Really a Picasso or a Pollack? The people who investigate fraudulent art

April 27, 2012

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Most of us will never be able to afford a Picasso or a Pollack. Then there are those collectors who think they've captured a masterpiece for their collection, only to learn they've been hoodwinked.

For example: A famous portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln has been holding court at the governor's mansion in Springfield for many years. Only, it's not actually Mary Todd Lincoln.

Back in 2010, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library curator James Cornelius commissioned Chicago-area conservator Barry Bauman to inspect several works in the museum's collection. Bauman recognized the portrait from his days as an assistant curator at the Art Institute of Chicago. After further inspection Bauman realized the original image had been painted over-- it wasn't actually Mary Todd Lincoln. After the discovery, Bauman summed it up best: “What we have here is probably the most famous painting in the museum’s collection now, not for what it is, but what it isn’t.”

Certainly Mary Todd Lincoln isn't the only famous face to be misappropriated. In recent years, conservators and curators have raised questions about allegedly fake Jackson Pollack works, and last year a River North gallery was accused of selling counterfeit works by Dali and Picasso. The indictment claimed that the gallery owner knowingly acquired the works and sold them.

When cases like this occur, the Art Crime Team of the FBI can be called in to investigate. Here in Chicago there are two agents assigned to investigate art crimes, which can include counterfeit works and stolen property. Special Agent Luigi Mondini is one of the agents working here in Chicago. He joins Friday's Eight Forty-Eight to discuss some local cases that shook the art world in recent years.

But prosecuting the crime is just one part of the puzzle. Dissecting the works to verify their veracity is an integral part of the process. Francesca Casadio is the A. W. Mellon Senior Conservation Scientist at Art Institute of Chicago. She runs a lab that puts the paintings under the microscope -- literally.

Casadio's PhD in chemistry gives her expertise in the chemical make-up of pigments on a canvas or the metals in a sculpture. She can trace the history of the color white, for example, by determining if it's led or titanium-based. When I spoke with Casadio before the show and told her she's like an art detective, she laughed: "Yes, sort of." Casadio tells Eight Forty-Eight about some of her other detective work and discoveries while on the search for authenticity.

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