26 May 2013

Fake Out: Original Reproductions in Pittsburgh

One thing leads to another on the Internet. That's as much as I'm going to say about how I found myself looking at an online catalogue of celebrity impersonators the other day.

Source: Wikipedia Commons
Full disclosure: watching celebrity impersonator performances isn't something I do. The appeal of the cult of celebrity is lost on me, although I certainly respect and am sometimes in awe of individual accomplishments and performances. I'll grant that imitation is a form of flattery, but I'm just not obsessed with celebrity culture. Fake is fake is fake.

Except when fake becomes, well, real.

Because the answer to "What is real?" is far more complicated than The Velveteen Rabbit would lead one to believe.

Forgery in the Art World
Impersonators study nuances to mirror their famous subjects, and a few seemingly manage to capture their very essence. There's no doubt that successful impersonation requires highly specialized skills and talents.

It has become an art form in its own right, and as such its very existence ought to leave us pondering the nature and value of art itself.

Some observers of the insular world of art appreciation, such as Forged author Jonathon Keats, assert that it is the forgers and the imitators who are today's cutting edge artists. Keats posits that forgers are the "foremost artists of our age" because "....no authentic modern masterpiece is as provocative as a great forgery." Seen within this mindset, forgeries successfully provoke reactions and challenge our assumptions about creativity, authenticity and how we assign value; they are the embodiment of concept art.

Others argue that those who deliberately create with the intent to deceive are morally bankrupt miners of Fool's Gold. They're hacks; what they produce has no comparable and little intrinsic value.

After all, in the fine art world, authenticating work is Serious Business. Con artists (in every sense of that descriptor) have caused very expensive headaches for experts and collectors the world over.

I may not gravitate to celebrity impersonators but I've been fascinated by the art of modern day forgery. The perpetrators of forgeries represent a different and more complicated kind of celebrity impersonator, having managed to successfully pass their work as art made by someone else. Ken Perenyi achieved financial gain with scores of paintings he presented as master works, and managed to escape detection until at last the statute of limitations ran out on his scams. He is now seeking fame and fortune with a book about his career. Mark Landis assumed various identities, including that of Jesuit priest, in order to donate his forgeries as master works to US art museums over a 20 year period. He, too, escaped prosecution, for no crime could be charged since compensation was never exchanged for the donations. Wolfgang Beltracchi was at the center of the world's biggest art forgery case of the last century; his work consisted of "the unpainted pictures of famous artists." He and his wife are serving prison terms for 14 forgeries that netted them nearly $21 million.

But art forgeries are nothing new -- even Michelangelo was guilty of perpetrating one. He sculpted a sleeping cupid, buried it in acidic soil to age the piece, and sold it as an antique. Michelangelo ended up keeping his percentage of the sale because the owner was so impressed with his talents, but that's not the usual way for these forgery tales to end!

There's been a proliferation of interest in articles and books on the subject of art forgeries in recent years. In 2014, an exhibit called Intent to Deceive began making the rounds with a focus on 20th century art forgeries and their creators. The exhibit displayed their works along with background materials and expert explanations about how the latest technology was used to reveal fakery. The exhibition hoped to generate discussion about whether uncovering a painting’s provenance made it less of a work of art, and how that changes our relationship with the work.

Smiling Girl would have left AW Mellon frowning.
Intent to Deceive didn't make it to Pittsburgh, but it wouldn't be out of place here. This city certainly has had its share of famous Gilded Age art collectors. Andrew Carnegie, Henry Clay Frick and his daughter Helen, and Andrew Mellon all famously amassed different art collections.

Pittsburgh's Collectors and Their Fake Art
Andrew W. Mellon, who already owned Vermeer's "The Girl with the Red Hat", thought adding more works from that artist's scant volume of work would be a fine thing to do. Problem was, the two paintings he bought ("Smiling Girl" and "The Lace Maker") were fakes created by Han van Meegeren, a notorious forger best known for tricking Hermann Göring with another fake Vermeer. Mellon never realized he'd been taken and went on to donate his, uhm, three Vermeers to the National Gallery that he so generously founded. The fakes weren't discovered until the 1960s, and were subsequently pulled from exhibit. To this day, even Mellon's red hatted girl has challenges to a Vermeer attribution.

