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August 2023

Vol. 165 / No. 1445

Don’t believe your eyes

As an avid art enthusiast, I recently had the pleasure of visiting the Art and Artifice exhibition at the esteemed Courtauld Gallery in London. The unique theme of showcasing fakes from their collection had piqued my interest, and I must say, the exhibition did not disappoint. This fascinating display challenged conventional notions of authenticity and offered a thought-provoking experience that left a lasting impression. The exhibition was thoughtfully curated, providing a diverse selection of artworks spanning various time periods and artistic movements. Each piece came with an intriguing backstory, shedding light on the complex world of art forgery and its impact on the art community. From Renaissance masterpieces to modern works, the display included paintings, sculptures, and even some decorative art pieces, all of which had one thing in common – they were meticulously crafted fakes. 

The previous paragraph is also a fake. It is an extract from the text that was generated in a few seconds by ChatGPT ( in response to a request for a review of the excellent display Art and Artifice: Fakes from the Collection at the Courtauld Gallery, London (17th June–8th October).[1] If any reader is uncertain what ChatGPT is, it informs us that it is ‘part of the GPT (Generative Pre-trained Transformer) series of language models developed by OpenAI. It is designed to understand and generate human-like text based on the input it receives. ChatGPT can be used for a wide range of applications, including answering questions, providing explanations, generating creative writing, assisting with programming, and more’. ChatGPT is not a fake human being but in this example the review is fake, since it is not based on a visit to the Courtauld but is a synthesis of material available from ChatGPT’s dataset. In this instance, it has worked rather in the same way that a clever forger of an old-master painting or drawing might – not by attempting to invent something from scratch, but by artfully blending motifs from existing works. Two examples in the display, which is derived entirely from the Courtauld’s collection, are a drawing purporting to be by Francisco de Goya, which is in fact a collage of motifs from his so-called Album C in the Prado, and a Virgin and Child (‘The Madonna of the Veil’) painted in the 1920s by the Sienese forger Umberto Giunti, which fuses a number of motifs from paintings by Botticelli. 

Any presumed contrast between the insubstantial world of digital text and the reassuring solidity of real objects is undermined by the way the display makes clear how uncertain even experts can be when asked to distinguish an authentic work of art from a fake. There is, for example, a comforting belief that, given enough time, fakes will expose themselves since they will come to look ever-more like a work from the period in which they were created. That, however, requires knowledge of the period that may itself soon fade. Giunti’s painting was doubted by Kenneth Clark on the grounds that the face of the Virgin looked like a 1920s film star, but to most people today a photograph of, for example, Lillian Gish will seem less familiar than a Botticelli Virgin. One value of this fake (exposed by technical analysis) is that it underlines the way Botticelli still tends to be seen, as in Giunti’s time, through the eyes of his Aesthetic Movement admirers. 

Some of the works on show were donated to the Courtauld in the belief that they were genuine: for example, Giunti’s painting was part of the bequest by Viscount Lee of Fareham in 1947 and a drawing of a naked woman that purports to be by Auguste Rodin was part of the Samuel Courtauld gift in 1935. Neither is ever on display as part of the Courtauld’s permanent collection, and that is typical of most museums, which rarely hesitate to whisk a work out of sight as soon as its authenticity is doubted. Visitors to the Getty Villa in Malibu, for example, no longer see what was its most celebrated archaic Greek sculpture, the Getty kouros, acquired in 1985 and now widely, if not conclusively, thought to be a fake. In some ways this is a pity, because such works are often then consigned to a scholarly limbo. A major example in the Courtauld’s display is a small drawing in brown ink and red chalk of a standing Virgin and Child. It was bequeathed by Antoine Seilern in 1978 as by Michelangelo but since 1998 has been one of a group of eleven drawings doubted as the result of an anonymous telephone call to the Courtauld claiming that they are all by the forger Eric Hebborn. The display includes two of these drawings, by Giambattista Tiepolo and Francesco Guardi, which research has shown are in fact indubitably authentic. In the case of the ‘Michelangelo’ technical examination may yet tilt the judgment against the forger. 

Another reason to regret museums’ squeamishness about forgery is that exhibiting a fake or a doubtful work, such as the kouros, next to a comparable genuine work can be very instructive. The curators of the display, Rachel Hapoienu and Karen Serres, have made good use of a group of drawings donated by Brinsley Ford in 2011 that he knew to be fakes and thought would be useful for teaching purposes. By pairing a forgery with a genuine drawing the all-but unfakeable brilliance of Tiepolo’s draughtsmanship is made vividly apparent, whereas the juxtaposition of a modest sketch by Constantin Guys with an ambitious fake may make even some art historians pause. All the works on show are put to good didactic purpose: visitors learn, for example, of the significance of the distinction between wove and laid paper and the use of watermarks for dating and authenticating drawings. The popularity of the Courtauld display suggests that there would be an appetite for a large exhibition of a sort not seen since Fakes at the British Museum in 1990,[2] but it also by implication makes a case for similar small displays being part of permanent museum installations. 

Faking in the art world extends well beyond the forgery of works of art, since it encompasses, for example, inventing documents, such as dealers’ invoices, to create fictitious provenances. Might ChatGPT be able to help a faker there? It seems wise to that idea: when asked to provide a provenance for the Madonna of the Veil, it replied: ‘I recommend visiting the official website of the Courtauld Gallery or contacting the gallery directly for the latest information’. The use of ChatGPT to create work plausibly written by students is, however, an issue that universities are having to confront.[3] Judging by the first paragraph of this Editorial, the technology has some way to go before readers of this Magazine are likely to be deceived, but, given the speed of AI’s development, ‘some way to go’ is unlikely to be far away at all. 

[1] There is no catalogue, but the entire display has been published online, available at, accessed 18th July 2023. 

[2] Reviewed by Nicholas Penny in this Magazine, 132 (1990), pp.504–06. 

[3] See, for example, S. Weale: ‘Lecturers urged to review assessments in UK amid concerns over new AI tool’, The Guardian (13th January 2023), available at uk-lecturers-assessments-chatgpt-concerns-ai, accessed 18th July 2023.