Prints are inherently easy to forge because of their very nature. They are multiples. Printing processes have the potential to create minute idiosyncrasies between each impression, and judging the difference between a shift in the quality of an impression and its authenticity is a highly nuanced issue. Furthermore there are many ways in which prints are faked; various photographic processes can produce spurious prints; new compositions can be invented; false numbering can wildly inflate the size of an edition; and restrikes can be manipulate to appear to be life-time impressions. Perhaps the most insidious technique is to take advantage of a print’s various published editions. In this scenario the forger takes an authentic print from a larger edition and doctors it to appear as an impression from a smaller, more valuable edition. Detecting this kind of fake is challenging since it made with an authentic print. As such the plate or image size of the forgery will accurately correspond to the details outlined in the artist’s catalogue raisonné, and every line and dot of ink will be correct.
Given the omnipotence of his name, the prints of Pablo Picasso have been faked in numerous ways including by the manipulation of editions. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Picasso created several lithographs for the journal Le Patriote published in Nice. Among these are Le Vieux Roi, 1959 and L’ Écuyère, 1960. Both were published in two editions. In both cases the first edition was a run of 200 prints, each of which were signed and numbered in pencil, and the second edition was comprised of 1,000 impressions signed only in the matrix. The smaller edition of Le Vieux Roi was signed in blue pencil in the lower margin near the right corner and numbered in regular pencil near the lower left corner. For the larger edition the signature was added to the stone in the lower right corner of the image, and this signature is printed in red (figure 1) in an area virtually devoid of other ink. As such it is relatively easy to obliterate this red signature without otherwise affecting the image. Add a signature in blue pencil and a number, and suddenly a print that might fetch $1,000-1,500 at auction will bring $6,000-7,000. Similarly the smaller edition of L’ Écuyère was signed in pencil beneath the image to the right of center, approximately beneath the horse’s rear hooves. For the larger edition the signature was added to the stone in the same location. Thankfully one element that distinguished the two L’ Écuyère editions is the paper. While both editions are printed on Arches paper, the larger edition is printed on a lighter weight vellum-style sheet.
Picasso is not the lone victim of this manner of fraud. Joan Miró and Marc Chagall, for instance, published numerous print editions which can and have been “augmented” into their more valuable editions with the simple addition of a pencil signature and number. The problem is not merely limited to artists of primary importance, and in fact prints by secondary and tertiary artists may seem less inherently suspect, and may therefore slip into the market undetected. The prints that Jacques Villon executed for Bernheim-Jeune serve as the perfect example.
Gaston Duchamp was born into an artistic family, and changed his name to Jacques Villon when he moved to Paris to pursue his artistic career in the 1890s. He learned intaglio printmaking from his grandfather Émile Nicolle, and became an inventive and prodigious printmaker himself. He was one of the first artists to incorporate the Cubist visual vocabulary into intaglio prints. In 1922 Villon was approached by the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune in Paris to create a series of color aquatints based on works by current masters including Pablo Picasso, Paul Cezanne, and Marcel Duchamp (Villon’s brother). In many instances Villon collaborated with the artists he was reproducing, and between 1922 and 1930 created 38 works in the series. One of these was Villon’s version of Henri Matisse’s L’Espagnole. Like most of the works in this series L’Espagnole was published by Bernheim-Jeune in a hand-signed and numbered edition of 200 impressions. Not long after the original edition was published the plate went to the Chalcographie du Louvre. They published a subsequent edition, this time unsigned and unnumbered. The prints from this second edition also have the following text within the plate: “H. MATISSE PINX:” in the lower left corner, “CHALCOGRAPHIE DU LOUVRE” lower center, and “JACQUES VILLON SC:” in the lower right corner. In addition the publisher’s dry stamp is centered in the lower margin. Figure 2 appears to show an impression from the Bernheim-Jeune edition; the print is numbered and bears a signature from Matisse. The quality of the signature in this particular impression might seem weak, especially when considered in hindsight, as further examination of the work reveals the fraud. A detail of the lower right corner of the print (figure 3) reveals the critical distortion. Under magnification it becomes apparent that all three text lines have been gently abraded out of the image. The paper fibers are rough and broken in all three locations where the text should appear, and there is faint evidence of portions of several letters still just visible. In this particular case the lower margin still contains the Louvre dry stamp (not shown in the figure) making the detection simple. Placed nearly four inches below the plate mark, however, the dry stamp is easily hidden under a mat, and will disappear if the margins are trimmed while still leaving a sizable lower margin. Unfortunately the present market presents more than enough incentive (for some) to perpetrate the deception. The Louvre edition generally brings between $1,500 and $2,000 at auction, and rarely tops $3,000. By contrast the Bernheim-Jeune edition routinely brings over $10,000 at auction, even when the impression is in poor condition, and has topped $20,000 on several occasions.
Given the lucrative nature of fraud, manipulated editions are turning up in the market place with increasing regularity. Furthermore, in doctoring an authentic print as in the Villon example, not only has fraud been attempted, but a real and genuine work of art has essentially been destroyed in the process. The best defense against these deceptive manipulations is a close and careful read of the artist’s catalogue raisonné. In some instances different editions will appear on differing papers.Later editions are sometimes amended in some small way, such as with the addition of a signature or publication text within the matrix. Even if the catalogue raisonné is not explicit in the variations between editions it is still of assistance. Armed with the knowledge that a particular work appears in multiple editions the collector is immediately alerted to the need for closer scrutiny.
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