German electronics engineer opens fakes museum in Milan

Gottfried Matthaes explains that his family fakes gave him the idea


In the building on the corner of Via Sella, opposite the Castello Sforzesco, the Fondazione Matthaes’s Educational Museum for the recognition of fake antiques opened in December. It is on two floors and occupies an area of nearly 600 sq m.

Herr Matthaes, why are you setting up a museum of this kind?

I come from a German family who have, by tradition, been art and music lovers for many generations. I am a physicist by training and I have a critical approach to art: during the years studying my family’s collection I have come across several fakes. In intending to add to the collection with new items put up for sale I found an increasing number of ever more perfect fakes, created by experts with new techniques. Most collectors are unable to keep track of the counterfeiters’ methods and the fakes they produce. There is no centre in Europe which helps people distinguish genuine work from a fake. So I thought of setting one up myself.

How did you discover the fakes in your own collection?

For the first few years, I needed the help of some European universities’ research laboratories. Objects of doubtful origin or authorship were tested by various methods: luminescence, C14 dating, chemical and physical analysis. But it is sensitivity above all that enables you to establish the authenticity of an object: you only have to take an object in your hands, touch it and examine it. Only exceptional cases require scientific examination.

What will be on show in your museum?

The first two of the eleven rooms will illustrate basic concepts and definitions through explanatory panels and the comparison of significant items. They will explain, for example, the difference between a work of art, a good antique and an object that is simply old; between an original, a copy and a fake; between a masterpiece and a run-of-the-mill object, including their respective commercial values. In the adjoining rooms, genuine pieces, copies and fakes will be on display, grouped according to the material from which they are made. Guided by a manual and assisted by museum staff, visitors will be able to check items, using instruments (lenses, microscopes etc.). Another room will be devoted to scientific methods for determining the authenticity and age of objects, in collaboration with the research laboratories of particular German and British universities, ranging from prehistoric ceramics to metal objects from all periods. Pictures, furniture and icons up to the nineteenth century wil be included, paying particular attention to archaeology. We shall have around 600 items, drawn from various Italian and foreigncollections.

Will you issue authentication documents to anyone who asks?

Certainly not.

Have you any other activities planned for the museum?

Part of it will be used for conferences, where experts from all over the world can compare new methods and research techniques. Each year two or three topics will be chosen for examination and discussion. Apart from this, there will be specialised exhibitions on selected themes. The first will be on excavated ceramics, African art and Buddhist art.

Who is financing you?

Private collectors, mainly German and Swiss. I don’t think that there are any other centres in Europe with the same scope.


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