Art of forgery never spared even Galileo manuscript

A historian flagged it for a probe while researching on the famous astronomer

The prized possession of the University of Michigan Library was found out as a clever forgery following a probe when a historian flagged it while researching on famous astronomer Galileo, who invented the telescope. An internal probe revealed that the watermarks belonged to post-1770 while the astronomer purportedly wrote it in 1609.

“It was pretty gut-wrenching when we first learned our Galileo was not actually a Galileo,” admitted Donna L. Hayward, the interim dean of Michigan’s libraries.

The university inherited the manuscript in 1938 as a donation by a trustee Tracy McGregor, from his 1934 auction. The catalog claimed that Cardinal Pietro Maffi (1858-1931), the Archbishop of Pisa, had authenticated the manuscript by comparing it with the original Galileo letter in his collection.

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The manuscript was purportedly a draft by Galileo about his new invention, the telescope, addressed to the Doge of Venice in 1609 and the final draft is available in the State Archive in Venezia, Italy. The draft contained some reference notes on the moons of Jupiter.

Historian Nick Wilding found something odd with the watermark and flagged it for a probe that confirmed it as a forged manuscript, most probably by Tobia Nicotra, a prolific Italian forger in the 1930s. The watermarks on the paper belonged to post-1770, while Galileo wrote the manuscript in 1609.

“It just kind of jumps out as weird,” he told the New York Times, citing peculiar handwriting, word choice and ink color. Wilding, who teaches a class on “Forgeries, Facsimiles and Sophisticated Copies” at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School, also pointed out a similar Nicotra forgery of a 1607 letter among the collections of The Morgan Library in New York City.

Art of forgery

Noticeably, the most high profile art forgers were found from the 20th century and British artist John Myatt has gone down in history as the man behind “the biggest art fraud of the 20th century,” as per the Scotland Yard.

He had forged nearly 200 paintings which had gone under hammer at Sotheby’s and Phillips. In fact, he started honestly putting the tag “genuine fakes” on his paintings, and most of them were sold as originals in auctions. He was later arrested and sentenced to one year jail term in 1998.

Beating Myatt’s record, another British art restorer Tom Keating faked over 2,000 paintings by 100 artists, including Rembrandt and Samuel Palmer.

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He went on to write a book, “The Fake’s Progress” alleging that the lives of famous artists had been exploited by unscrupulous dealers even after their death. His counterfeits still sell for anywhere between £5,000 and £10,000.

A Dutch artist, Han van Meegeren, claimed that he turned to forgery when his own works failed to evoke any interest. Rather he polished his forgery and went on to earn more than $60 million.

When he was arrested for selling a valuable piece of Dutch cultural property to the Nazis, he revealed that the work was fake. He died in prison in 1947.

Another Hungarian painter Elmyr de Hory realized the worth of forged paintings in the post-war period when he sold a British woman a pen-and-ink drawing mirroring an original Picasso.

He sold more than 1,000 paintings to galleries across the world, including forged Picassos, Degas, Matisse and Modigliani. He died of suicide later to evade extradition for trial in France.

In fact, the roots of forgery can be traced to the period of Renaissance when apprentices studied painting techniques by copying the works and style of the master.

These were used as a payment for the training, and the master was entitled to sell them. It was never considered forgery but a tribute to the master though gradually some of them ended up as the master’s original pieces.

When the medieval era created a fierce demand among the rich for art works, artists became famous and started signing their works and the supply-demand situation eventually created another market for forgers.

Read: Library’s prized Galileo manuscript turns out to be a clever forgery (August 19, 2022)

In 1496, Michelangelo too created a sleeping Cupid figure and applied acidic earth to make it look ancient before selling it to a dealer.

Even in Imperial China, art forgery was on record but forgers were seen in high esteem and their works used to get as much appreciation as the originals.

Last year, Yale University’s treasured Vinland Map, widely believed to be a Viking map of North America from the 1440s, was proved to have been forged.

Finally, to highlight forgeries, Germany’s Museum Ludwig in 2020 organized an exhibition solely to display a collection of fake and misattributed paintings.

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