Forged Fridays: From the Medicis to the Modern


Forgery is a very modern concept. In Jonathon Keats’ excellent book, The Art of Forgery, he opens with a story about the citizens of Naples and Florence arguing over a portrait of Pope Leo X. A seemingly identical portrait hung in each city, and, according to Keats, the citizens of the two cities spent a good deal of the 19th Century arguing over which was the original. The source of the dispute stretches back to the 1520s, when Federico II Gonzaga, Marquis of Mantua, visited the Medicis in Florence. During his stay, Federico caught sight of the astonishing portrait by Raphael, and insinuated that it would be most generous if the Medicis were to give him the painting. Subtlety was not Federico’s strong suit, and his polite insinuations gave way to asking Pope Clement VII to direct Ottaviano de Medici to send him the painting. Ottaviano had little choice once the Pope made his demands, however, he bought himself some time by claiming that before he released the work he must have it properly framed. Ottaviano did not need time to frame the work, he simply needed enough time to take it to Andrea Del Sarto.

Raphael's Ritratto di Leone X coi cardinali Giulio de' Medici e Luigi de' Rossi
The real Ritratto di Leone X coi cardinali Giulio de’ Medici e Luigi de’ Rossi, by Raphael


Andrea Del Sarto created an identical wooden panel, and set to work copying the original, which Ottaviano had left with him. Giorgio Vasari, a famous Renaissance writer, was with Sarto whilst he finished the work, and Vasari noted that Sarto even went so far as to copy stains and scuff marks on the new board. The work was sent to the household of Gonzaga where it was received warmly and hung in a prominent place. No one detected anything, and even when the ruse was revealed later by a loose-tongued Vasari during a visit to Gonzaga’s house, there was neither uproar nor scandal. Giulio Romano, a former pupil of Raphael’s, saw the copy and remarked, “I value it no less than if it were by the hand of Raffaello…It is enough that it should be known that Andrea’s genius was as valiant in double harness as in single.”1

Sarto's Ritratto di Leone X coi cardinali Giulio de' Medici e Luigi de' Rossi
Sarto’s fake Ritratto di Leone X coi cardinali Giulio de’ Medici e Luigi de’ Rossi


In today’s art market, Romano and Gonzaga’s reaction is inconceivable. Keats notes that in the following centuries there was a shift in public opinion, and “skill was no longer valued as highly as authenticity.”2 Now, a work’s monetary value is tied inextricably to its nature – if the latter is proven false then the former is worthless. This shift in views may also account for the shift in the nature of forgeries. Artists deceased and living have become far better at documenting their work, catalogue raisonnés are now easily accessible, and committees have been established to help track and authenticate works. The most prolific modern forgers – Wolfgang Beltracchi, Hans van Meegeren, John Myatt3 – all worked to circumvent these modern checks and balances by creating new works (previously unknown or undocumented) and passing them off as great “lost masterpieces.”

However, it was Ely Sakhai, who managed (unknowingly) to emulate the tactics of Ottaviano de Medici to great effect. Sakhai emigrated from Iran to the US in 1962, and he established himself as an antiques dealer in Old Westbury, New York. Sakhai’s business was successful and soon he became a regular fixture at both Christie’s and Sotheby’s. His interest was in the Impressionists, and he began making frequent purchases. Although, Sakhai had amassed a sizeable collection of works by the likes of Monet, Chagall, Gaugin and Modigliani; he attracted almost no attention from the New York art scene – he was invited to neither parties nor dinners, and received no special treatment at the auctions. His conservative spending (always in the low six figures) was unremarkable against the backdrop of the booming ’90s.

Marc Chagall's La Nappe Mauve
Fake La Nappe Mauve, originally painted by Marc Chagall in 1972


But Sakhai was not buying for pleasure, he had set his sights on Japan, and finding the market there underserved, and all the more hungry for art, he began making frequent trips. Sakhai began selling a steady stream of works to Japan, and each came with impeccable documentation and certificates of authenticity. His buyers were only too happy to pay for these paintings, and happier still that they came with such excellent provenance. But what Sakhai was doing was no different to Medici’s bait-and-switch. He showed his clients the sales reports from Sotheby’s or Christie’s, the catalogues in which the real works appeared, and the certificates for the genuine articles and then he brought out a forgery. The forgeries were decent but the documentation was exceptional. The documents were the scuff marks on the board. Sakhai was also happy to let all of this documentation leave his possession attached to these forgeries, because what remained in his possession was the real thing. Sakhai’s boldest move was to begin not only selling his forgeries in Asia, but simultaneously consigning the originals in the United States.

Real v fake Gauguin
Image left: a painting by Paul Gauguin. Image right: a fake of the same painting.


The fundamental flaw in Sakhai’s scheme was that he had no control over what happened to the works (both real and fake) after he sold them. This seems to be a problem to which he gave little thought as in May of 2000 he consigned Vase de Fleurs by Gaugin to Sotheby’s, and as luck would have it Gallery Muse in Tokyo consigned the same painting to Christie’s. It was not until both paintings appeared in each house’s catalogue that the ruse was revealed, and even after the fake was identified, Sakhai managed to sell his original for $300,000. However, during the course of the investigation of both works, the FBI traced the fake back to Sakhai and he was arrested soon after.

Ultimately, Sakhai was forced to pay almost $13 million in damages, and forfeited eleven works in his collection. He was sentenced to a 41-month prison term in 2005, and closed his galleries. Shortly after his release, he opened a new gallery, The Art Collection, in Great Neck, New York, which he continues to run today. Caveat Emptor?


^ 1. Keats, Jonathon. Forged: Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age. New York, NY: Oxford UP, 2013. Print. Pg 2
^ 2. Ibid. pg 3
^ 3. All of whose stories will be explored later.

Featured Image: The Medici Palace in Florence, Italy. Image Source: The Red List.