What Happens When Art Forgeries Get Too Good?

Matisse’s Odalisque in Red Trousers was finally returned to the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art. Could you have spotted the fake?


Sometime between 1999 and 2000, Matisse’s 1925 Odalisque in Red Trousers was stolen from the Caracas Museum of Contemporary Art in Venezuela. It wasn’t until 2002 that museum authorities noticed their $3 million-valued artwork was gone and had been replaced with a fake. Guards, curators, and visitors had all been expertly duped.


On Monday, with much ado, Odalisque in Red Trousers was returned to its rightful owners at the Caracas Museum. The topless, dark-haired odalisque had made a treacherous 14-year journey: the thieves, Cuban Pedro Antonio Marcuello Guzman and Mexican María Martha Elisa Ornelas Lazo, were arrested in an FBI sting operation in 2012 when they tried to sell the painting to agents at a Miami hotel for $740,000.

Left: Original Matisse, Right: Fake Matisse

The fiasco raises questions about what makes an original work of art so much more valuable than a highly convincing copy, and about how we’ll go about ensuring a work’s authenticity at a time when the art of art forgery is becoming disturbingly refined. Now that high-resolution photographs of famous paintings are a dime a dozen, it’s easier than ever to knock off the greats. As art critic Jonathan Jones puts it over at the Guardian:

Can we, any longer, be confident that originals always trump their forgeries? The mystery in Caracas came at the start of a century that is seeing artistic reproduction rapidly reach new levels of perfection. Digital scanning can now enable copiers to create microscopically exact reproductions of works of art.… Up to now, the real failure of all fakes is textural… [but] 3-D printing may soon be able to reproduce the thickly ridged surfaces of oil paintings. The massive amounts of close-up scientific information provided by institutions like the Van Gogh Museum may then allow a forger to make a three-dimensional rather than two-dimensional fake of Van Gogh’s impassioned oils.

Will perfect forgeries infiltrate the art market until the worth of an image is no longer determined by whose hand created it?

[H/T the Guardian]

About the author

Carey Dunne is a Brooklyn-based writer covering art and design. Follow her on Twitter.