Notes on Imitation and Forgery:
Imitation in the Renaissance
Art Forgery in Today's Terms
A Brief History of Forgery
Forgery in the Renaissance
Forgery in the Modern Era
Forgery in the Internet Age

Imitation in the Renaissance

Jacopo di Poggibonsi's adoption of figural types from works by Fra Filippo Lippi bring up the issues of imitation and forgery in art. Although in the 21st century we as viewers and critics generally conceive of artistic imitation as an artist's lack of creativity and originality, Renaissance thinkers held a different opinion. In fact, the French word renaissance means, "rebirth." The Italian Renaissance, beginning in the late 14th century, was a rebirth of the usage and development of the genre of Classical antiquity. Many artists, in all sorts of media, engaged in imitation of the antique styles and pieces. The fine arts in particular are laden with imitations, especially in the areas of painting and sculpture. Renaissance artists not only imitated Classical forms, but also each other's recent works. The Latin terms imitatio and aemulatio were coined in discussion of the contemporary reaction to and adoption of antiquity.

Wilderness Adoration of the Child with Saint John
Jacopo's imitation of Lippi's work

While our culture today seems wrapped up in the importance of idolizing names instead of worshipping art,1 artists in the Renaissance were much more focused on reviving and exploring a genre than seeking their own fame and fortune. Thus, imitation was not seen as negative and unoriginal practice, but, rather, as a great artistic challenge. It is important to make these cultural distinctions in order to gain a better understanding of how the line between stylistic imitation and deliberate, corrupt forgery or "copying for profit" has been altered and redefined throughout history.

Art Forgery in Today's Terms

A forged work of art can be defined as possessing "the intent to deceive, usually for financial gain, by proffering an art object as representing something other than it is."2 Forged artworks can be subdivided as follows: deliberate imitations offered as originals; genuine objects that have been altered by partial repainting or reworking to increase their value; early copies (not initially intended to deceive) passed off later as originals; pastiches comprised of original parts of different works passed off as homogenous originals; products of a workshop that have been erroneously attributed to the master of the workshop.

A Brief History of Forgery

Throughout the entire history of art, forgeries have been made whenever the market accommodated and creative works were desired for collection. The Romans copied and adapted Greek sculptures, many of which were believed to be originals in later centuries. Today these "copies" are in museums, valued for what they are - art - understood both by their imitative nature and Roman context.3

Example of an easily copied Roman coin

One of the earliest forms of forgery was coin counterfeit. Coins have been counterfeited ever since 670 BC, when they were minted by King Gyges of Lydia. Copies were produced by making castings from molds of original coins. Also, some of the original dies were found and used to strike unauthorized issues. Various Byzantine emperors debased their coinage with base alloys--this dilution being the new and improved form of deception--and coins were even produced in base metals and gilded in order to be passed off as solid gold. Counterfeit coins were made for a different type of individual profit by Jean Duc de Berry of France (1340-1416). An art patron and coin collector, he commissioned modern copies of old Dutch and French coins to fill in gaps in his collection. An interesting modern twist on currency forgery has been made by J.S.G. Boggs, a contemporary artist. He uses his masterpieces, which resemble American currency, in exchange for goods and services.4

Forgery in the Renaissance

The Italian artists Giovanni Cavino and Pirro Ligorio (c. 1500-83) were master coin counterfeiters of the 16th century. This form of forgery eventually led to the forging of works of art for profit and also exhibition. Even the highly esteemed Michelangelo had forged an "antique" marble cupid for his patron, Lorenzo de' Medici. The forgery of classical images continues in our own era. Renaissance painting especially has a permanent place in modern forgery. Otto Kurz expands on this as he recalls a recent summer day's excursion into the streets of the art district of a town in Italy:

