Vienna was home to an elaborate forgery ring in the 19th century. Its mechanisms were not unlike those we see today.
Authenticity is a key criterion in art valuation, but what happens when an imitation is too good to be real? Skilled imitators and fraudulent forgers have been deceiving connoisseurs since antiquity, and were often lauded by their contemporaries. A person listening to Paulus Rainer could be forgiven for thinking he was talking not about historical episodes, but about more current forgery scandals like the one involving Wolfgang Beltracchi, the German forgery painter turned “star.”
Rainer is curator of the Imperial Treasury and Kunstkammer Wien, both part of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Even Benvenuto Cellini (1500–1571), creator of the Kunstkammer’s most celebrated object, the “Cellini Salt Cellar,” once boasted of imitating antique pieces so closely that his copies were nearly indistinguishable from the real thing. While Cellini was probably just eager to promote his artistic skills, a certain Salomon Weininger (whose activities Rainer has researched in detail) acted with more criminal zeal in 19th-century Vienna. According to the curator, 14 objects from the Imperial Treasury are now known to be late-19th-century creations that Weininger skillfully sold as “medieval” objects to collectors and curators.
Born in what is now Slovakia in 1822, Weininger later settled in Krems and then in Vienna. He did not forge the coveted reliquaries, statuettes of saints, or house altars himself but was, in essence, an antiques dealer and a gifted networker who could skillfully exploit the historicist era’s enthusiasm for anything old.
Museum object copies were considered very valuable at that time, as the educated elite regarded them as a way to elevate general taste and train artisans. Museums – including the Museum für Kunst und Industrie, now MAK Vienna – willingly released objects from their collections for this purpose. “It was a short step from legal copying in the spirit of historical imitation to imitation as fraudulent forgery, and Weininger initially moved in a grey area between these two poles,” Rainer wrote in an essay published in 2008.
Weininger’s abandonment of legitimate copying was discovered in 1876: two court cases proved that the dealer had taken objects from the Duke of Modena’s palace in Vienna’s third district for over four years to “copy” them, but had returned the forgeries to the collection instead of the originals. This was possible because Franz von Discart, curator of Palais Modena, was in cahoots with Weininger. Weininger was also found to have sold two fake household altarpieces. Authenticity was constructed using elements of a necklace stolen from Count Daun and an invented provenance guaranteed by an aristocratic acquaintance of Weininger’s.
The craftsmen put to work for parts of the alleged medieval and Renaissance objects weren’t even aware that they were working on a swindle, Rainer explains, as “Weininger cleverly distributed the work among several people.” The artisans themselves could not be condemned for making copies using plaster casts or photographs, and members of the court boasted “that here in Vienna we have artists capable of making imitations so completely on a par with their colleagues from the time of the originals.” Modern-day experts can quickly identify the 19th century creations thanks to the coloring of certain enamel parts, for example.
And yet the taste of the times blinded many a connoisseur in those days: individual collectors like the Rothschilds were powerful role models, and historical objects were often fitted with contemporary additions to suit the predominant taste. Forgeries are being discovered even now, Rainer says. Of course, Weininger wasn’t the only one who circulated fakes. As for the experts that enabled forgers, Rainer notes that there were bad actors then as now. “But we also shouldn’t forget that you always needed experts to clear things up.”
Paulus Rainer studied art history in Innsbruck and Vienna. Since 2004 he has been a research assistant at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, where he was instrumental in the Kunstkammer’s reconfiguration and curated numerous treasure art exhibitions. In 2017 he based his dissertation on facets of Habsburg collecting using the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s Kunstkammer collection and the Imperial Treasury as a primary source.