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, in art
forgery, in art, the false claim to authenticity for a work of art.

The Nature of Forgery

Because the provenance of works of art is seldom clear and because their origin is often judged by means of subtle factors, art forgery has always been commonplace. The sorts of deception involved include the complete production of a work that is passed off as being of a particular period, false claims regarding materials or workmanship, the piecing together of old fragments to simulate antiquity, the selling as originals of faithful copies that were not intended to be taken as anything but copies, and the false attribution of minor works to great masters. Forgeries are distinguished from falsifications, which include copies or even mechanical reproductions not initially meant to pass for the original, in that they are intended to defraud. These sorts of deceptions, made for financial gain, reflect prevailing taste and fashion, conventions in collecting, and current modes of art criticism.

See also counterfeiting.

Early History

Art falsification and forgery are ancient endeavors, but they were not so widely practiced before the collection of antiques came into vogue (see antique collecting) or before the cult of artistic personalities developed. Still, many minor Greek sculptors carved the signatures of Phidias and Praxiteles into their works that were made for export to Roman collectors. During the Renaissance Michelangelo himself, according to Vasari, carved a marble cupid, buried it for a time to give it an antique look, and sold it as an ancient sculpture. Ghiberti produced ancient-looking Greek and Roman medals in imitation of aesthetic styles he admired.

The Proliferation of Forgery

Large numbers of forgeries of antique works have invariably followed directly after great archaeological discoveries, e.g., the 18th-century unearthing of Pompeii and Herculaneum resulted in quantities of forged Roman paintings. Museums are among the principal victims of such handiwork: Pietro Pennelli's fake antique terra-cotta pottery found its way into the Louvre in 1873. Copies of Parthenon sculpture in England were determined as forgeries by Bernard Ashmole in 1954. A bronze horse, purportedly an antique Greek work, and an Etruscan warrior are two famous cases of forged sculpture brought to light at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Thousands of lesser faked objects are displayed in private and public collections. Museum authorities, in an effort to avoid being duped, are sometimes overzealous in their rejection of works that are difficult to integrate within accepted concepts of stylistic development. The Fayum portraits of early Christian Egypt were just such a case. There is, of course, some opposition to revealing known frauds; an object's reputation may stand in an uneasy limbo of doubted authenticity for years.

The 20th cent., with its ever-increasing emphasis on the financial value of works of art, has witnessed the discovery of two master forgers. Alceo Dossena of Cremona (1878–1936) was a sculptor expert in the carving techniques of antiquity, the Middle Ages, and the Renaissance. His work was of the highest quality and not made in deliberate imitation of the styles he admired; rather he was inspired by them to the creation of his own, similar works. His Virgin and Child in the 15th-century Florentine manner is at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Hans van Meergeren (1884–1947), a mediocre Dutch painter, claimed to have discovered several lost paintings by Vermeer. He sold them to Hermann Goering and was put on trial after World War II for selling national treasures. Van Meergeren proved himself innocent by painting another “Vermeer” in his jail cell.

Controversy has often raged over the authenticity of the Mona Lisa in the Louvre; each of five other versions has been credited with being the original. The number of forgeries of the works of Corot and of the American painters A. P. Ryder and R. A. Blakelock greatly exceeds these artists' actual productions.

Detecting Forgeries

A forger often unconsciously produces a confusion of styles or subtly accents elements reflecting contemporary bias. A major example is the work passed off as Lucas Cranach's by the brilliant German forger F. W. Rohrich (1787–1834). He imbued these paintings with a touch of the Biedermeier aesthetic, prevalent in his own day, that later betrayed their falsity. The 19th-century Russian creator of the famous tiara of Saïtapharnes (Louvre), an engraved headdress in gold, supposedly a Scythian work of the 3d cent. B.C., borrowed freely from motifs displayed in 19th-century publications concerning recent excavations.

Despite modern technological advances, much forgery remains impervious to detection by other than empirical means. Critical expertise in the styles and aesthetics of various periods is still the principal tool of the authenticator. Artistic clumsiness, a jumble of styles or motifs, and a discernible emphasis on the aesthetic values of the forger's own day more consistently reveals fakery than does technical analysis. Nonetheless, such contemporary tools as X-ray, infrared, and ultraviolet photography are employed to reveal pentimento and overpainting.

