The Jewish Museum Uncovers Fraudulent Early American Portraits & Exhibits Them

The Jewish Museum Uncovers Fraudulent Early American Portraits & Exhibits Them

The Jewish Museum is the latest to display fraudulent paintings from its collection. As fine art appraisers, The Appraisal Group cautions that you should take an appraisal of your collection to determine authenticity before gifting or passing on to your inheritors.

Masterpieces & Curiosities: The Fictional Portrait” – an upcoming exhibition –  reveals surprising new analysis of two portraits (shown above) once  thought to depict an 18th century Jewish couple.  After a  decade of research, the identities of the artist and sitters have been reconsidered through archival investigation, genealogical studies, and recent X-ray analysis.

At the time of their acquisition in 1957, the works n were believed to be portraits of Judah Mears and his wife Jochabed Michaels, made around 1740 and attributed to Jeremiah Theus, an American colonial portraitist active in Charleston, South Carolina.

Scholarly examination of the paintings indicates that they do not resemble other works by Theus, No other visual representations of the couple are known to exist. In 2015, The Jewish Museum commissioned stereomicroscopic examination and technical imaging of the two portraits. This analysis revealed that the works, though most likely produced in the 18th century, were painted with different pigments using different methods. X-ray and infrared scans of the paintings will be reproduced in the exhibition.

Only one source is known to document the paintings. A 1957 note from the seller, Marie Ambrose, to the Jewish Museum traces the history and ownership of the paintings. The stated provenance was researched and deemed plausible at the time. However, there is evidence of widespread fraud in the market for early American portraits during the first part of the 20th century.

Frank Bayley, a noted Boston art dealer, is mentioned in the seller’s note, raising further questions. Bayley was implicated in the fraudulent sale of portraits, including one of George Washington in 1928, which led to closure of his gallery and ultimately to Bayley’s death in 1932.

Fakes, forgeries and digital analysis

Digital X-rays of Portrait of a Man and Portrait of a Woman. Image © Art and Analysis & Research, New York, 2015.

Given the lack of hard evidence for the provenance of the paintings, a theory emerges: the works were not painted by Jeremiah Theus, do not depict Judah and Jochabed Mears, and were likely given a false attribution when transferred from Bayley’s gallery to Marie Ambrose, possibly in the late 1920s or early 1930s. The works may have originated in England or Scotland and appear to have undergone some alteration before being brought together as a couple.

Traditionally, portraits speak both to the time when they were created and to the future. Serving as repositories of memory and generating a sense of familial continuity, such portraits are often entwined with considerations of genealogy and status. Portraits commissioned by Jewish patrons or families in the young United States also served as visual statements of social standing and belonging.

For more on “Masterpieces & Curiosities: The Fictional Portrait”  at the Jewish Museum on Fifth Avenue in New York City, please visit The exhibition runs March 18 through August 14, 2016.

Editor’s Note: Today’s featured image is: Unknown Artist/Maker, “Portrait of a Man”, c. 1750 , oil on canvas. The Jewish Museum, New York, Gift of Dr. Harry G. Friedman; Unknown Artist/Maker, “Portrait of a Woman”, c. 1750, oil on canvas.  The Jewish Museum, New York, Gift of Dr. Harry G. Friedman

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