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  • Marc Melich-Mautner

Authentic and fake icons

The question of dating and style analysis is often followed by the question of whether it is a real or a fake icon. When it comes to icons, one must speak of a forgery if an attempt was made to copy an old style in order to simulate an old icon. There are hardly any known counterfeits of Russian icons. In Greece, on the other hand, certain painting schools have recently achieved great perfection in forging. Even museums have been fooled until recently.


If parts of the old icon are still preserved, but others have been added later without explicit reference to this restoration in the catalog or by the specialist dealer, this is referred to as a partial forgery. It also occasionally happens that an old icon received a young basma, made in the old style. This cladding can be used to conceal edge damage, for example. Here, too, it should be expressly mentioned that it is not an original Basma.


A specialist with great experience will usually be able to determine very quickly whether it is a real or a fake icon. However, even the unexperienced buyers can acquire various criteria:


The back shows whether the wood was cut with an ax, as is the case with very old icons. The age of the icon can also often be inferred from the way in which the cross struts, the "Sponki", are inserted on the back. Wormholes don't always indicate the true age of the icon. In the 20th century, to mislead, icons were painted on old wood that already had wormholes. Artificially created wormholes have straight tunnels in contrast to the irregular natural worm tunnels. The approximate age of the icon can also often be read from the crackles, the cracks in the layers of paint and varnish. But even here one is not safe from deception. When recently painted icons are exposed to extreme heat, cracks appear, although their shape differs from those caused by natural aging.


In all cases of doubt, turn to the specialist or to institutes and research laboratories that determine the age and authenticity of works of art through a material analysis.


When buying an icon, you should definitely insist on a certificate of authenticity (expertise). First of all, it should indicate the provenance of the icon. For some icons, the school from which they come can be determined. This is especially the case with those from the Palekh, often also with those from the Moscow and Novgorod schools. But it does not affect the value of an icon if the origin is indicated only as "Russian", "Greek" or "Bulgarian".

The approximate age of the icon should also be listed on the certificate. However, since a topic was presented in the same way for a long time down to the last detail, two centuries are not uncommon as a possible date of origin, in exceptional cases the period is even longer. It will also often be possible to indicate when the relevant icon theme came up.


Finally, the subject should be described in detail in the certificate and the persons represented should be listed by name, possibly with their name days.


A reputable art dealer who specializes in icons and a skilled collector will generally be able to issue expertise that meets the requirements.

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