A few years ago, there were alarming international headlines based on interviews with Swiss investigators who found that over 70% of the artworks they authenticated were forgeries or misattributions. This turned out to be at least a slight exaggeration—many of the works they audited had already been suspected of being bogus and that is the whole reason they were subjected to forensic testing in the first place.
Yet it seems certain that such a lucrative industry as the arts attracts its fair share of unscrupulous types, and some talented ones at that. The Icelandic art world has been rocked by several large-scale forgery scandals over the past decades, which in turn has lead to much more caution being exercised by art dealers and gallery owners. Now, there are reports that the beast of forgery has reared its unaesthetic head again.
Naive horseporn conquers the art scene
The victimized artist in this case is the late and much beloved Stefán Jónsson from Möðrudal, affectionately known as Stórval. Stórval painted in the style known as naive art and was indeed somewhat eccentric. He never had any formal instruction and only began painting when he was in his late forties or early fifties after having moved to his farm in Möðrudalur around the mid-20th century.
Stórval’s paintings largely consist of simple landscapes, almost always including his beloved Herðubreið, a mountain he could see from his home. More often than not the paintings also included simplistic depictions of horses and these two elements became his hallmarks. The fact that the horses could in some instances been seen graphically copulating caused something of a stir when the works were exhibited for the first time in the 50s.
This naive style and repetition makes Stórval’s work relatively easy to imitate and, indeed, this was once the basis of an entire art show by Jón Sæmundur Auðarson. This was back in 1998, a few years after Stórval’s death.
“It was during my second year in art school,” recalls Jón Sæmundur. “I just adored him as an artist and the idea was to celebrate his legacy with a small exhibition in his style. As I recall I made about 10 paintings in all, of varying quality, and we exhibited them in a gallery on Skólavörðustígur that students had access to.”
Since those paintings were all clearly marked on the back as being created by Jón Sæmundur, he says it seems unlikely they could have been resold as authentic Stórvals at a later date. But someone has definitely been trying to sell Stórval knock-offs, as was discovered by auctioneers at Gallery Fold recently. Since his works sell for 200,000-300,000 ISK a piece, it is a potentially lucrative endeavour.
The poorly drawn elephant in the room
An expert was called before the auction was held and he determined two pieces, to be sold as Stórval’s, were indeed forgeries. According to reports by RÚV and other Icelandic media, there was absolutely no doubt in this case as the signatures did not match and brush strokes and materials were noticeably different from authentic originals.
That doesn’t preclude the possibility of there being other, better fakes out there. District prosecutor Ólafur Þór Hauksson confirms that he has opened an official investigation into the matter, but he is unable to comment on the details or the scope of the investigation at this stage.
RÚV quotes Gallery Fold’s manager, Jóhann Ágúst Hansen, as being deeply worried the case will lead to the uncovering of systematic forgery efforts once again. “I’m afraid this is of a larger scale than we realize at the moment. It’s incredible to think this could all be starting over again, a new round of forgeries” he said, referencing what is generally known as “the big forgery case” that was uncovered in the nineties and lead to the discovery of sophisticated efforts to defraud art-buyers and gallery owners.
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