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T.C. Steele Forgery Scandal: The Importance of Authentication

As an art research based business, it is MIR Appraisal Services' job to investigate the value of an artwork, as well as any additional historical information that may add market worth to your collections. Recently, our staff has been conducting research on a variety of works by the Indiana Impressionist T.C. Steele. Aside from the value in his work and the great deal of success his career brought to the state of Indiana, we came across a high-profile forgery scandal that greatly impacted the sale of his work as well as the authentication process.

Portrait of T. C. Steele, Jeffrey T. Larson

Theodore Clement Steele was a member of an elite group of five Indiana Impressionist artists known as “The Hoosier Group”. The other four members, Richard Gruelle, William Forsyth, J. Ottis Adams, and Otto Stark, all thrived between the late 19th and early 20th century. What helped establish the careers of these artists was their education at the Royal Academy in Munich, Germany. As the frontrunner for new artistic movements, Europe had much more to offer stylistically at the time. By returning to Indiana after their extensive European art education, these artists were not only able to exhibit what they learned, but also further experiment with the Impressionist style while fusing it with an American aesthetic. Steele is typically recognized as the most famous artist from this group. With his specialty being landscape painting, his career coincided with the movement of American Romanticism and the desire to capture the country in its natural beauty. With this boom in popularity of a Midwestern artist, the value in collecting Steele’s work, especially in the Indiana area, has only increased over the years. So much so, that the 1980s saw a surge of Hoosier School artist forgeries circulating through galleries and auction houses.

The Poplars, T.C. Steele (1914) oil on canvas

During the 1980s, a signed work by Steele had a value upwards of $20,000. During the time of the investigation of the forged pieces, it was determined that there were approximately thirty fakes in rotation at auction markets, including works after Hoosier School artists, William Forsyth and J. Ottis Adams. The value of these fraudulent works totaled to nearly $200,000. The surprising number of works in addition to the high-profile investigation lead to a fascination with conservation techniques and a study to properly authenticate. The authentication process typically includes an analysis of previous owners and sale records, a look at the artist’s provenance, and contact with any institution or museum left under the artist’s name that handles circulation of their work. The Indianapolis Museum of Art, following the events of the 1985 forgery trial, went on to conduct an exhibition examining the details of this case, and use it as an opportunity to educate the public on the advancements in conservation in facilitation of identifying imitations. Martin Radecki, chief curator for the museum at the time, was brought on as a member of the investigation team in order to evaluate the Steele forgeries. According to his statement, many of the fakes were painted on new canvases. A closer analysis of the oil paints that appeared aged and should have hardened, actually dissolved when met with a solvent solution. A signature and stamp of authenticity, while adding value to the sale of an original Steele, may require further inspection given the circumstances of this case. Forgers are often capable of successfully matching brush strokes, falsifying age spots, and even mimicking paint patterns of an original artist.

Since this Indiana art scandal, the advancements in conservation have made it that even the most skilled art forgers cannot sell their copies to major museums with ease. Originally relying on the art of connoisseurship and certificates of authenticity, modern day conservation methods seek to analyze the fibers and proteins of a work to place a more exact date on creation. This analysis will also track patterns based on artist techniques and styles, making the process a more exact science. Authentication is a difficult but worthwhile process to go through, especially for collectors looking to expand their collections. It certainly aids in the appraisal process, but also ensures personal satisfaction that the collections you work hard to develop are historically accurate.

Theodore Clement Steele recently had his 170th birthday. The years following the trial saw a rise in market value for a properly authenticated piece, with the highest tripling in 2002 from the original $20,000 average lot sale of the 1980s. While patterns have since fluctuated, there is clearly still a tremendous amount of value in his work, both in appreciating the beauty of American landscape painting, and in collecting works from the famous Indiana Hoosier Group.

“Theodore Clement Steele.” Theodore Clement Steele - Artist Charts - Average Auction Sales Per Lot per Year,

“Biographical Sketch” in Indiana Historical Society’s Collection Guide for the Theodore Clement Steele and Mary Lakin Steele Papers, 1869 to 1966. Indiana Historical Society.

Editorial, Artsy, and Rene Chun. "These Four Technologies May Finally Put an End to Art Forgery." Artsy. N.p., 18 July 2016. Web.

Grann, David. "The Prints in the Paint." The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 10 July 2017. Web.

"Invaluable." View Theodore Clement Steele Art Prices and Auction Results. N.p., 2007. Web.

New York Times News Service. "Indiana Draws The Line On Art Forgeries." Tribunedigital-chicagotribune. N.p., 08 Dec. 1986. Web.

Special to the New York Times. "TWO ART DEALERS FACE INDIANA TRIAL." The New York Times. The New York Times, 05 Nov. 1986. Web.

"T.C. Steele." Indiana Historical Society. N.p., n.d. Web.

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