One of the greatest forensic tools investigators have at their disposal in detecting forgeries of paintings is the pigment itself. The availability and use of pigments for oil paintings has changed over the centuries and knowledge of the chronological histories of color developments is essential to the investigation process. Forgers often find old canvasses and scrape them down to paint their “new discoveries” on, making sure to recreate the craquelure of old paint. On the surface, they look genuine. However, if the forger fails to use exactly the proper pigments of the era, prepared in the traditional manner by hand, chemical analysis will show up the fake.
Victoria Finlay’s wonderful book, The Brilliant History of Color in Art is an entertaining collection of stories all centered around specific pigments. The story of cobalt blue involves a famous forgery.
An Amsterdam art dealer, Han van Meegeren sold an “undiscovered” Vermeer to Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Goering in 1943. Goering was led to believe that it was an extremely valuable painting by the great 17th-century artist. Unknown to Goering, van Meegeren had been forging Pieter de Hooches and Vermeers for some time and had become very wealthy as a result. Unfortunately for van Meegeren, at the end of the war he was arrested for collaborating with the Nazis by selling them Dutch art. Now he had to prove that his Vermeer was a fake and that he had deliberately tricked Goering into buying it! No one believed that he could create such a perfect fake and they even locked him in a room and made him paint another. But even that wasn’t good enough to get him released.
What finally proved him innocent of collaboration, but guilty of forgery, was one of the pigments he used. Van Meegeren was well informed about which pigments were in use in which centuries and he was careful to purchase what he thought was the purest Afghan ultramarine for the painting. Fortunately for him, the man who sold the ultramarine to him was a bit of a crook himself and had cut it with the cheaper cobalt blue, a pigment which had not been available as paint until 1802. When the investigators discovered the cobalt in the paint layers, they realized at once that the painting could not have been made in the 1660s. This single piece of evidence spared van Meegeren the death penalty.
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–John and Ann