Henry Clay Frick managed to escape being tricked, although some of his paintings were misattributed and turned out not to be by the masters he thought at the time of purchase. That wasn't due to forgery, but to the state of the art of authentication back in the day.

Frick's daughter--and self-appointed keeper of his legacy--was not so lucky.

In the early 1920s, Helen Frick purchased a set of statues which she placed at the foot of the central staircase in the Frick's New York City mansion. These figures of Carrara marble, representing the Virgin Mary and an angel at the Annunciation, were reputed to be the work of 4th century Sienese painter Simone Martini

By 1928 these works had been exposed as the work of a living artist, Alceo Dossena. He claimed he was a poor Roman marble mason who never directly copied works but rather studied and learned to sculpt in the manner of the old masters. Dossena brought suit against two Italian art dealers whom he claimed duped him by commissioning pieces from him, whicht they'd passed off to gullible collectors as original master works. Dossena claimed that he had not benefited financially from the sales of these pieces, and he was cleared of charges. Despite subsequent attempts to capitalize on his talent and notoriety, Dossena died in poverty and obscurity. Today Dossena's works are regarded as curiosities evident of native talent, and some may even still circulate in the art market as genuine.

We have to assume that Helen Frick's Annunciation figures had no appeal for her once their provenance had been determined. In 1970, the Frick Art Museum opened on property adjacent to the Frick family estate, becoming the permanent home for Helen's personal collection. But the Annunciation figures remained on Pitt's campus, at the Henry Clay Frick Fine Arts Building. Helen Frick severed her ties with the university in the 1960s, due to complicated management and personality disputes. The Dossena pieces didn't make the cut of things she wanted to keep and showcase as part of her personal collection in her new museum. She donated them to the University of Pittsburgh, and her dealer never spoke publicly about them again.

And then there's Andrew Carnegie. While his contemporaries Frick and Mellon were buying up the art market, Carnegie was doing a different kind of collecting. Carnegie chose to use his wealth not to amass a great personal collection of expensive art, but to acquire collections for the institutes he founded and endowed.

Carnegie’s classic rags-to-riches story instilled in him a deep belief in the value of and moral compulsion toward philanthropy. He chose to give back -- albeit on his own clearly defined terms -- to people he though were like him, who wanted to better themselves culturally. His assistance came in the free and publicly accessible library buildings and, in Pittsburgh, a fine museum complex. His eponymous museum was kept open at then-unheard-of hours to accommodate the schedules of the working class: from 10 AM to 10 PM six days a week, and from 2-6 PM on Sundays.

What we now call the Carnegie Museum of Art began with a collection of plaster casts from classical Greek and Roman statuary.

That's right, Andrew Carnegie deliberately filled his museum with fakes and reproductions.

Andrew Carnegie's Fake Art: the Museum Cast Court

It's tempting to conclude that Carnegie's famous Scottish frugality was behind the reasoning that copies were better than nothing for art students, who couldn't afford to travel to see the originals. But  that's too pat an explanation, and ignores the context of the times.

It was common in the late 19th century to acquire plaster cast collections as teaching tools to illustrate art history. Both amateur and art students were routinely taught drawing skills using casts as their inspiration. Such casts weren't perfect teaching tools since museum lighting can render the study of form and chiaroscuro difficult, but lines and shapes were still far better studied in this context than from photographs.

So Carnegie wasn't trying to fool anyone into thinking his pieces were real. Since collecting plaster casts of famous statuary and architectural monuments was de rigueur for museums of this era, Carnegie was following prevailing trends.

