Exhibitions often represent a point in time, and although Winterthur’s new exhibition Treasures on Trial: The Art and Science of Detecting Fakes has been a project two-and-a-half years in the making, its arrival in early 2017 could not have been more opportune. Following political and cultural changes across the globe in 2016—a fraught U.S. presidential election and the British Brexit vote—the public relationship with news media has changed substantially, and “fake news” has become a staple part of discussions around current affairs. Integral to the challenge that a culture of fake news poses for traditional forms of information is the contested role and value of expert opinion which, if once authoritative, is now more readily challenged and open to public or inexpert scrutiny.
These changes in the political environment amount to a culture in which the nature of information has changed substantially, and this reflects challenges faced by museums, scholars, and collectors as well as politicians and newscasters. The issues of what is genuine, how far expert opinion matters, and how fakery and authenticity have an impact on value are concepts explored by Treasures on Trial, alongside some fascinating detective work.
Visitors to the new exhibition are asked to explore the grey space between fact, fiction, forgery, fraud, and fakery materially, viewing and examining a truly wide-ranging collection of objects drawn from home collections and other places, including the FBI’s New York Office and The Neustadt Collection of Tiffany Glass.
The structure of the exhibition—four rooms entitled: Intent, Evidence, Proof, and You Be the Judge— invite visitors to engage with a range of issues connected to material evidence. In the Intent section of the exhibition, visitors explore how, when, and where these fake objects were manufactured. More pressingly, what was the motivation of the person who created them? In the evidence portion, the exhibition explores how modern conservation experts and scientists use up-to-date techniques to identify the materials and techniques of the objects, differentiating replicas from the genuine article. In the Proof section, visitors are shown the process in which material data is combined with connoisseurship and other evidence to make a definite case for fraud, forgery, or fakery. In the final room, three unique cases of material evidence are presented—two paintings and a nineteenth-century Vampire Killing Kit—and visitors are encouraged to make their choice. Are these objects genuine or are they fake news?
Throughout the exhibition, one of the most important issues visitors are asked to consider is the inherent risk and instability involved when working with fake objects. For example, the first object a visitor sees upon entering the gallery is a fake Mark Rothko painting. Embroiled in the so-called Knoedler Scandal, this object —a mass of blue sitting atop a deep red lower section of painted canvas—was produced by a skilled Chinese forger. When the Knoedler Gallery was discovered in 2011 to be dealing in forgeries, it suddenly closed its doors.¹ Although the Knoedler Gallery has privately made settlements with those who bought the fakes under the auspices of their authenticity, it is now with the courts to decide whether the gallery was complicit in these dealings, or whether this was as unknowing mistake. Similarly, the baseball memorabilia lining the back wall of the first room speaks both to the interactions many ordinary individuals may have had with supposedly authentic goods and how convincing these fakes may be. Here baseball bats purportedly signed by Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle, a mitt supposedly used by Babe Ruth, and a forged certificate of authenticity are evidence of objects deliberately forged with the intent to deceive, set against the possible unknowing mistake of the Knoedler Gallery. Until ratted out, the seller of the glove alone could have stood to make $200,000.
While the differences between these two objects suggest possible differences in the aims and intents of their sellers, the similarities bear much more meaning for the exhibition and its importance to today. This is very much a living exhibition. As Linda Eaton, co-curator, suggested on a walk through for museum staff and scholars, many of the objects on display have particular significance for people alive today. It is a salient reminder that the objects we collect are as impactful for real people as the common and dangerous lexicon of fake news.
Post by Tom Rusbridge, a second-year Ph.D. student from the University of Sheffield and visiting scholar at Winterthur until the end of April (funded by the White Rose College of the Arts and Humanities). Twitter: @tom_rusbridge
¹ J. Jones, ‘‘Fake Rothko trial reduces tragic art to farce,” The Guardian Online, February 2, 2016. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/jonathanjonesblog/2016/feb/02/fake-rothko-trial-reduces-tragic-art-to-farce. Accessed April 7, 2017.