In 2009 I posted about the likelihood of the picture known as the Procuress, at the Courtauld Institute, being real, not the fake it had been considered to be. After watching last night’s episode of Fake or Fortune, I can see that this view will have to be revised.
With the aid of the curatorial departments of the Courtauld and the Rijksmuseum, Philip Mould and his team were able to establish that the picture- which looks like a Dirk van Barburen- contained one element that was not known to the 17th century- bakelite.
To my knowledge there is only one 20th century artist who is known to have used bakelite: the notorious forger, Han van Meegeren, the subject of last night’s programme. As Jonathan Lopez explains in his book on the forger:
“A forerunner to postwar thermoplastics, Bakelite was used during the twenties and thirties to make everything from telephone handsets to brightly coloured costume jewellery. Bakelite was impervious to just about anything. The alcohol test would have had no effect on a Bakelite fake. And unlike gelatin glue, Bakelite didn’t soften in water either. Indeed, a film of hardened Bakelite behaved almost exactly like an oil paint surface hundreds of years old. By grinding period-appropriate pigments into liquid Bakelite and then using the resulting mixture on re-cycled seventeenth-century canvases, Van Meegeren was suddenly able to create fakes that virtually no scientist could have proved fraudulent, at least not using the methods ordinarily employed in the conservation laboratories of the 1930s. In short, Van Meegeren had hit the technological jackpot.”
Conservation technology has moved on since the 1930s, so, on the face of it, the scientific evidence would seem to be irrefutable because of the 20th century deposit. There’s a Holy Family in the National Gallery, once thought to have been painted by Poussin until Prussian blue was detected in it. So the scientific testing carries a lot of weight, and yet, and yet. When I look at the Procuress, it doesn’t look one of Van Meegeren’s fakes. They never match the original, and this Courtauld picture seems so close to van Barburen in its look, that it’s untypical of this forger. This year I’ve taught classes on the forger, and I’ve read a lot on him and I was extremely surprised to learn that not only was it a fake, but by the Amsterdam art crook. I would have put money that the Dutch curators were going to rule it out as a 20th century forgery. It’s this aspect of art crime- forgery- that fascinates me most because it involves connoisseurship and a deep knowledge of the canon of art, which I’ve trained myself to know. If this Procuress is by van Meegeren, then it’s the closest he ever came to the original, because all his other forgeries, of Vermeer, Hals, De Hooch, are always slightly off key. You know instinctively that they’re not by the original masters. Consequently, I’m completely thrown! I wish Fake or Fortune had addressed that side of the problem, i.e. the role of connoisseurship more, but full marks to them for an engrossing series. And, well, bakelite is bakelite!
Mention should be also made of John Myatt –above-, forger and catspaw of the cunning art conman John Drewe. A rueful Myatt told Fiona Bruce he’d regretted what he’d done, before going off to attempt to paint Vermeer’s Girl with the Pearl Earring, literally under laboratory conditions. That was absolutely fascinating.
 Fake or Fortune, BBC, 3/7/11
 Jonathan Lopez, The Man Who Made Vermeers: Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han van Meegeren, 2009, 109-110.