the picture for a profit to the next syndicate, upping the ante each time."
The situation is not helped by the reluctance of scholars to express opinions for fear of legal action.
The problem is partly the professional training, Kemp says. "In any profession you must be aware of the status of different kinds of evidence. In art history, that isn't taught in any way and I've never seen it discussed."
Scholars may be reluctant to express opinions for fear of legal action. The authenticity of this
Photograph courtesy of
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