ICONS AND THE F-WORD

Here is an updated version of an article I originally posted several years ago.

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 or forgery? 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 varnished or 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. It can be an icon that is not of the age or origin it is represented to be.  The possibilities go on and on.

There are all kinds of methods for imitating the look of age, such as using special mixtures and treatments to make the paint surface craze in an attempt to fake the natural craquelure (those tiny cracks that appear in the surface of paintings) of age.  That can also be achieved by painting on a gesso ground on a cloth not yet glued to a wooden panel, and then pulling the finished painting over the edge of a surface to give it a network of cracks.  Another method is to roll the gessoed, painted cloth around a cylinder such as a bottle.  When then glued onto a panel, a dark substance is rubbed into the cracks to make them more obvious and “old” looking.  Or one may simply carefully paint the “craquelure” on with a fine brush.  Icons may be “aged” in chimneys or by heating in stoves, and even given a fake candle burn or crack at the base, or worn  or flaked paint or edges or other signs of fake age “damage.”

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.

In the 19th century, even the noted painting villages of the Vladimir Region — Palekh, Mstera, and Kholuiy — were not immune to the urge to fake.  Some icons painted there were to be sold as legitimate and careful copies of older icons — and some were made to be sold as fake “ancient” icons.  Such an icon is called a задурок/zadurok, meaning loosely “for a fool” — an icon to be sold to a naive buyer who cannot tell a fake from an authentic icon.  Today such differences at the time of painting mean little, because an icon once sold as a legitimate copy may now be sold as a fake by either an inexpert dealer or a dishonest dealer.

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, Mstera, 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.

Many fake icons came from Russia to Western countries in the 1920s and 1930s, when the Soviets were selling off numbers of icons.

Museums have not been and still are not immune to fakes.  If you have seen a good-sized icon collection in a museum — no matter how prestigious — chances are that you have viewed one or more fakes among the museum icons.  The problem is this:  some fakes are crude and very easily recognized.  Others are recognized by certain signs good dealers quickly learn.  There is, however another category of fakes that are so good, so carefully put together, that a careful scientific analysis of chemicals in the paints and ground, and even of the cloth/canvas and board are necessary, along with a very advanced knowledge of changes in painting techniques and materials over time.  And by the way, this presence of fakes in museums applies not only to those outside Russia, but inside as well.

One interesting practice of fakers was to take in a valuable old icon for restoration.  Then they carefully sawed a thin slice off the front of the board — the slice holding the painting.  Then they would paint a new copy — a fake — of the original valuable icon on the board, and return it to the owner as “restored.”  Then they would glue the authentic old painting slice onto another board, touch it up a bit, and sell it to another customer at the high price for a valuable “ancient” icon.

Then there is the practice of “white-washing.”  Because gold leaf is worn away when icons are dusted and wiped year after year, eventually the ivory-colored gesso ground is revealed.  This became one sign of age.  So fakers got the clever idea to just remove the gold leaf background to artificially age an icon — or to paint a new “fake” icon with the background left as old-looking gesso, as though its gold leaf had worn away.  Every now and then one sees such icons on the market or in museums today.

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 be less likely to 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. Of course the higher the price of a fake icon, the more difficult to recognize it as such it is likely to be — so even experienced dealers may be deceived.

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.  And these days, one practically has to become a scientist to identify extremely clever fakes.  And do not think it is only  the very high-priced icons that are faked.  The forgers are quite willing to provide fakes to satisfy even buyers paying far more modest prices.

Recently, something new has entered the icon market.  Tourists visiting Russia and Greece, and buying “Russian” or “Greek” icons to bring back with them, are often in reality buying icons painted in China.  These Chinese icons may even come with certificates and stamps certifying that they are made in Greece, or made in Russia.  One Russian newspaper recently estimated that one in ten icons sold in Russia today is a Chinese fake.

And yes, who knows — perhaps even among the examples used on my site, not all may be authentically as the sources identify them by date or place of origin.  But because my interest is iconography and not collecting, no money is lost should that be the case.  The problem is for those who buy old icons.

Some recent estimates of the number of fake “old” icons on the market today vary from 50% to about 75%.

I often tell people who are collectors and inexperienced, that they should either find an extremely reliable dealer or expert to aid them, or they should follow a simple and practical method.  Just think of every old icon you intend to buy as if it were painted yesterday, and pay a price in keeping with that.  Pay by how much you like the painting and the image, not by how old it may (or may not) be.  Then you will never be disappointed if one of your “very old” Russian or Greek icons turns out not to be what you thought it was.

Of course there are very few who will follow such advice.

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