Museums in the United States had initially developed as a response to the awe-inspiring collections abroad, but money was in short supply for them to acquire equivalent collections of original art. Plus, there were only so many original master works to go around! Amassing plaster cast collections, which was already a methodology in use in Europe, assured that an impressive and comprehensive classical collection could be developed even with limited funds.

And let's face it: such casts provided the only contact most Pittsburgh museum-goers would ever have with ancient sculpture and buildings. Carnegie aspired that his museum would make such wondrous works accessible to even the most common of laborers. He made his purpose clear in this excerpt from an 1895 address entitled "Presentation of the Carnegie Library to the People of Pittsburgh":
Already many casts of the world's masterpieces of sculpture are within its (the Museum's) walls. Ultimately, there will be gathered from all parts of the world casts of those objects which take highest rank. The Museum will thus be the means of bringing to the knowledge of the masses of the people who cannot travel many of the most interesting and instructive objects to be seen in the world; so that, while they pursue their tasks at home, they may yet enjoy some of the pleasures and benefits of travel abroad. If they cannot go to the objects which allure people abroad, we shall do our best to bring the rarest of those objects to them at home.
According to the Carnegie Museum of Art website, by 1907 the Institute had acquired 144 architectural casts, 69 plaster reproductions of sculpture, and 360 replicas in bronze. The collection was housed in a new extension that we know today as the imposing Hall of Architecture, designed by the leading Pittsburgh architectural firm of Alden and Harlow.

Like the production of any masterpiece, the reproduction of original works of art as plaster casts was a technical achievement involving artistry and skill. Molds were made of the original work, and it usually took multiple pieces to capture the entirety and showcase details. A separating agent was used so that the plaster would not stick to the original antiquities. The molds were enclosed in an outer casing, their interiors coated with separating agent, and wet plaster poured in to create the casts. This practice is no longer in use, a lost art all its own. Today when casts are made, rubber and silicon are used, since those products are easily peeled off the master.

Since most completed cast art is made up of multiple sections, you can see the network of casting lines on finished pieces. The porous plaster was soaked in linseed oil to increase durability, and often tinted to match the original. Once it had an authentic appearance, the piece was erected on wooden scaffolding. The casts are hollow but they're not lightweight, and of course they're true to the size of the original pieces.

Andrew Carnegie initially approached the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in 1895 to request permission to produce casts from that facility's molds. He was rebuffed. He subsequently made sure that his museum went to considerable lengths to develop casts for its own specific needs, having new molds made directly from the buildings and objects instead of reusing molds produced elsewhere. In this way he was able to ensure that the work was unique and of the highest quality...and he could thumb his little nose at places like the Met that wouldn't share!

Not all of the Carnegie casts were original, however. Detailed catalogues were available which allowed museum directors to choose ready-made additions to their collections, especially sculptural fragments. These books also included advice to would-be buyers and curators about display lighting, wall color, and care instructions. The Carnegie Museum has examples of such catalogues in its collection.

The cast of the Porch of the Maidens from the Erechtheion on the north side of the Acropolis, which can be seen to the right in the photo below, was purchased for $25,000 in today's money from the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris.

Inspired by the power of the huge displays at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, Carnegie wanted his Pittsburgh collection to shock and awe its visitors. The dramatic scale and attention to detail did just that...and still does.

Winged Victory of Samothrace
Venus de Milo

Below are two of my favorite pieces. The first is the cast of a highly detailed carved wooden choir stall dating to 1509; the original is now housed at St-Denis in Paris. The frieze at the top portrays a woman lying in childbed carefully watching as her new babe is being bathed, and one might assume that the male figure is a physician taking notes. In fact this scene is a depiction of the birth and naming of John the Baptist. The misericord at the bottom (which the devout would lean upon during prayers when fatigued) portrays some acrobatic cherubs.

