It's a Fake! ; Exactly How Many Originals of One Masterpiece Can There Be? Art Collectors Are Fooled More Than You May Think

Article excerpt

After almost four years, the case is closed (sort of).

Dewey Lane Moore pleaded guilty in early February to mail fraud in his attempt to sell, through a Florida auction house, almost 300 flea-market pictures that he had attributed to Degas, Frankenthaler, Johns, Manet, Matisse, Picasso, and other renowned artists.

The problem was that they were all fakes.

Now comes the hard part: What should the Federal Bureau of Investigation, which confiscated the counterfeit works, do with all those pictures?

The FBI would like to see them destroyed. It has seen too many instances where counterfeit art eventually gets back into circulation if it isn't eliminated.

But that doesn't always happen. Some of Mr. Moore's works could wind up at schools like Harvard University's Fogg Art Museum, where they are used in the classroom. A few become "famous fakes": Museums sometimes organize shows displaying them. And some deceived collectors even decide to keep their fakes - for sentimental reasons or because the works have become valuable in their own right as clever copies.

While Yale University didn't express interest in Moore's fakes, the school does use counterfeits to teach about authenticity.

"We use these paintings to help students develop connoisseurship, to build their skills in identifying what is authentic and what is not," says Helen Cooper, curator of American painting at the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Conn.

Margaret Holben Ellis, chair of the conservation center at New York University's graduate-level Institute of Fine Arts in Manhattan, says that "fakes and reproductions are very educational. Students can examine something up close to see why a work is or isn't what it purports to be, based on its physical characteristics."

Unfortunately, while the cache of fakes is often large, the interest from schools is not. They rarely accept more than a handful every few years or so.

"We receive maybe one or two per year," Ms. Ellis says. "We're located in a very small townhouse, and there's not a lot of room for storage."

Christopher Tahk, director of the art conservation department at Buffalo State College in New York, says that "we regularly get offered things, but our students can use the same pieces again and again, so we don't always need more."

Finding that a work is an intentional counterfeit is only one way it can lose its status as authentic.

New techniques in determining authenticity have led many museums to reevaluate works in their own collections, sometimes leading to new (often downgraded) attributions for once prestigious pieces: For example, at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Conn., a painting "By Rembrandt" was retitled simply a "Baroque Portrait" after close scrutiny.

Increasingly, museums are raising the issue of authenticity themselves in the form of exhibitions that show how physical analysis (X-rays, ultraviolet light, chemical tests, etc. …