Replica, copy, imitation or outright forgery? National Gallery in Prague invites visitors to find the fakes

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery that mediocrity can pay to greatness,” the great Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde once quipped. But what about exact copies? Aren’t imitations of great works of art, in and of themselves great works of art? That is the central question behind a new exhibition of phenomenal forgeries at the National Gallery in Prague.

The exhibition “Forgeries? Forgeries!” now at Sternberg Palace on the square by Prague Castle features a vast array of imitations. Among them are 15th century fakes – mediaeval paintings, sculptures and drawings – and forgeries in the style of the 17th century Dutch Old Masters.

There are also modern fakes so good, they fooled National Gallery curators in decades past into believing they works by prominent Czech painters of the 19th and early 20th centuries.

'Falza? Falza!' | Photo: Kateřina Šulová,  ČTK

Some such fakes remain in the collection of the National Gallery, which for the “Forgeries? Forgeries!” exhibition, are placed side by side with the originals in an unusual way, curator Olga Kotková explains, on a pre-opening tour for journalists.

“Here, we can see the signature of Leonardo da Vinci. So, what does it mean? That this wasn’t just a copy of his work. The intention is clear through that added signature. It was to have been presented as a genuine work by Leonardo da Vinci.”

Great imitations of great works of art are, of course, still being made today, and pose a threat to museums, galleries and private collectors alike. Some counterfeits found their way into the National Gallery collections, often as wartime confiscations. Others were copies made in good faith, to replace lost treasures, and then their provenance lost to the ages.

'Falza? Falza!' | Photo: Kateřina Šulová,  ČTK

Unfortunately, despite technological advances to help detect forgeries, the gallery paid a handsome price for a fake just a couple of decades ago, says Olga Kotková.

“In the late 1990s, we bought these two drawings said to be preparatory studies by [the abstract painter] František Kupka. Later, my colleague discovered that in several respects, they were somewhat clumsy forgeries. For example, the signatures did not match. So, even in the 1990s, the National Gallery bought some fakes.”

There is quite literally more than meets the eye to detecting forgeries. It’s painstaking work that can involve art restorers, chemists and archivists. Not to mention forensic specialists, like Ivana Turková of the Criminalistics Institute of the Police of the Czech Republic, who describes some modern research methods.

“We rely mainly on scientific research, which means taking microsamples, performing optical microscopy, electron microscopy, microanalysis. One of the best ways is to x-ray the work, which can tell us something about its construction, its character – whether it’s an original or a forgery.”

'Falza? Falza!' | Photo: Kateřina Šulová,  ČTK

The Criminalistics Institute lent three works to the exhibition by a forger working in the style of the Czech modernist painter Jan Zrzavý, whose originals sell for millions of crowns, says the forensic specialist Ivana Turková.

“Thanks to questioning the artist, we learned that his hand was led by the ghost of Jan Zrzavý. It was such an interesting thing for us, because the forgeries were quite good. And I’m not surprised people were ready to invest money in them.”

The National Gallery’s “Forgeries? Forgeries!” features a number of fakes from foreign collections that brought fame (or infamy) to their creators, and offers visitors a large hands-on space where they can try to detect a non-original work – whether a replica, a copy, an imitation or outright forgery.

Authors: Brian Kenety , Tomáš Klička
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