The other piece I'm fondest of is a vaguely Voldemortesque sculpture on a corner of the elaborate gisant of the last duke of Britany, Francis II and his first wife. Francis was a significant figure in what we now call the War of the Roses, having been the protector of the House of Lancaster in exile. He regarded Henry Tudor (later Henry VII) as a most valuable pawn. I have had a lifelong fascination with that period in history, and was tickled to learn that this reproduction of Francis' elaborate tomb from Nantes Cathedral was in my hometown museum. Francis' tomb was the first major piece of Renaissance art from Brittany, and is considered a masterpiece of French sculpture. The two-headed statue that I like best is one of the four cardinal virtues. This one represents Prudence, symbolized by an old man implying the wisdom of the past and a forward-gazing woman contemplating the future.

Pride of place is given here to a plaster cast of the entire western facade of the French abbey church of St.-Gilles-du-Gard. Carnegie was given special permission to make a cast of this impressive building after donating 2000 gold francs to the town of Gard, which at the time was suffering from the effects of a poor grape harvest. The Carnegie's St-Gilles facade was made of hundreds of individual casts shipped in countless crates by four steamers from Europe. These crates were then transported by train from New York City to Shadyside Station in Pittsburgh, and assembled with the assistance of two French craftsmen.

St-Gilles remains the largest existing architectural plaster cast in the world.

The Carnegie Museum's Saint-Gilles-du-Gard west portal plaster cast is 58 feet high, 87 feet wide.

For comparison's sake, here is an image of the actual western portal of St-Gilles. The western portal was traditionally the point of arrival for pilgrims, who would enter and proceed through the church in an easterly direction (symbolizing a journey to the Holy Land) toward a reliquary shrine. 

Used with permissions as specified by Digital Imaging Project, Mary Ann Sullivan, Bluffton University

Gilles was a 7th century hermit priest from Greece who came to live in southern France and developed a reputation for humility and holiness. His sole companion was said to be a female deer or hind, whom he saved from the king's hunt. He founded a Benedictine abbey dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul, later named for him, and was buried in the crypt. The church was once one of the most important stops along a pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compestela, and was also a stop-over for Crusaders on their way to the Holy Land.

The West Portal of St-Gilles was constructed in the 12th century and is the largest sculptural ensemble of Romanesque art in the Languedoc region. It is considered to be one of the most beautiful of all Romanesque structures, said to rival the comparable portals gracing Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Chartres and Basilique Cathedral de St-Denis. The French Huguenots used St-Gilles for military purposes and left the church in ruins, and subsequent reconstruction attempts were only partially successful.

In keeping with the deliberate wholesale destruction of monarchical and religious imagery of the 16th century, much of the religious iconography of St-Gilles was defaced during the religious wars. The Carnegie plaster casts do not attempt to reconstruct and instead reflect the damage as it existed in the early 1900s when the casts were made .

The comparison photos below of the central tympanum which depicts the Second Coming and its frieze depicting the Washing of Peter's Feet (far left) at the Last Supper show the extent of the damage from this time period. Original building in top image, Carnegie cast below:

Used with permissions as specified by Digital Imaging Project, Mary Ann Sullivan, Bluffton University

This unknown apostle has the most complete head of any of the statues. Original on the left, plaster cast on the right.  You can see with what precision the cast captured details, even 100+ years ago.

Digital Imaging Project, Mary Ann Sullivan, Bluffton University

This portrayal of Saint Michael subduing a dragon was also left relatively unscathed, although you can see some erosion on the left side of the statue. Original below, plaster cast to right.

Digital Imaging Project, Mary Ann Sullivan, Bluffton University

I am always enchanted by the fanciful details on panels, molding, capitals, cornices, palmettes and columns.  I don't want to take up more space with comparison shots, so please check out the fine Bluffton University Digital Imaging Project for photos of some of these same images from St-Gilles to compare with the Carnegie casts below. I like looking at the close-ups because they show details like the gradations in color on the tinted plaster. It is sometimes hard to remember that you are not looking at carved stone.


