The F-word, in regard to icons, is of course “FAKE.”
I don’t have to worry about icon fakes because I am not a collector of anything but knowledge. There are, however, those who buy icons for any number of reasons — as an investment, as an antique, as an art object, as a religious object — and for such people, fakery is a matter with which they have to be concerned, because the market value (don’t you dislike that term?) of a fake icon is remarkably less than that of an authentic old icon.
First of all, what is an icon fake? Well, it is simply an icon that is something other than it is represented to be. A fake icon can be a newly-painted icon made to look old; it can be an icon print glued to a board and painted over to make it look like a real painting; it can be a damaged icon so heavily repainted that little is left of the original; it can be a completely new icon painted on an antique board; it can be a new icon on a new board aged to make both look old. It can be a freshly painted icon coated over with a varnish tinted to make it look old and uncleaned. The possibilities go on and on.
Whatever the case, the intent behind a fake is to deceive.
Icon fakery is nothing new. In the 19th century, there was a thriving business of faking old icons, primarily for the Old Believer market. The Old Believers held that the Russian Orthodox Church had fallen into heresy in the middle of the 1600s, when certain reforms in the liturgy, in ritual, in Church books, and in icon painting were put into effect. Consequently, the Old Believers, who refused to accept these changes, did not want icons painted in what they considered to be an heretical manner, or icons painted by members of an heretical church. Such icons were, to them, fit only to be destroyed. One of the results of this was that Old Believers, who were sometimes quite wealthy, became avid purchasers of old, “doctrinally pure” icons painted in the old days before the “reforms” pushed through by Russian Orthodox Patriarch Nikon. And where there are willing purchasers, there is a market just waiting for unscrupulous individuals to take advantage of the situation.
That is why large numbers of fake “Pre-Nikonian” icons were painted in the 19th century in earlier styles. And then near the end of the 19th century, when the Russian intelligentsia began to realize that old icons were an important part of the Russian cultural heritage, and begin to clean later paintings away to discover old and even medieval Russian icons beneath, that added yet another layer to the market for fakes of old icons.
Do not think the Russian fakers were not clever. Some of them were (and are) excellent imitators of earlier styles. Of course one of the first things a purchaser did was to examine the back of the board on which an icon was painted to see if it looked old, if it looked “right.” That was an easy matter to fake, because all one had to do was to buy up and accumulate a good stock of old icon panels that had damaged or inferior paintings on them, and one had a ready-made “old panel” on which to paint a new “old” icon. Such old boards were not hard to find. In the year 1879 alone, just one icon painting village, Mstora, is recorded as having brought in over 28,000 old icon panels for re-use. And of course there were all sorts of clever if deceptive tricks to age the painted surface, to make it look old and even time-worn. So it took a real expert in those days to be able to tell a genuine old Pre-Nikonian icon from a fake new “Pre-Nikonian” icon. Remember that this was in the days before scientific analysis made detecting fakes more likely.
With the late 20th century and the changes in the Russian economy and government, there was yet another incentive for icon faking — an international market for icons. The usual tricks were and are still used. Even the silver or gold-washed silver covers placed over old icons were (and are) cleverly reproduced, including fake makers’ marks and other silver hallmark stamps. So when you look at a lovely old icon with its gold-washed ornate silver cover, all that may really be old in it might be the board on which it is painted.
Of course that is why, if one is buying icons at high prices, one should not only become familiar with the characteristics of genuine old icons, but also with the tricks used by fakers. That way one will not pay an “old” price for what is really a new icon. That of course applies not only to Russian but also to Greek and Balkan icons.
As a general rule of thumb, the older and more valuable an icon is represented to be, the more care one should take to make certain that it is indeed old, and not just pretending to be so.
In that respect, the market for old icons is very much the same as the market for any kind of old paintings. The higher the cost of the painting, the more one should know one’s field in order to avoid fakes and forgeries.