Art Forgery: A Failure of Romance


I have a romantic image of art forgers. Brilliant, misunderstood, and born in the wrong era. Some poor soul who has given their life to learning the ways the old masters painted — not just the subject matter, but every material, every step of the process. What did they use to gesso? How many coats? Which direction did they lay each coat? How did they smooth the surface? What did they sketch with? How fast did they work? How did they grind pigment? Lapis lazuli or azurite? Lead white? How pure?

My image of a forger is of a careful, secret romantic, with the utmost respect for the artists whose works he forges.

This is a wonderful image to have, and it is not entirely false; Tom Keating, for instance, clearly did have an immense love and respect for those artists he copped; as did Eric Hebborn.

But what is disappointing is that none of these things doth a successful forger make. In fact, almost none of it is necessary.

Yes, it’s true, that to start you need a fake — but this job was sometimes hired out; sometimes a perfectly nice painting by some other artist from the same period is used; sometimes a pastiche is made (with more or less care) — but always, this is the least important part of the affair. There is no magic in the fake; the magic happens in the hands of the dealer.

The great forgers of the twentieth century were social engineers. They had to contend far more with human challenges than with artistic ones.

And what’s even more disappointing — they didn’t have to be very good at that.

Here is the fundamental turn: the business of dealers, auction houses, and high- stakes collectors is not good art. It is valuable art. They are neither artists nor art critics; nor should they be. I don’t want the appraiser at Christie’s to tell me what I should like, or what I should want to buy, or what I should want to sell. I want them to tell me what I should pay or be paid.

And that has very little to do with quality.

The art world is a brand- driven market. A horrible little Monet, done in a hurry and on an off- day, is worth more than the best of a lesser- known artist — say, Bazille.

So to fake a painting, you must fake provenance. Fake the brand, and to hell with the quality.

This might be done by forging documents — exhibition listings, receipts of sale, dealer’s stickers, collectors stamps. Such was the case for the Myatt/ Drewe forgeries.

Mostly, though all it takes is a good story. Every dealer wants to sell a previously unknown Vermeer — they’ll be suspicious, but the outcome they want is an authentication. Every auction house wants to sell the hottest brands. The outcome they want is authentication. Every collector wants to own the hottest brands. They want authentication.

It’s not just about money — can you imagine how good it must feel to know the most important art in the world passes through your hands?
But the monetary reward is in authentication; discovering a fake only loses everyone money.

In fact, the emotional and monetary penalties for discovering fakes are so strong that when known forgers step forwards and say, “I made that,” there is still a great deal of resistance to changing the work’s attribution.

Forging art, if you don’t get caught, is perhaps the most perfectly victimless crime in the world; not only does not one get poorer — everyone gets either richer, happier, or both.

Catching a forger creates a victim.

I can’t say that I am pro- forgery; nor am I against the idea of catching forgers.

The storybook forgers, who aspire to best the masters at their own game — they’re few and far between; and in truth, the story is the same either way. Vast sums of money are exchanged for work that’s valued based on who made it, not any property intrinsic to the object.

But, well, so long as the market isn’t flooded with so many fakes that the brand is devalued, a fake is good for everyone involved.

Except, I guess, those of us who want to look at truly transcendent art. For us, there can be no “fake;” art that moves you is art that moves you.

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