Michelangelo Made His Money With Forgeries

By Heather Ramsey on Tuesday, June 2, 2015
Michelangelo's_Pieta_5450_cut_out_black
“Enough, enough, enough! Say no more! Lump the whole thing! say the Creator made Italy from designs by Michael Angelo!” —Mark Twain, “Innocents Abroad”

In A Nutshell

Michelangelo built his career on lucrative forgeries, although he went beyond mere imitation. He often borrowed drawings to make copies of them, keeping the original and passing off the copy as the real thing to the owner. In 1496, when he was only 21, he copied the marble sculpture Sleeping Eros. Through an art dealer, Michelangelo sold the fake for a large sum of money to Cardinal Raffaele Riario, a Roman antiquities collector. Instead of becoming angry when he learned of the forgery, Riario became the artist’s first patron.

The Whole Bushel

At a young age, Michelangelo amassed great wealth that can’t be explained by sales of his original works. With antiquities up to 10 times more valuable than contemporary art during the Renaissance era, forgery was a lucrative profession. “We don’t have enough works like the David that we can connect to [his] money,” said art historian Lynn Catterson. “It means there might be a few more [forgeries by Michelangelo that] we don’t even know about that are hiding in Greek and Roman galleries pretending to be antiquities.”

Back then, forgery wasn’t considered a crime but instead a sign of artistic ability. It was also a way for young artists to train. Michelangelo built his career on forgeries, although he went beyond mere imitation. He often borrowed drawings to make copies of them, keeping the original and passing off the copy as the real thing to the owner. When Michelangelo made a painting of Martin Schongauer’s print of Saint Anthony, no one could distinguish between the two works. Michelangelo was skilled at using smoke to age his paintings, so they would look as old as the original.

In 1496, when he was only 21, Michelangelo copied the marble sculpture Sleeping Eros. Then he buried it to age it with scratches, dents, and stains. Through an art dealer, Michelangelo sold the fake for a large sum of money to Cardinal Raffaele Riario, a Roman antiquities collector.

Later, when Riario learned he had purchased a fake, he brought the sculpture back to the art dealer. By then, Michelangelo was Rome’s most popular artist, mainly because of his Pieta, the famous sculpture (seen above) in St. Peter’s Basilica that showed the Virgin Mary holding the dead body of Jesus. The art dealer eagerly took the return and resold the work of the now-famous Michelangelo to someone else.

In the Renaissance era, experts were often impressed by artists who fooled them. “Whether undertaken as a practical joke, to show that his work was as good as that of the ancients or for reasons of more nefarious intent, Michelangelo’s deception does not seem to have angered the original owner of the Sleeping Eros,” wrote art crime expert Noah Charney in The Art of Forgery. “Cardinal Riario became Michelangelo’s first patron in Rome.”

That forgiving attitude changed around the late 1800s, when forgery became an immoral deception. In modern times, many art forgers are unsuccessful artists whose own work was disregarded early in their careers. While money is certainly a factor, the main reason for most forgeries is passive-aggressive revenge. Art conservators who are forgers can also counterfeit documents to verify their fakes. That makes it difficult to detect some forgeries.

We used to rely on experts to authenticate works of art. However, the fear of costly lawsuits has stopped many art scholars from voicing their opinions, keeping some forgeries in the market and some recently discovered works off the market due to lack of verification.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image credit: Stanislav Traykov
The Independent: Michelangelo’s fame built on forgery, claims author
NY Daily News: Forgery was part of doing business for Renaissance master Michelangelo: experts
CNN: Spot the fake: The art world’s pricey problem with forgery
Phaidon: Why forgery was a good move for Michelangelo
NY Times: In Art, Freedom of Expression Doesn’t Extend to ‘Is It Real?’