A historian flagged it for a probe while researching the famous astronomer
The prized possession of the University of Michigan library was discovered as a clever forgery following a probe when a historian pointed it out while researching the famous astronomer Galileo, who invented the telescope. An internal probe revealed that the watermarks belonged to after 1770 whereas the astronomer would have written it in 1609.
“It was pretty heartbreaking when we learned that our Galileo wasn’t actually a Galileo,” admitted Donna L. Hayward, acting dean of Michigan libraries.
The university inherited the manuscript in 1938 as a gift from an administrator Tracy McGregor, from her 1934 auction. The catalog claimed that Cardinal Pietro Maffi (1858-1931), Archbishop of Pisa, had authenticated the manuscript comparing it to Galileo’s original letter in his collection.
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The manuscript was allegedly a draft by Galileo of his new invention, the telescope, addressed to the Doge of Venice in 1609 and the final draft is available at the State Archives in Venice, Italy. The project contained reference notes on the moons of Jupiter.
Historian Nick Wilding found something odd with the watermark and flagged it for an investigation which confirmed it to be a forged manuscript, most likely by Tobia Nicotra, a prolific Italian forger in the 1930s. on paper belonged to post-1770, while Galileo wrote the manuscript in 1609.
“It seems a little weird,” he told The New York Times, citing a particular handwriting, word choice and ink color. Wilding, who teaches a course on “falsifications, facsimiles, and sophisticated copies” at the University of Virginia’s Rare Book School, also pointed to a similar forgery of a 1607 letter by Nicotra among the Morgan’s collections. Library in New York.
The art of fake
Remarkably, the most high-profile art forgers were found in the 20th century and British artist John Myatt made history as the man behind “the biggest art fraud of the 20th century”, according to Scotland Yard. .
He had forged nearly 200 canvases which went under the hammer at Sotheby’s and Phillips. In fact, he honestly started affixing the “authentic counterfeits” label to his paintings, and most of them were sold as originals at auction. He was later arrested and sentenced to one year in prison in 1998.
Breaking Myatt’s record, another British art restorer, Tom Keating, forged more than 2,000 paintings by 100 artists, including Rembrandt and Samuel Palmer.
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He then wrote a book, “The Fake’s Progress”, alleging that the lives of famous artists had been exploited by unscrupulous dealers even after their death. His fakes still sell for between £5,000 and £10,000.
A Dutch artist, Han van Meegeren, claimed that he turned to forgery when his own works did not arouse any interest. On the contrary, he tweaked his counterfeit and earned over $60 million.
When he was arrested for selling valuable Dutch cultural property to the Nazis, he revealed that the artwork was fake. He died in prison in 1947.
Another Hungarian painter, Elmyr de Hory, realized the value of forged paintings in the post-war period when he sold a British woman a pen and ink drawing mirroring an original Picasso.
He has sold over 1,000 paintings to galleries around the world, including fake Picassos, Degas, Matisse and Modigliani. He later committed suicide to escape extradition to stand trial in France.
In fact, the roots of forgery date back to the Renaissance period when apprentices studied painting techniques by copying the works and style of the master.
These served as payment for training and the master had the right to sell them. It was never considered a fake but a tribute to the master, although gradually some of them ended up becoming the master’s original pieces.
When medieval times created a fierce demand among the wealthy for works of art, artists became famous and started signing their works and the supply and demand situation eventually created another market for the counterfeiters.
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In 1496, Michelangelo also created a sleeping Cupid figure and applied acid earth to give it an ancient look before selling it to a merchant.
Even in Imperial China, counterfeit art was recorded, but forgers were held in high esteem and their works were valued as much as the originals.
Last year, Yale University’s treasured map of Vinland, widely believed to be a Viking map of North America from the 1440s, was proven to have been tampered with.
Finally, to shed light on the forgeries, the German Ludwig Museum organized an exhibition in 2020 just to showcase a collection of fake and misattributed paintings.