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The Case of Art Forgeries

There are always crimes to spice up art history and the most intriguing, disturbing and masterful of these crimes in art forgery.

In October 2012 there was a day long symposium at the Johnston Collection: The Delicate Art of Deception – revealing fakes and forgeries: talks about fakes in early English glass, Romanian carpets, and antique furniture. Eugene Barilo von Reisberg distinguished between originals, replicas, versions, revivals, copies, reproductions, mistaken attribution and misrepresentations (fakes and forgeries) in his talk “What’s in a name?” Dr Alison Inglis gave a talk about the history of interest in fakes and forgeries.

The medieval fake relics were from a world that had faith in religious history. The idea of history was revived during the Renaissance and after the classical revival and the rest of Europe slowly followed the great man theory of history. This peaked in the nineteenth century because the combined attraction of both the contact magic of the relic of the great man and the idea of genius. However the nineteenth century was also the golden age of art forgery and subsequently the fear of forgers.

The interest in art by contemporary artists was spurred on by the glut of fakes, not that there weren’t still fakes. Progressive modern artists were then promoted to satisfy both the demands of a whig history and the collectors for whom the gloss of contact magic hadn’t worn off. Dr. Inglis noted that public interest in fakes and forgeries peaked in 2010 with multiple exhibitions of art forgeries around the world.

The modern world also has demands on art, it had to scientifically prove its authenticity, or at least documentary evidence of authenticity. Scientific analysis and micro-history are the current paradigms of art authentication. Works of art become archeological sites to be deconstructed layer by layer following Lacarod’s exchange principle that every contact leaves a trace. The problem with this paradigm is that although it is rigorously evidence based it doesn’t tell much about art, there is little poetry to the microscope.

Associate Professor Robyn Sloggett of Melbourne University’s Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation spoke about attribution and how in a hot art market need, speed and greed allow attribution to slip. The Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation provides Australia’s most scientific attribution assessments.

Fakes and forgeries reveal how the institutions, the collectors and the art experts understand, value and tell the story of history and what truths are value. In his book The Art Forger’s Handbook, the art forger, Eric Hebborn tells of two art collectors that he admired Thomas Butts and Luman Reed. Butts bought from William Blake and Reed having once acquired a forgery only bought directly from living artists.

Apart from their abuse of historical facts art forgeries appear to be a complaint of affluence. And apart from new technology and new forgers there doesn’t seem to be anything new in the discussion of fakes and forgeries: there are new scandals to talk about, like the Libertos but the old scandals, like Van Meegren are still discussed. Forgers, and their books, make such fascinating reading; Tom Keating is like a character straight out of an episode of Minder.

“When the dealer who sold Cat. 219 discovered that one of his sources, Elmyr de Hory, was a master forger, he hastened to alert all those to whom he had sold works acquired from de Hory of the situation and properly offered them their money back. Most accepted but the owners in this case (Mr. and Mrs. Patrick E. O’Rourke from Minneapolis) declined stating they bought the drawing because they loved it and not because it was a ‘Modigliani’. They still love it regardless of the author.” (Fakes and Forgeries, catalogue of exhibition at the Minneapolis Inst. Of Art. July 11- Sept. 1973 p.220)

Philosopher, Mark Sagoff makes the analogy between appreciation of art with love. “Love attaches to individuals and not simply to their qualities or to the pleasures they give. People are not interchangeable; we stand by old friends. Why? You love a particular man or woman – not just anyone who fills the bill. You cannot love a person by pretending he or she is someone else. You cannot appreciate a forgery by pretending it is a masterpiece.” (Mark Sagoff “ On Restoring and Reproducing Art” The Journal of Philosophy 75, 1978, p.453)

However, if your love turns out to be an imposter, like the recent cases of the British undercover police officer who fathered a son while in his undercover role, then that would change the relationship.

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About Mark Holsworth

Writer, independent researcher and artist, Mark Holsworth is the author of the book Sculptures of Melbourne. View all posts by Mark Holsworth

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