One of my favorite details is this roundel portraying a graceful deer. Although scholars have identified it as a stag being shot by a centaur, I'd rather it represented the hind who was Saint Gilles' faithful and grateful companion.

The artisans even made casts of the doors.

And then there's this portrayal of the eastern gate to the city of Jerusalem, as a frieze over the left door.  Of course it's way off scale for the guys hanging out on it, but still charming.

The Carnegie's adjacent Hall of Sculpture was originally designed to house the museum's collection of Egyptian, Near Eastern, Greek, and Roman sculpture reproductions and displayed a majority of those plaster casts on the ground floor. It was modeled after the inner sanctuary of the Parthenon and constructed with white marble from the same Greek quarries that provided such stone for the Parthenon. Most of the cast court was subsequently moved to the Hall of Architecture where it now resides, and the space is today reserved for special events and exhibits such as the recent 2013 Art in Bloom installation.  It is a classically pristine room.


Although plaster casts were once ubiquitous in collections, changes in taste and space restrictions resulted in a cultural shift toward preferring originals over reproductions. Countless cast collections were thus destroyed or dispersed beginning in the 1920s, in what at its extreme became a modern orgy of art iconoclasm. Even the Metropolitan Museum, whose exemplary collection inspired Carnegie, dispersed its architectural cast collection in 2005.

The Carnegie Museum remained conservative and held onto its collection, which is thus now unique in size, scope and significance. It is second only to London's Victoria and Albert Museum collection in size.

Careful curation assures that this collection represents a valuable record. The details so precisely captured in the architectural plaster casts will remain with us even when the ravages of time, pollution and poor quality restoration obscure such details in the original pieces. The casts continue to serve their educational purpose, for they provide true-to-life examples of scale and dimension that photographs simply can't convey.

That the Carnegie cast court exists at all today is a testimony to the prescience of the curators of yesterday, who retained these pieces in the face of popular convention because they recognized their value as a record of the classical tradition. And let's thanks the curators of today -- plaster is a delicate, high maintenance material, so a cast court requires constant vigilance and conservation.

Art comes in many varieties, and we dismiss one over the other to our own detriment. The cast courts serve as an inspiring reminder that even "fakes" are art worth viewing, not merely as curiosities, but as testimony to originality of intent and artisan skill within historical context.

Does all of this make me want out to watch an Elvis impersonator at work? Mmm, no, probably not. It's still not my thing, but I can respect the process and product. And while I might have a grudging appreciation for the talents of the art forger, there's nothing laudable about those who defraud buyers and damage our understanding of art history by deceiving scholarship and diluting an artist’s body of work.

Further reading:
Almost Too Good
Art Forgery A 'Classic' Show in Oakland (Oct 12 1975)
Art on a Grand Scale
Carnegie Museum of Art website: Hall of Architecture
Old Masters in Plaster: The Carnegie Museum of Art lifts the fig leaf from its 100-year-old collection of plaster casts.
Pitt Fakes Given New Importance (December 1968)
Pittsburgh's Carnegie Museum Celebrates 100 years
Psuedo-Vermeers: A forger's masterpieces
Saint-Gilles-du-Gard: The monastic order under the patronage of this abbot flourishes, a possessed man is delivered from the devil
The Art of Impersonation: How Mirror Neurons in the Brain May Make it Easier
The Big Idea: Why Forgeries Are Great Art
The history of the Cast Courts
The West Portal of Saint-Gilles-du-Gard

Keats, Jonathon. Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age.Oxford University Press, USA. 2013.
Scholoetzer, Mattie. "Andrew Carnegie's Original Reproductions: The Hall of Architecture at 100."  Western Pennsylvania History. Fall 2007. 


  1. Thank you for this thorough post! I was looking for more information on the cast of the Tomb of Francis II (in particular the fascinating Prudence figure) and I'm happy to have found this page.

  2. I'm glad you found your way here! The Hall of Architecture is one of my favorite places in Pittsburgh and I never tire of the many stories the plaster casts have to tell.