Can you spot an art forgery?

  • Ben Conant

For the Ledger-Transcript
Published: 4/14/2022 9:51:23 AM
Modified: 4/14/2022 9:50:14 AM

I love art, reading about art, mysteries about art, and the world of art forgery. According to several noted art historians, about 50% of the art currently hung in museums around the world happens to be forgeries. Yes, you did read that correctly. So, when I read novels about art forgery, naturally, I wonder how plausible that 50% number really is. Let’s look at a few facts.

FACT: Vincent Peruggia stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre on August 21, 1911.

FACT: The artist Pablo Picasso was suspected of the crime.

FACT: The Marquis Eduardo de Valfiero and the art forger Yves Chaudron were suspected of being involved.

FACT: Serious rumors abound that the Mona Lisa that was returned to the Louvre two years later was a forgery.

FACT: The underbelly of today’s art world is dark, criminal, and exploitative; utilizing the talents of art forgers, master criminals, vast amounts of money for bribes and payoffs, and dependent upon the greed of acquisitive collectors. The ultra-rich commission thieves to steal museum pieces they lust after and these thieves will go to extraordinary lengths to procure them.

“The Last Mona Lisa” by Jonathan Santlofer is based on the above facts. In a nifty collision of past and present, Santlofer blends the many facts about this extraordinary 1911 crime with his own spin on what happened. Santlofer begins by telling us that a museum employee, Vincent Peruggia, stole the Mona Lisa. In the two years the painting was missing, a master forger made several copies and returned one to Peruggia, claiming it as the original. It was really a fake, but this was the one Peruggia returned to the Louvre. Peruggia spent time in prison for the crime, eventually got out, found the forgers and then the real mystery begins. Which painting did he carry with him when he found the Marquis and Chaudron?How did Peruggia make his way to America, and what did he bring with him?

In a quick jump to the present for answers to those questions, we meet Luke Perrone, a reformed bad boy extraordinaire and now an artist and art professor. He begins a hunt for the truth about the Mona Lisa and answers to some questions. Peruggia is Perrone’s grandfather and Perrone has discovered Mona Lisa evidence in his family home that could set the art world on its ear. Santlofer jumps his action between Peruggia’s era and the present, keeping the pace fast and the plot intense. He has Perrone travel to France, encounter a reckless INTERPOL detective with burning ambition to solve the greatest art crime of the past century, meet an American society beauty searching for the real Mona Lisa,all while try to avoid the myriad art thieves who stop at nothing to steal and then sell priceless museum treasurers to ultra-wealthy collectors around the globe.This novel is a fast read. I could not stop turning those pages as Perrone tries to outwit INTERPOL, romance the lady, find the real painting, and avoid being murdered. Does the question of whether the Mona Lisa currently in the Louvre is real get answered? My question back: Does it matter as long as people believe it is? Something for discussion at dinner I would suggest.

Of course, to meet the needs of readers who also like puzzles and cyphers along with their forgeries, I would suggest “The Vivaldi Cipher” by Gary McAvoy. This particular novel is one of a series involving Father Michael Dominic prefect of the Vatican’s Secret Archives, his dear friend Hana Sinclair, two Swiss guards, and a French commando. But, first a few facts.

FACT: Pietro Ottobani was born in Venice to the noble Ottoboni family, whose most prominent member had been his granduncle Pope Alexander VIII (1689–1691).

FACT: Ottoboni was the last person to hold the curial office of Cardinal-nephew. 

FACT: Upon the death of Pope Clement XII on 6 February 1740, Ottoboni was considered papabile, but left the conclave with a fever. He died three days later.

FACT: Protégés of the cardinal were Alessandro Scarlatti, Antonio Vivaldi and Antonio Caldara. 

FACT: The very unpopular Cardinal Niccolò Coscia abused his office to amass riches during Pope Benedict’s reign.

Now we can really begin the story, starting in 1740 when the powerful Cardinal Pietro Ottoboni discovered that a fellow Cardinal, Niccolo Coscia was in league with the secret Mafia organization known as the Camorra. Theirs was a powerful connection and the financial profit was extraordinary. The crime? Steal the priceless art in the Vatican, copy it, send the forgery back to Rome, and sell the original to collectors all over Europe. The intelligence resources of the Camorra were great, and once it was discovered that Ottoboni had discovered the truth, nothing was left but to poison the Cardinal. As Ottoboni lay dying, he summoned his close friend and protege, Father Antonio Vivaldi, the maestro di violino of Venice. Vivaldi knew he had to do something, but he had no power to fight the Camorra. His best solution was to write the truth in a code contained in one of his musical compositions - with hopes that someon ein the future would recognize the code, translate it, and stop the crime.

Fast forward to the present. An old Don, head of the Venetian Camorra, lay dying. He knew his sins were great and he needed to confess his role in the almost 300-year-old forgery enterprise. His usual priest was ill and another was summoned for the last rites. This young priest was a good friend of Father Michael’s and at the end of the confession, the Don tells him to “make it right.” The Don absolves the priest of his vow of silence, permits him to tell whomever he needs to, and instructs him to get the documentation kept all these centuries itemizing each theft and forgery, and make restitution, because many paintings hanging in the Vatican vaults are, indeed, forgeries. The Camorra cannot let this happen! The money made from these forgeries is too great, and the people involved are very powerful. Father Michael, Hana, and their guards are up against serious odds in this installment of McAvoy’s series, and the pace, as usual, is fast and furious.

A few more facts please.

FACT: Picasso painted a prodigious number of pictures in his later years and rarely made note of to whom he either sold them or gave them. Forgeries abound. The blend of past crimes with present solutions is a compelling mix that keeps these books moving nicely. Rick Homan, author of the Nicole Tang Noonan Mystery Series, adds to this genre in his third book “Dark Picasso.” Our art historian sleuth, Nicole, a dinner guest in the home of a possible donor to the college she teaches at, is on the trail of a forged Picasso that she spotted in the donor’s living room. The next day she finds another Picasso in the house of one of the other guests – right after that woman is murdered. Before she can discover the full story, Noonan must trace the origin of both paintings, fend off interdepartmental shenanigans, and solve the murder. This novel is a fun addition to the traditional mystery field and a nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon. It also showcases the wicked dealings of the art forgery business.

How do we combat this art forgery business? My solution: the Monadnock region is replete with artists. There are paintings for every budget and taste right here. Buy from the actual artist, bid at auctions on paintings that were donated by local artists. Celebrate our own artists, support them, and brag about only buying local art!


When Dr. Elaine, a Peterborough native, isn’t reading about forgery she is the Director of The Reading Foundation in Amherst, N.H., and a talk show host on WSMN 1590 am, 95.3 fm.

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