Interview with the Berlin art historian Hubertus Butin, December 202010. December 2020
How often do you detect forgeries?
As an expert on the art of Gerhard Richter, I come across two forgeries a month on average. It is frightening how much the number of fakes in this artist’s market alone has increased in recent years.
Are there any specific indications or warning signs that a work may be a fake?
These are the three pillars on which the examination of a work of art should basically rest: firstly, comparative style criticism, i.e. the formal aesthetic appearance of the object and how far it conforms to the individual style of the assumed artist. Secondly, the provenance research, as far as it is feasible, plays an important role by clarifying the origin and the previous ownership of the work. Thirdly – and this is very important – a material examination of the object must be carried out by determining and comparing the materials and techniques used. This typically begins with a magnifying glass but it could go right up to analysis in a laboratory.
Are there artists who are easier to forge or are more often forged? Old masters or contemporary art?
Modern and contemporary art is certainly easier to counterfeit than Old Masters, since very few forgers have a perfect command of the old work techniques and cannot easily get hold of old materials from past centuries. In modern art, Picasso, Dalí, Miró, Chagall, Matisse, Modigliani and the Expressionists deserve special mention. In contemporary German art, it is above all Baselitz, Beuys, Graubner, Immendorff, Kippenberger, Penck, Polke, Richter and Uecker who are forged a great deal.
Is it in the interest of museums, collectors and dealers to uncover forgeries?
Authenticity is a central quality and value category at all levels of the art business, and so it is obviously important to know whether there is a fake in one’s collection. Although it is unpleasant and embarrassing for all concerned when a fake comes to light, it is even more damaging when a fake is discovered too late or not at all. Whatever the situation, the museum, collector or dealer has suffered financial damage and possibly also a loss of reputation. However, one learns from mistakes, so it is better to deal with a fake openly and transparently, at least if you are a public institution. A dealer or collector should also contact the police if they have been deceived and cheated.
What happens to discovered forgeries? Are they simply returned to the owner, who can then sell them on unhindered, are they destroyed or are they handed over to the police?
Since the possession of a fake is not punishable, i.e. not against the law, most objects are returned to their owner when they are found to be forgeries; and then, unfortunately, it is often only a matter of time before the item is offered for sale again somewhere else. Only if the counterfeiter himself or a collector or dealer knowingly, and thus fraudulently, offers a forgery as an original can the law enforcement authorities confiscate the item permanently. Sometimes forgeries can even be destroyed by the police, but that is unusual in Germany because the legal hurdles are high.
Do you have any ideas about how it could be made more difficult for forgeries to be put on the market?
As a matter of principle, a buyer should always have a healthy mistrust when acquiring works of art. Even the most famous auction houses and most legendary dealers have at times sold fakes. If you are unsure and your own experience is not sufficient, you should seek independent advice before buying. If forgeries do turn up, the police should always be informed, such as the Berlin State Office of Criminal Investigation, which has its own department for art crime.
What do you think of blockchain technology in this context?
If by that you mean digital labels on works of art that promise a secure identity and identification, then I’m rather sceptical. After all, maybe these labels could be forged, and besides, a label can be removed from the original and stuck onto a fraudulent copy. You could also simply be deceived by a label.
Do you have the impression that the database of critical works and the university collection of counterfeit studies that you mention in your book are making progress? Are they also leading to greater transparency for a broader public?
Both institutions are very important additions, firstly as an early warning system for auction houses, which can alert each other to new forgeries, and secondly as an institute collection of the University of Heidelberg, which students can use as teaching and illustrative material during their studies. It is a pity, however, that the information in the database of critical works is not accessible to collectors, so that a truly broad public cannot be reached.
Were there surprising reactions from some of the protagonists you specifically mention in your Suhrkamp book “Kunstfälschung” (Art Forgery)?
An auction house felt unjustly criticised and sent me an eight-page letter from a lawyer, but my research was correct and I was able to refute almost all the accusations.
Have you ever been presented with very intriguing or odd works of art for review?
In 2020 I inspected a fake oil painting in the style of Gerhard Richter at the Berlin State Office of Criminal Investigation, which was a copy of an existing original painting. Apart from the fact that the original is well known and that Richter does not have identical replicas (hand-made copies) of abstract paintings, I noticed a stamp on the back of the stretcher frame from a Bonn ecological institute, which certifies products from sustainable timber industry. The forger had overlooked the fact that this institute did not even exist at the alleged time of the painting’s creation. That was further proof that the painting was a fake.
Have you also become aware of female forgers?
Strangely enough, there are actually almost no female counterfeiters. Forgery is a crime committed almost exclusively by men. There are no female counterfeiters to be found in the scientific literature, and the police have confirmed that they deal almost solely with male forgers. This form of crime seems not to suit women for some reason. I can’t say why.
There are certainly different reasons for counterfeiting, but also for the fascination of the public for it. Do you have the impression that the notion of “getting one over on the establishment” is a theme on both sides?
There may be forgers who have not been successful as artists and now want to take revenge on the art world with their creations, but the main motivation is undoubtedly the attempt to make a financial profit with the forgeries. As far as the malicious delight of the public is concerned, that’s just annoying cynicism because nobody – no large or small collector, dealer, auctioneer or art historian – wants to be deceived and cheated. If a fake finds its way into a museum, the normal museum visitor and taxpayer is also deceived, which those who laugh at the duped experts usually don’t realise.
Has your status as an expert on the subject of “art forgery” changed your everyday life as an author and scientist?
As the author of the catalogue raisonné of Gerhard Richter’s editions, I am frequently asked to provide expert opinions and expertise anyway. However, in the case of works by other artists and related questions about authorship, I am actually contacted more frequently since the publication of the forgery book, and I am happy to help if I can.
When can we expect the sequel?
I worked on my book for three and a half years. As a result, I have put a lot of knowledge and experience as well as extensive research into this publication, so there are no plans for a second volume on this topic at the moment. As soon as we have overcome the corona crisis to some extent, I will be giving various lectures on forgery in museums, universities and auction houses, which I am looking forward to because the interest in the art world is very high.