The forgers who did and do their utmost to keep pace with the demand fully avail themselves of the great advantages offered to them. Every early picture of the Italian school, and be it of the lowest artistic quality, is eagerly sought for, and commands a high price. There is no need to produce masterpieces. We hardly ever find spurious Giottos or Duccios, while the number of dubious works by the 'minor masters' is constantly increased. The task of distinguishing between genuine and spurious pictures is particularly difficult. Genuine Trecentist or Quattrocentist Madonnas of fifth-rate quality may possess nearly all the unattractive features characterizing their counterfeits. Their colour scheme may be unrefined, faces and hands badly drawn, facial expression and gestures may be pettish and affected. The sad thing is that objects of so poor artistic quality should be such favorites with collectors.5

Although contemporary critics often label Jacopo as a "master forger," this label would clearly be a misnomer of many artists of the Italian Renaissance (see Imitation in the Italian Renaissance, above). Normally, Jacopo's copying of figural types by Lippi would not have been considered inappropriate within the context of Renaissance Florence. However, because each of these artists was working for families vying for political power, the issue took on a larger power struggle. The Medicis perceived Jacopo as a threat to Lippi and thus his otherwise innocent imitation took on a sinister quality. Although Jacopo was not engaged in a greedy pursuit of monetary gain, his works tread the fine line between imitation and forgery. Although he was doing more than just "developing" or "practicing" a style, he was not technically a forger bent on making his fortune on someone else's work. Jacopo is a great example of how difficult it is to grapple with the issues of imitation, emulation, and forgery in different cultural contexts.

Forgery in the Modern Era

Perhaps the most prolific production of art forgeries has occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries during periods of avid collecting, when profits for forgers have proven astronomical. The Louvre Museum in Paris bought its gold Tiara of Saïtaphernes for 200,000 gold francs and declared it a genuine work of the third century B.C.E., although it had actually been made in 1880 by the goldsmith Israel Ruchomovsky of Odessa, Russia. Ruchomovsky was commissioned to execute a number of works in the antique manner by unscrupulous dealers, who then sold the objects as antiquities. The Italian artist Giovanni Bastianini (1830-68), in the third quarter of the 19th century, executed in good faith a number of fine sculptures in the manner of Donatello, Verrocchio, Mino de Fiesole, and other Italian old masters, sculptures which were subsequently sold as genuine to reputable museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Louvre Museum. Perhaps the most famous master forger of all time was Alceo Dossena (1878-1936), who successfully produced sculptures of such high quality that they were accepted as genuine by many art critics, museum directors, and famous collectors. Apparently, Dossena, a master artist, did not know he was defrauding a third party, as he merely supplied work in various styles: Archaic, Hellenistic, Roman, Gothic, and Renaissance. When he discovered that a Madonna and Child he had sold for 50,000 lire was in turn sold for 3 million lire, he stepped forward and proclaimed that the works were modern.6

Bastianini's Portrait of a Lady created
in imitation of classical styles and
believed to be an authentic antique by experts
Hans van Meegeren ingeniously imitated
Vermeer's style in his copy of The Card Players

Of almost equal notoriety is Hans van Meegeren (1884-1947) who painted a number of fake Vermeer's and Pieter de Hooch's that were accepted as genuine by eminent art critics and sold to important collectors and museums for fabulous sums. He was accused of collaboration, accused of having sold, through an intermediary, a painting by Vermeer to Nazi official Hermann Göring during the Second World War. In facing prison charges, he confessed to forging the painting himself. Authorities did not believe the painting to be fake and so van Meegeren painted another "Vermeer" before their eyes to prove it.

Perhaps the most provocative contemporary instance of art forgery is the questionable Getty Kouros, the authenticity of which has not been resolved. This marble statue in the J.P. Getty Museum in Malibu may be a Greek original of the Archaic period, or it may be a modern copy. Scholars disagree to the point that an entire colloquium was recently held to solve the problem once and for all - and failed!7 The statue remains in the permanent collection of the Getty as a thought-provoking work: one that stimulates reflection not only on the statue's Classical context, but also on forgery, connoisseurship and the uncertainty of attribution.8

Forgery in the Internet Age

In today’s world of rapid technological advances, one must consider forgery in all facets of the media, including the Internet. How can one trust the authority of a document on the web, when anyone who wishes can put up a website? In the print age, one was at least required to proceed through a publisher to get one’s ideas in print and thereby available to the masses. But in the digital age, anyone can “publish” information or even copy another’s work and appropriate it as their own. Thus the two main concerns that the facility of web publication raises are: How can one know that the person that posts the work is actually the author? And how can one know that the information is valid? We lack the necessary safeguards, quality control and regulations in this new age to prevent forgers from wreaking havoc on all of us.

