The Art of Sleuthing

How can you tell if that masterpiece is a fake – or was looted by Nazis? A new exhibit at the BJU Gallery goes inside the CSI of the art world

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One of the paintings in the Bob Jones University Museum & Gallery at Heritage Green’s “The Art of Sleuthing” is a fake.

When Andrew Mellon gave the painting “The Smiling Girl” to the National Gallery of Art in the 1930s, the portrait was credited to 17th-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. But it was found to be counterfeit and removed from the gallery’s walls decades ago and placed in storage away from the public’s view.

National Gallery Curator Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. believes the forgery was actually completed around 1925 by either Han van Meegeren, one of most successful and ingenious art forgers of the 20th century, or van Meegeren’s friend, Theo van Wjingaarden.

After a lengthy process of denial, re-negotiation and paperwork, the counterfeit Vermeer is the centerpiece of the new exhibit that focuses on the mysterious side of the world of art.

“This exhibit looks at art from the CSI point of view,” said Erin Jones, M&G director.

An art sleuth did not uncover van Meegeren’s deception. It was van Meegeren himself who disclosed the fraud. During World War II, wealthy Dutchmen wanted to prevent a sellout of Dutch art to the Nazis so they bought what they thought were originals of the masters. A counterfeit Vermeer ended up in the possession of Hermann Goering. After the war, the forgery was discovered in Goering’s possession and van Meegeren was arrested as a collaborator. That would have constituted treason, an act punishable by death, so van Meegeren confessed to forgery.

Van Meegeren forged the paintings of Vermeer and others after critics panned his own artistic talent. He went to great lengths to create the perfect imitations, from using old paint formulas to making his own badger-hair brushes to baking a completed work and rolling it over a cylinder to increase the cracks.

ArtSleuthing_1Reclaiming art stolen by Nazis

“The Art of Sleuthing” exhibit includes an award-winning short documentary, “The Art of the Con,” which tells van Meegeren’s story and leads into another key part of the exhibit – Nazi-looted art.

One of the stories told in the exhibit is that of Ferdinand Bloch-Bauer, the original owner of the Klint painting featured in the 2015 Hollywood movie, “Women in Gold.” The movie shows the fierce legal battles fought by Austrian Maria Altmann to win back her family’s painting.

But not all battles are that litigious. The exhibit features the North Carolina Museum of Art’s return of a painting by German Renaissance artist Lucas Cranach the Elder. During a monthslong investigation, the museum found an image of the painting in the collection of the Jewish owner and agreed to return the painting to the rightful owners without a court battle. The owners in turn sold the Cranach back to the museum for half of its appraised value.

ArtSleuthing_2Framing the evidence

Not all investigations are due to forgery. Art sleuths use some of the same techniques to authenticate a painting or to track its ownership as detectives use to solve a crime.

They’ll study an artist’s signature (or lack of one) for similarities in location and appearance. If a signature is painted on top of an image, they’ll check to see if the paint from the signature fills in the cracks of the canvas. Some artists, such as Cranach, “signed” his work with a unique symbol.

A black light can reveal new paint or where a painting was restored in the past, Jones said. X-rays show where Italian painter Tintoretto changed his mind and painted over a part of one of his early works.

“Forgers wouldn’t go to the trouble,” she said.

Sometimes clues can be found by flipping a painting over. On the back of Caesare da Sesto’s “The Madonna and Child, with the Infant Saint John, in a landscape” a notation saying “Formerly in the Collection at Malmaison” was discovered. Malmaison was the country retreat of Emperor Napoleon and Empress Josephine. Further research revealed the Bonapartes once owned the painting.


So you know //

What: The Art of Sleuthing

Where: Bob Jones University’s Museum & Gallery at Heritage Green

When: at least through 2016

Admission: Adults, $5; seniors 60 and over, $4; students, $4; and children 12 and under, free.

Information: 770-1331 or bjumg.org

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