5 Scandals that Rocked Art
Disciples at Emmaus, a Vermeer forgery by Han van Meegeren (1936)
Every age sees art through its own eyes, and the cleverest forgers play up to this. One of the most notorious forgeries ever occurred in the 1930s. A Dutchman named Han van Meegeren [wiki] (1889 – 1947) produced forgeries of early works by the Dutch 17-th century master Jan Vermeer. They were technically brilliant and faultless, using old canvas and the correct 17-th century pigments. Cunningly, van Meegeren chose religious imagery that some experts believed Vermeer had painted, but very few examples of which existed. Most (though not all) of the greatest experts were completely taken in, but when you see the paintings now, you’ll wonder why. All the faces look like great film stars of the 1930s, such as Marlene Dietrich and Douglas Fairbanks.
2. The Mona Lisa Theft
It’s sometimes suggested that rich criminals arrange for famous works of art to be stolen so that they can have them exclusively to themselves in private. Such theories have never been proven, and the truth is usually just a bit simpler. One of the most bizarre thefts was of the Mona Lisa [wiki] from the Louvre in 1911. An Italian workman, Vincenzo Peruggia [wiki], walked into the gallery, took the painting off the wall, and carried it out. Security was nonexistent. About two years later it was discovered in a trunk in his cheap lodging rooms in Florence. So, why did he take it? It was nothing to do with money. He said that as the painting was by an Italian, Leonardo da Vinci, it was part of Italy’s national cultural heritage, and he was simply taking it back to where it belonged: Florence. (The painting was returned to the Louvre.)
3. The Auction Houses Scandal
The major commercial scandal of recent years has been the alleged collusion between the two big international auction houses Christie’s and Sotheby’s. As the supply of expensive masterpieces began to run out, competition between the two firms became increasingly fierce and each of them found it difficult to make a profit. They got together secretly to fix not the price of works of art themselves but the commission that they would each charge to sellers. In certain parts of the world, such an arrangement is quite legal but not in the United States. Eventually the practice came to light. The federal authorities imposed fines running into hundreds of millions of dollars, and prison sentences were also handed out.
4. The Portland Vase
Wanton acts of destruction in the art world are fortunately rare. One of the strangest occurred in 1845 in the British Museum, London, and is worthy of a Sherlock Holmes story. The Portland Vase, the most famous example of ancient Roman glass, decorated in dark-blue-and-white cameo technique, was brought from Italy in 1783 and purchased by the Duchess of Portland. A drunken young man entered the museum and without explanation smashed the vase and its glass display case. He was imprisoned for breaking the case but not the vase, as British law didn’t impose penalties for destroying works of art of high value. The vase has since been repaired; however, you can still see the bruises.
5. Cellini’s Saltcellar
Saliera or salt cellar by Benvenuto Cellini (ca. 1539 – 1543)
A recent art world disaster/scandal occurred on May 13, 2003 (and it wasn’t even a Friday!). Thieves climbed scaffolding and smashed windows to enter Vienna’s Art History Museum and stole the “Mona Lisa of sculptures” – Cellini’s Saltcellar [wiki]. This intricate 16-centimeter-high sculpture was commissioned by François I, king of France, from Benvenuto Cellini (1500 – 1571), the Renaissance’s most ingenious and gifted goldsmith. Crafted with amazingly rich detail and skill, its principal figures are a naked sea god and a woman who sit opposite of each other, with legs entwined – a symbolic representation of the planet earth. The thieves set off the alarms, but these were ignored as false, and the theft remained undiscovered until 8:20 a.m. The reasons for the theft are as yet unknown. The fear is that these thieves will destroy the sculpture or melt it down, an act of vandalism that would be the equivalent of burning the Mona Lisa.