Fake or Forged Websites

There are several excellent discussions on faked or forged websites. A good starting point is this piece from the “Detroit News:”, a great example of forgery and counterfeit on the Internet. The article discusses imitation-retail websites, in which many people think that they are purchasing items but are instead providing credit card information to criminals. This article also discusses the emergence of private organizations, such as Cyveillance and Scambusters, which are attempting to moderate and verify sites, particularly sites in which the user can make purchases. A valuable resource for verifying whether or not a site is the following from,4921,391581,00.html. This page provides advice for spotting fakes online and directs people towards the existing Internet “patrols” mentioned above. It also includes a good, general analysis of the problem of forgery on the Internet. On a more humorous level, the kidnapping of the website of a Turkish gentleman, Mahir, caused an Internet frenzy. See and for more.

Image Manipulation and Distribution

Image manipulation is another pressing issue in the age of the Internet. The framework of the Internet vastly increases the facility with which images can be copied, shared, manipulated, and easily distributed. An example of the consequences of this technology is Holocaust “revisionism.” Both the Jewish Community Online's Internet Resources at and The Nizkor Project at address the propagation of an utter denial of human genocide.

Forged E-mails

The next largest issue in our computer-run world is the validity of authorship of electronic mail. E-mail has been described as:

“The art of falsifying either the contents or the origins of a message. On the Internet, where a person's identity is shaped by his/her words as sent out via e-mail or public conferencing systems such as USENET, sending out a forged message in another person's name can seriously damage them. Forged messages are, however, used by the 'CancelMoose' to manage spamming and keep it from spreading.” 9
Several sites offer both common-sense advice and highly technological procedures to insure that you are receiving intended text from the intended and authentic author. Check out this site for some excellent information on how to detect forgery in e-mail: It also has some rather disturbing instructions for forging an e-mail, but it remains a good resource on contemporary forgery and authority on the Internet.

Lastly, research suggests that e-mail seems to be the prevailing venture for computer crime in the age of advanced technology. Forged mass e-mails are an excellent way to advertise freely. They continue to occur because governments still lack definitive measures of regulation and control over the Internet. An archive from discusses this issue in depth:

Thus forgery of works and authorship are of utmost concern in this day and age. The Internet and e-mail have exponentially increased the problem of validating the quality of a source or author. How do we know that any website is providing truth and not forged, copied, partly false, or completely false information? But then, how can we ever “trust the label”? For all we know, each website source provided in this piece could be forged, copied, or a fake. Therefore, until regulations and quality controls are established, computer users are left with only this, caveat emptor: “May the user beware.”

1 The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, Fakes and Forgeries (Minneapolis 1973), (unnumbered page)
2 For a good general introduction, see the comprehensive essay on forgery in the Grove Art Dictionary's online collection: (November 27, 2000)
3 See Elaine K. Gazda, "Roman sculpture and the Ethos of Emulation: Reconsidering Repetition," in Harvard Studies in Classical Philology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. 121-56.
4 See Lawrence Weschler, Boggs: A Comedy of Value (Chicago 1999) 5 Otto Kurz, Fakes. 2nd ed. New York: Dover Publications, 1967: ppg. 49. 49.
6 Web source
7 See various articles in The Getty Kouros Colloquium: Athens, 25-27 May 1992 (Athens 1993)
8 The kouros can be seen in online the Getty museum's own website: (November 27, 2000)
9 -The Dictionary of Computers, Multi-Media, and the Internet: