Masters of Disguise Fine-Art Fakes and Mistakes Often Look like the Real Deal, but Experts at the Art Institute of Chicago and Other Museums Have Ways of Unmasking the Truth

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Byline: Hilary Shenfeld Daily Herald Staff Writer

As a rule, visitors to Chicago museums don't have to worry that the works of art on display are fakes.

That famous Seurat, "A Sunday on La Grande Jatte," at the Art Institute of Chicago? It's real. "American Gothic?" It's the real deal, too.

Museums go to great lengths to ensure that their paintings, drawings, sculptures or other works are authentic.

But every once in a while, an outright forgery - or more commonly, a work believed to have been produced by one artist and later found to have been made by someone else - slips through.

"It's not happening in every museum every week, but it does happen," said Mimi Gaudieri, executive director of the Association of Art Museum Directors.

It's happened, in fact, right here at the Art Institute of Chicago.

The Michigan Avenue museum, along with others around the country, makes every effort to weed out fakes. They employ both low-tech methods - tracing the history of a piece, eyeballing it to see if the style matches well-established examples - and newer techniques such as X-rays, pigment tests and carbon dating.

But forgery has become an art form in itself, and separating the fakes from the masterpieces isn't always easy. Specifically, the Art Institute has struggled to authenticate a series of drawings and a painting originally attributed to Rembrandt.

The museum owns six such drawings, but only three are "solid," said Suzanne McCullagh, curator of early prints and drawings at the Art Institute. The other three "can be questioned," she said.

One now under scrutiny is a drawing the museum bought in 1947 from a reputable dealer of Old Master works entitled "Female Nude Reclining with Arm Raised" and dating from the 1650s. Curators originally believed the famed artist was indeed the creator.

The sheet was housed in an 18th century frame and bore the stamp of a collector from the 1700s, all elements pointing to its validity.

"It looks very much like a great Rembrandt drawing," McCullagh said.

But within the past decade, a scholar who examined the drawing said it likely had been produced instead by Arent deGelder, a Dutch painter who was one of Rembrandt's students, she said.

"It's not ironclad," McCullagh said. "It's just an opinion."

Still, the work has not been publicly displayed since.

Another alleged Rembrandt - this one a painting - also has come under suspicion.

"Young Woman at an Open Half-Door" was given to the Institute by one of its founding trustees in 1894 as part of a large group of Dutch and Flemish paintings. The renowned 1645 image of a coquettish serving girl leaning into the street cost $30,159.11 - at the time a huge (and oddly precise) amount - and was signed by Rembrandt.

The masterpiece likely went on public display almost immediately, said Martha Wolff, curator of European paintings completed before 1750.

But during an Institute exhibition in the late 1960s, Rembrandt scholars questioned whether it was indeed the master's work.

"There are certain definite similarities," Wolff said. But there also are some red flags, such as the rendering of the young woman's face, which doesn't have the three-dimensional modeling Rembrandt was known for, she said.

Wolff said some experts think the painting is the work of another of Rembrandt's students, Samuel van Hoogstraten, who went on to become a successful artist in his own right.

Even that ascription is not completely certain, though.

"Sometimes the attributions are never decided conclusively," said Mark Pascale, associate curator of prints and drawings at the Art Institute. …