Forging Great Art

The art world goes to great lengths to recognize forgeries. When something fake slips by as an artist’s actual work, it has serious repercussions. The Upper East Side gallery Knoedler & Co. discovered as much in 2011. It closed after news circulated that it had been selling forgeries — of Rothko, Pollock, and other Abstract Expressionists.

But forgeries are also fascinating. Art history Ph.D. student Kristen Racaniello (The Graduate Center, CUNY) explains, “They’re about the market and identity and technique.” If reproduction is typically understood as a mechanical process — one that arose during the Industrial Revolution — forgeries speak to something far more labor-intensive. “It bridges the gap between hand and industry,” she says. “Besides the hand, it’s also about the closing of time — that something could be made right now and also appear to have such a knowledge of culture from the past.”

Racaniello helped organize a new exhibit that focuses on forgeries. “Holy Hoaxes” is on display at the Upper East Side gallery Les Enluminures, which specializes in manuscripts. The exhibit features illuminated manuscripts, panels, and more from the collection of William Voelkle, curator emeritus of Medieval and Renaissance Manuscripts at The Morgan Library & Museum. Racaniello says, “It’s the first exhibition that we know on that’s focusing specifically on the forgery of manuscript leaves, and manuscripts in general.”

Voelkle has long been interested in forgeries, and helped stage a Morgan exhibit in 1978 on the Spanish Forger, a still-unknown artist responsible for creating numerous medieval miniatures. Several of the Forger’s pieces are on display in “Holy Hoaxes.”

Spotting an illuminated manuscript forgery requires detailed knowledge of an artist’s or art period’s subject matter and pigmentation. But there’s also the easier trick of spotting whether a forger has reused an older manuscript leaf. Racaniello explains, “There’s an old page that had no image on it, but then they scraped down the section where they wanted to put an image and then paint over it.”

As long as there are famous artists, there will be forgers trying to make money by reproducing their work. “It will never be irrelevant,” says Racaniello of forgeries. “There’s always a question of authorship in any kind of art industry, whether you’re in the gallery side or the museum side or the academic side of it.”

“Holy Hoaxes” is by appointment only, and will reopen to the public at the beginning of March. 

Beyond SUM

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Holy Hoaxes
Les Enluminures, 2019

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Kristen Racaniello (Doctoral Candidate, Art History) | Profile 1

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The Graduate Center

Bonus Content

"The Fascination with Forgeries" (GC News)