In addition, craquelure may be microscopically examined. Chemical analysis and carbon-14 dating may provide relatively inconclusive testimony when ancient materials have been used. As scientific techniques grow more sophisticated, so do the techniques of forgers. The discovery of forgery results in a curious phenomenon—a work of art may be considered a priceless masterpiece one day and worthless the next. Without proof of origin its valuation as false or authentic is at best a matter of subjective human judgment.


See P. B. Coremans, Van Meegeren's Faked Vermeers and De Hooghs (tr. 1949); B. Ashmole, Forgeries of Ancient Sculpture (1961); O. Kurz, Fakes (2d ed. 1967); A. Rieth, Archaeological Fakes (1967, tr. 1970); T. Hoving, False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes (1996); T. Lenain, Art Forgery: The History of a Modern Obsession (2012); J. Koobatian, ed., Faking It: An International Bibliography of Art and Literary Forgeries, 1949–1986 (1987).


, in criminal law
forgery, in criminal law, willful fabrication or alteration of a written document with the intent to injure the interests of another in a fraudulent manner. The crime may be committed even though the fraudulent scheme fails. The forgery of government obligations—e.g., money, bonds, postage stamps—constitutes the separate offense of counterfeiting. Typical examples of forgery are making insertions or alterations in otherwise valid documents and appending another's signature to a document without permission. It is, of course, lawful to sign another's signature as his attorney or representative so long as there is no plan to commit fraud. Most instances of forgery occur in connection with instruments for the payment of money. The crime may also concern documents of title, e.g., deeds, or public documents, including birth and marriage certificates. In the United States forgery ordinarily is a state crime; but to send forged documents through the post office may constitute the federal crime of mail fraud.
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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



in art. (1) The preparation Of works of fine, decorative, or applied art in imitation of a particular historical style or the style of a well-known master. Forgery is done with the intent of sale.

(2) A forged work of art. A forgery is seldom a copy of an original. It most often is a variation upon an original or a compilation of characteristic motifs from several originals. Forgers, some of whom are very talented, imitate the stylistic details of a specific era or the artistic style of a particular master artist, painstakingly copying all his distinctive techniques. For greater verisimilitude, they use old materials and old technical devices. Forgers simulate the effects of age, such as patina on stone and metal and craquelures on paintings. They create artificial gaps and fragmentation, allegedly caused by the passage of time.


Libman, M., and G. Ostrovskii. Poddel’nye shedevry. Moscow [1966].
Friedländer, M. J. Echt und Unecht. Berlin, 1929.
Goll, J. Konstfälscher. Leipzig, 1962.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


See also Fraudulence, Hoax.
Acta Pilati (Acts of Pilate)
apocryphal account of Crucifixion. [Rom. Hist.: Brewer Note-Book, 7]
Altamont, Col. Jack
convicted of forgery; sentenced to transportation; escapes. [Br. Lit.: Pendennis]
Caloveglia, Count
creates a bronze statue of a Greek faun and sells it as an authentic antique. [Br. Lit.: South Wind in Magill II, 988]
boy poet produced poems allegedly by 15th-century monk. [Br. Hist.: Brewer Note-Book, 164]
Constitutum Constantini
so-called Donation of Constantine, a document in which Constantine gave Rome authority over his capital at least a decade before his capital was founded. [Rom. Hist.: Wallechinsky, 45]
Mr. X
by definition, the identity of the greatest forger of all time. [Pop. Culture: Wallechinsky, 47]
Protocols of the Elders of Zion
tract purporting to reveal a Jewish conspiracy to control the world. [Jew. Hist.: Wigoder, 170]
Raspigliosi cup
masterpiece attributed to Cellini, discovered in 1984 to have been forged by Reinhold Vasters, 19th-century goldsmith. [Ital. Art: N. Y. Times, Feb. 12, 1984]
Rowley poems
the work of Thomas Chatterton (1752–1770), who said they were written by a 15th-century priest. [Br. Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 371]
successful fakes of his paintings went undetected for many years. [Dutch Hist.: Brewer Dictionary, 371]
Allusions—Cultural, Literary, Biblical, and Historical: A Thematic Dictionary. Copyright 2008 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.


1. Criminal law the false making or altering of any document, such as a cheque or character reference (and including a postage stamp), or any tape or disc on which information is stored, intending that anyone shall accept it as genuine and so act to his or another's prejudice
2. Criminal law the counterfeiting of a seal or die with intention to defraud
Collins Discovery Encyclopedia, 1st edition © HarperCollins Publishers 2005
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