Mariner’s Museum Mounts Forgery

A New Exhibit Turns You Into A Detective


Emily Moliken

Chief Curator Lyles Forbes points out details to look for in a Buttersworth, using his personal favorite painting as an example.

Emily Moliken, Editor-in-Chief

Museums and forgeries are sworn enemies. No curator desires a dud and no fake should take the place of an authentic work of art. With this in mind, the idea of a museum hunting for forgeries to procure is unbelievable. It is with that shock that the Mariner’s Museum has drawn quite a crowd to its new exhibition, “B Is for Buttersworth, F Is for Forgery: Solve A Maritime Mystery.”


James Edward Buttersworth, a 19th-century maritime artist, is the hand behind the 30+ works currently housed at the Newport News museum. Though not a particularly well-known painter to most, Buttersworth is a premier maritime artist known for his blade-like precision and excellent depictions of light and dark on the sea. It is the job of all who enter the exhibit to note this style and apply this knowledge while attempting to identify which singular work of the 34 paintings is not a genuine Buttersworth.


The sleuthing experiment beckons for skills in art dealership, detective work, and the eye of an old salt.”

 Museumgoers enter the gallery and are welcomed by a large framed touchscreen with an interactive image of “Magic and Gracie off Castle Garden,” a large painting by Buttersworth that is an accurate representation of his artistic style. Guests can touch various parts of the picture to magnify and are prompted with six characteristics that are common to most of his paintings


Visitors then can walk the gallery at their own pace, noticing key details and reading the helpful wall texts and clues to help in sniffing out the fake. Important features to notice, as pointed out by the interactive photo at the beginning of the exhibit are: style and composition, signature, sky, the detail of the ships, the water, use of seagulls, and background features. After the whole of the gallery has been viewed, visitors then get the chance to cast their vote at a digital voting booth and guess the forgery.


But just how hard can picking out a fake be? “If you took your time to go through all of this, you could narrow it down and probably guess it correctly within your first five or six tries,” says Lyles Forbes, Chief Curator at the museum. “It takes an eye. They’re [forgeries] good enough often that they have fooled collectors and museums,” Forbes explains.


The experience offered by the exhibition is one perfectly tailored to ship-building-centric Newport News. With a blend of maritime activity and cultural enrichment –the Newport News area is home to more than seventeen museums- “B Is for Buttersworth, F Is for Forgery” is a great opportunity that suits its geography. “These museums are a good resource, but I don’t think people take advantage of them enough,” shares Michelle Wiatt, Menchville’s Digital Photography teacher.


Involvement and patronization in local cultural events is key to their success. Get the word out about a festival, tweet about a cool new restaurant; post a picture of you with one of our city’s sculptures to instagram. Support your city and all it has to offer before it disappears faster than a fake on a gallery wall.