Art historical hoaxes: why the press falls for them, and how we can defend ourselves

Why do art-historical hoaxes circulate so often and so blatantly? What can the press do to defend itself? A reflection following some recent cases.

Not infrequently, the press has given ample space to sensational hoaxes in the field of art history, often conferring media legitimacy on arrembant wafflers, self-styled experts completely unknown to the scientific community, and characters in search of easy notoriety who come up with improbable drawings or indecent scabs attributed to the most lofty names: Leonardo da Vinci, Caravaggio, Michelangelo. The list of cases of works lacking particular merit but presented as bombastic discoveries and then torn to pieces by the scientific community (without, however, accorded the same prominence to demolitions) is extremely dense: the work recently attributed to Leonardo da Vinci by a person unknown to scholars of the Tuscan artist, and capable of winning big headlines and page spreads in newspapers halfway around the world, only adds one case to a long series.

It is a complex problem that requires reflection on several levels. In the vast majority of cases, the hoaxprocess follows a very specific pattern: newsrooms receive a press release announcing an incredible discovery concerning a very popular artist (the most popular names in recent years have been those of Leonardo da Vinci and Caravaggio, especially in conjunction with anniversaries concerning them). After all, what national news program would ever report the news of the discovery of, say, an unknown drawing by Marco d’Oggiono or a lost painting by Bartolomeo Manfredi? Clearly, to be media expendable, the hoax must be about a name known even to those who have never opened an art history book. The discovery usually bears the signature of a person who, usually, presents himself as an expert on the subject and, as a guarantee of his alleged authority, cites memberships in improbable “centers” or “committees” that turn out then, often even as a result of the most basic Google search, nothing more than simple nonprofit associations, which do cultural and social promotion exactly like thousands of other small territorial associations, and which differ from the circle of friends of the bowling club or the parish oratory only because they present themselves with a more pompous or apparently institutional name. It is natural that a newspaper would pay more attention to an association called “National Committee for the Enhancement of the Renaissance of Florence” (it is a name invented out of whole cloth but similar to that of some entities that have gained media prominence in recent times), than it would accord to a hypothetical “Friends of the Muses Association of Vezzano Ligure.”

The hoax first takes the path of the generalist press, which announces it with fanfare and trumpet blasts. It often happens that it is closely followed by the specialized press, which sometimes queues up to immediately deny the blunder, sometimes to not lose the wave of sensationalism and, while waiting for the real experts to pronounce themselves, pack articles pregnant with “ifs,” “maybes” and conditionals. And in this case, however, it succeeds more difficult to excuse colleagues, because one assumes that those who work in the editorial staff of an art information paper have sometimes seen a Leonardo or a Caravaggio and therefore should be able to understand immediately when it is time toignore a statement (if the news has not yet achieved national relevance: that is the only option) or to refute it if the topic has reached overwhelming scope: if it is hoaxes that can be discovered with a couple of Google searches (or at worst with a couple of phone calls) there is no place for conditionalities, and if one has even the slightest doubt it is one’s duty to consult an expert, even if that means waiting a few hours or a few days before writing about the news. Of course, we all make mistakes, that’s normal: but the spread of hoaxes could be curbed with a few more verifications.

In any case, the cycle always ends with the denial of the real experts, although it is very rare that the press that first brought the alleged discoverer into triumph then grants the same space to authoritative scholars who write the “end” word on the story. In the meantime, however, the damage has now been done, since the outlandish attribution has already made the rounds of newspapers, television stations and the Web, and will have been taken at face value by who knows how many people. But the press should not give space to anti-scientific theories: spreading art-historical hoaxes is the equivalent of publishing, on the health news page, a news story (of course taking it seriously) about a guy who says that to get cured of Covid-19 all you have to do is eat tangerines. I don’t think any newspaper would give legitimacy to such a theory: the same should apply to art history. And to publish such news only accomplishes two things: loss of credibility and loss of public trust.

Filippo Palizzi, Mandria di bufali (1869; olio su tela, 64,5 x 29 cm; Piacenza, Galleria Ricci Oddi)
Filippo Palizzi, Herd of Buffaloes (1869; oil on canvas, 64.5 x 29 cm; Piacenza, Ricci Oddi Gallery)

What are the reasons that lead self-styled experts to launch into impossible attributions? I would say there are essentially two. The first is a narcissistic and improvised desire to catalyze attention or to gain recognition: this is the case especially in cases where someone boldly launches into changing the attribution of a work kept in a public collection. The second, on the other hand, might be an attempt to raise the prices of a work held in a private collection: a vain attempt of course, since the market does not give room for antics, but it is not certain that a naive owner, lacking art-historical knowledge and unaware of how the market moves, and who may have received the work as an inheritance from a grandparent or parent collector, would not be fooled by the barkers and really believe either that he or she is in possession of an important work (thus admitting total naiveté) or that he or she can really upset the market.

But how does the press fall into the trap? I think there are two problems: the first is the lack of sufficient artistic culture. And it is understandable: the crisis in publishing that has affected all newspapers now allows only a few newspapers to have an employee who only follows art news. Typically, we rely on external contributors or assign the articles to employees who, however, do not necessarily deal only with art, also because it should be remembered that art, in almost all newspapers, falls under the broader umbrella usually referred to as “culture and entertainment.” And it may happen that editors are experts in music or television, but not in art history. The second problem, which is less excusable, is the excessive ease with which faith is placed in everything that reaches the newsroom. Sure: newsrooms are doing more and more work and with fewer resources (human and economic), so we are all always in a hurry. However, one should always check the releases that come in from those one does not know: try to understand who the person is who presents himself as an expert, understand what his affiliations are, what credibility he enjoys. This is because even art history has its rules, and not everything that comes in is good. And the rules presuppose that a major discovery is first discussed in science to see if it can have a claim to citizenship, and then only then announced to the press.

Of course, the discovery could come from an outsider who has no affiliations and presents himself as an independent scholar (although these are very rare cases): indeed, it is precisely in cases like these that more care should be taken. It has happened in the past that a recognized art historian has anticipated a discovery, when, however, it had already been examined by other scholars, and when it was about to be published in a scientific journal or to be presented at a conference, at an event that had already been organized. There is no such thing as communicating a discovery outside the appropriate venues and without other scholars having been able to verify the work done: this also applies to outsiders, who are not exempt from the steps just described.

In essence, is it possible to avoid hoaxes? Of course, yes, by taking action on the two problems described above. TheOrder of Journalists could, for example, organize more refresher courses on artistic subjects: every year we are obliged to take a certain number of hours of training, and the wide choice of courses we have available contemplates, unfortunately, very few lectures on topics concerning cultural journalism. Almost none on topics related to art history: doing training in this regard could dramatically decrease the risk of running into hoaxes. In recent months, in the wake of current events, there has rightly been a proliferation of health information courses. And probably no journalist would be willing to embrace theories about Covid-19 that are unsubstantiated and undiscussed in science just because a news release arrives in the newsroom. Why shouldn’t the same assumption apply to the arts and humanities in general? Besides, the norm should always be to check. As anticipated, when one receives a hoax-communication one should simply trash it, if one knows the subject matter. If, on the other hand, one has doubts, or if one does not know the subject matter (and all the more so when a memo arrives from a person announcing a stunning discovery), there is only one way to avoid hoaxes: verify.