Bernard Berenson, whom Thomas Hoving described as “the flamboyant and amoral art historian” was an art connoisseur in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries who built up a reputation as sort of the be all and end all of art authentication at the time. And for the most part he was an admirable fake buster. Legend has it that he steeped himself so much in the world of Italian Gothic and Renaissance painters that he could tell a painting was wrong just by the fact this cherub’s hair was too curly or that saint’s toe was incorrectly placed. We also know that Berenson, like all great fake busters, made the occasional mistake. Which is surprising given that he had already contended with a far more proficient forger long before Van Meegeren showed up.
The second half of the nineteenth century saw a huge surge in interest for medieval works of art, and like with all markets where demand exceeds supply, creative and enterprising types will find ways to supply that demand. This brings us to Icilio Federico Joni (apologies for the article, it has to be translated from Italian), the forger of the day. At the time, Joni was a classically trained artist working in Sienna’s thriving “art restoration” business, where he happily restored, fabricated and even flat out faked dozens of works by famous masters of Italian Medieval and Renaisance art. Occasionally he would made copies at the behest of the owner of a work of art, but more often than not the Siennese painters would sell their work as genuine copies to dealers in Venice or Florence who would in turn sell the copies as genuine antiques.
Berenson, like many others, was initially fooled by Joni’s paintings until he had enough exposure to recognize distinctive and repeating traits in the artist’s work. He duly tracked Joni down in Sienna and, astonishingly, sold off only a few of his paintings by Joni but keeping the rest for himself, whether as reminders against hasty judgments or as testing tools for his rivals is still unclear. Here’s where things get a little interesting though. See, I have a sneaky suspicion this where the “amoral” aspect of Berenson’s personality that Hoving mentioned comes through.
Perhaps partly inspired by his interactions with the great Benard Berenson, Joni took it upon himself to write his autobiography, Memoirs of a Painter of Old Pictures, in 1932. He did so despite being bribed by a large consortium of art dealers to not reveal the “goings-on” of the trade in antiquities. Personally I was surprised to discover the book, as I had never heard of the notable Joni who had duped Berenson when I have read so many other autobiographies of twentieth century art forgers. But then I figured out why.
According to this article, Joni’s book was not only aggressively edited, removing all possible references to Berenson, but most of the copies were bought up and destroyed by Berenson’s close friend Joseph Duveen, so that few people even heard about the book in the U.S. This leads me to believe that Berenson did in fact acknowledge that his paintings were fakes by Joni, but that he chose to sell them on as genuine antiques and perpetuate their forged authorship. Why else would Berenson’s involvement with Joni be erased?
Fortunately for us, Joni’s autobiography was finally republished in 2004 to coincide with the opening of an exhibition in Sienna about the cities’ most famous art forgers.
Now if you will excuse me, I have to go research more art forgers who were able to take Berenson down a peg or two.