Since the beginning of time, “art” has been copied, wrongly credited, and forged. Romans copied the work of ancient Greeks passing it off as original. During the Renaissance, skilled apprentices often completed or stood in for Masters who were known to copy their own work confusing attribution.
Allegedly David Hockney recently took a dig at Damien Hirst when a poster for his upcoming show at the Royal Academy of Art read, “All the works here were made by the artist himself, personally.” (Flavorwire) Today, it’s common to have assistants create work “for”artists who merely conceive and might oversee. Jeff Koons (balloon animals, anyone?) is successful with this method. Andy Warhol preceded him. (The Factory)
As PT Barnum apocryphally declared “there’s a sucker born every minute.” We pay to be entertainingly deceived. Magic and Mentalism offer the added challenge of trying to figure out how we’ve been misdirected. No one is upset when modus operandi is obscure. Frank Abagnale’s “Catch Me If You Can” was a popular book, film, and musical because no one was hurt during serial masquerades. We’ve always cheered people who cleverly get away with it when victims don’t unduly suffer. Anyone remember the stylish jewel thief “Raffles?”/Cary Grant in “To Catch a Thief?” Insurance covered loss.
This is decidedly untrue with art sales. No one wants to guess whether a purchased work is authentic. Often a great deal of money changes hands. Price is based entirely on perception – market value, not intrinsic worth. Rarity comes into play as does level of excellence within the creator’s oeuvre.
As techniques grew more sophisticated, talented forgers learned how to convincingly age work often utilizing original materials. Noah Charney, who has written perhaps the most comprehensive layman’s volume on varied forgery notes: The forgery must provide the same “aesthetic experience” of the genuine work… successful forgers never copy existing works, but instead create what look like known, but lost, works…direct copies, line for line, feel lifeless, but something newly created, with artistic verve and passion, is imbued with a liveliness that parallels wholly original works. Many specialists refer to this as “reanimating” an artist’s hand.
Charney’s engaging and enlightening The Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of the Master Forgers covers everything from faked religious relics to furniture, manuscripts, and wine fraud as well as sculpture, paintings and prints. It scrutinizes collectors, gallerists, curators, artists, and public opinion with clarity and insight, relates stories of outstanding practitioners, describes both craftsmanship and the science of authentication. Plates show and explain tell-tale signs.
Available books, many authored by proud forgers, put a human face on those who, to a man (oddly, they’re never women), have no overall regrets. The writing is also a veritable how-to for artists with inclination and aptitude. As certification became more possible with increasingly exact science, forgers turned to falsifying provenance – documentation proving creator, history, ownership, and appraisal value.
One member of a counterfeit ring got into British archives by representing himself as a philanthropist researching his own collection. The apparent patron was feted, a great deal of (seed) money donated to the institution, and considerable paperwork doctored before authorities stepped in.
1969’s FAKE! The Story of Elmyr de Hory, the Greatest Art Forger of Our Time by Clifford Irving tells of a Dutchman who thrived executing extraordinarily varied style in his newfound profession. (Most forgers specialize.) The artist allegedly sold over a thousand forgeries to reputable art galleries and museums all over the world, living like a partying prince in Ibiza until authorities started extradition.
An exception, de Hory committed suicide rather than face incarceration. Sentences tend to run a mere 2-4 years maximum with few facing other punishment. Wolfgang Beltrachi, conceivably more prolific than de Hory, is said to have earned hundreds of millions of dollars over 40 years. Sentenced to prison in 2010 (and released early) he also had to pay 35 million euros. In most cases, the art world has no idea what continues to be out there under false names.
FAKE! spawned F for Fake, a captivating film by Orson Welles that challenges the definitions of authorship and authenticity, spends time with de Hory and actually shows him gleefully creating art. It’s a marvel.
Caveat Emptor – The Secret Life of An American Art Forger by Ken Perenyi is an engaging confession published after a statute of limitations had expired. A middle class kid from New Jersey, Perenyi was so successfully mentored as a painter, he discovered he possessed a preternatural ability to copy the works of old masters, an ability that confounded even the most qualified experts and catapulted him to a life of riches. Nor, curiously were there consequences. (His FBI file is sealed.) The forger’s 40 year career is the stuff of fiction.
The Man Who Made Vermeers – Unvarnishing the Legend of Master Forger Han Van Meegeren by Jonathan Lopez centers on one of the greatest replicators of Old Masters.
When the Dutchman’s own work was called “derivative,” he decided, partially in vengeance, to employ acknowledged skill. The WWII saga quotes Van Meegeren calling American millionaires like Andrew Mellon easy picking. A fake Vermeer was even sold to Herman Goering.
In an era of greed with few checks at a high level, the art market flourished. Within months of being arrested, press made a hero of Van Meegeren for fooling the rich and powerful. He was sentenced to one year’s imprisonment. Lopez fills the book with as much history and politics as he does the engrossing detective story.
For those who prefer actual fiction, B.A. Shapiro’s The Art Forger tells of the delivery of a Degas stolen 25 years before from The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum (the largest unsolved art crime in history) to the studio of a young, hard-up artist who makes a Faustian bargain to copy it. That the stolen painting may itself be a forgery adds to a twisting narrative. Finally we have a female forger.
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