Art Conservation 115:  Art and Crime: Plunder, Fakes, and Forensics

Fall 2014, Spring 2017, Spring 2020, Spring 2022 at Scripps College; Spring 2016 at Occidental College

“Mundus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur”

“The world wants to be deceived, so let it be deceived”

 – Petronius, AD 60

Course Description and Rationale

This interdisciplinary course explores the increasing use of forensic science and technical art history to evaluate issues of authentication, sourcing and repatriation of works of art. From the uncovering of forgeries and looted antiquities, to the return of art stolen during WWII, science and history, law and ethics intersect in increasingly complex and interesting ways in this interdisciplinary art history and materials science course.

Looting and forgery have received increasing attention over the past decade, especially in Southern California (Getty, Bowers, Norton Simon). Art theft and fraud is a booming criminal industry, approaching $6 billion annually (FBI, 2007). Museums, dealers and collectors all face increased scrutiny as an ongoing series of scandals highlight weak points in our authentication systems. Forensic science and technical art history have helped address these important issues in art, history and material culture. This course encompasses issues such as how are forgers unmasked, how is plunder sourced, and when should it be returned? These questions often lead to larger discussions on the limits of expertise and science, the nature of authenticity, what is valuable and why, and who owns the past—that bring together art and science, material culture and sustainability.