art history Leuven University Press

When Art Isn’t Real: The Criminal Market Behind the Gallery Walls

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Contributed by Leuven University Press

In 2019, trade in the global art market was estimated to have been worth in excess of $65 billion USD. Around two-thirds of that huge sum was traded in only two countries, the USA and the UK. China comes in third with an 18% share and, as with many China-related statistics, this share will only grow over the next few years. At the very top end of the market, the last decade has seen a huge rise in the prices paid for art. The top ten painting sales ever were all made in the last decade.

It is interesting to note while that although the art market has such value, it is one of the least regulated markets in the world. The high values paid are often in cash, and buyers and sellers largely rely on a traditional handshake culture. The FBI has identified art as the third biggest criminal market after drugs and weapons. Looted antiquities have been acknowledged as a significant source of insurgent and terrorist funding. This situation means that a basis of human cultural identity, preserved in museums, galleries and public exhibitions, and the credibility and trust in the art market, are threatened by forgery and lack of provenance or attribution. Despite all this, only limited public resources have been committed to dealing with art crime.

The credibility and trust in the art market are threatened by forgery and lack of provenance or attribution.

In principle, material or period experts will give their opinion on an object’s validity from its looks, feel, even smell – and they are often right! In cases where object are disputed, analytical science is sometimes called upon, to validate or repudiate the opinions of other experts, working in parallel with, and occasionally against each other. Sometimes cases are proved beyond reasonable doubt, other cases are endlessly argued over, much to the chagrin of the scientists involved.

In their very accessible book When Art Isn’t Real, Andrew J. Shortland and Patrick Degryse approach the art world from their expertise in materials and objects from the ancient world. They discuss high profile objects that have experts arguing about their veracity. Some could be looted, some fake, some heavily restored or misattributed. The authors of this volume have decades of experience in the field working on a range of objects dating from prehistory to the twentieth century. They present seven of the most famous cases, some of which are still in dispute, offer a feel for the experts and techniques involved, and examine how a few words from a connoisseur or scientist can make a virtually valueless object worth hundreds of millions – and vice versa.

*Featured photo: Paintings and sculpture inside gallery, via Pexels.


Cover of When Art Isn't Real
Cover image of When Art Isn’t Real
Read more about this book.

Andrew J. Shortland is professor of archaeological science and director of Cranfield Forensic Institute at Cranfield University.

Patrick Degryse is professor of geochemistry at the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, KU Leuven, and professor of archaeometry at the Faculty of Archaeology, Leiden University.

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