Research Project: How Experts Exposed Art Forgeries in the Early 20th Century

Researchers in Heidelberg and Mainz investigate the history of a historical network to combat faked artworks

Art forgeries represented a challenge to the art world and its institutions long before the sensational case around Wolfgang Beltracchi. The journal "Mittheilungen des Museen-Verbandes", i.e. the Communications from the Museums Association, which appeared from 1899 to 1939, was already publishing current events and findings about exposed faked objects and suspicious cases. Using this source to gain new insights into the network of collecting and preserving institutions, the fakers, the experts and the art market, a research project is due to start its work in summer 2024 at the Institute for European Art History of Heidelberg University and the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz. Besides finding out about the way the association behind the "Mittheilungen" was organised and the effectiveness of its activities, the researchers want to discover the whereabouts of the fakes that it lists. The German Research Foundation has allocated approximately 723,000 euros to fund the three-year project.

With its "Mittheilungen", the "Internationaler Verband von Museumsbeamten zur Abwehr von Fälschungen und unlauterem Geschäftsgebaren" - the International Association of Museum Workers in Defence Against Counterfeiting and Improper Trade Practices - aimed to prevent the sale of art forgeries through the rapid international exchange of information and intelligence. The publication was not freely available but circulated among a fixed group of experts who had pledged beforehand to save these communications carefully and "keep them confidential". They contained information by representatives of leading museums, collections and sales institutions in Europe and the USA about forgeries - from ancient to modern art. The aim was also to expose forgers and their workshops, explains Henry Keazor, researcher at the Institute for European Art History of Heidelberg University. "The journal can be seen as a kind of analog precursor of contemporary digital attempts to detect and prevent forgeries, similar to the Database of Critical Works established in Germany in 2005," the art historian says. He heads the project "Forgeries and Networks - the ’Mittheilungen des Museen-Verbandes’ and forgery networks in the 20th century (ForNet)" together with Thorsten Wübbena from the Leibniz Institute of European History.

In the context of ForNet the researchers intend to explore how effective the project of an unmasking and prevention strategy of the "Mittheilungen" actually was. They also aim to analyse which of the interventions undertaken in those days could be of use in the present. With the help of a digital network analysis, Henry Keazor, Thorsten Wübbena and their colleagues will reconstruct the international connections between the actors organised in the Association of Museum Workers and the changes in the functional and organisational structure of the Museums Association. The research studies are also to shed light on the fate and whereabouts of the objects discussed in the journal, whose status was able to switch between original, fake, copy or reproduction.

The ForNet research project, on which art historians will collaborate with experts for Digital Humanities, will begin its work this summer. Ultimately a website is to be created in cooperation with the Heidelberg University Library, containing all the data generated during the project. "With it we want to provide a resource that can be useful not only to researchers but also to a broader academic and non-academic community," says Thorsten Wübbena, who heads the Digital Historical Research Unit