Fake! – the ‘unoriginal’ history of art forgery

Florence Smith-Nicholls 14 May 2012

“Disguise is the art of hiding in plain sight.” So says the cerebral sleuth Holmes in the BBC adaptation of Sherlock. Quoting a fictional detective for this piece is more apt than you might think, not least because during the scene in question, Holmes is dressed as a gallery attendant whilst talking to a woman who has commissioned a fake Vermeer painting. Art forgery involves the creation of a fictitious history to mislead. Indeed, in Sandor Radnoti’s The Fake: forgery and its place in art, this type of forgery is defined as “an object falsely purporting to have the history of production requisite for the (or an) origin of the work.” There are broadly three varieties of forger: the creator, the person who passes a piece off as something it isn’t, and the type who is aware of a work’s lack of authenticity, but fails to make this known. Artistic imitation has existed since the Classical period, but has not since occurred consistently for the same reasons or to the same result. Never mind hiding in plain sight: some works have yet to reveal their true nature even under the close scrutiny of experts. What follows are some notable cases of creative debauchery – spot the difference!

The Romans were really quite Greek when it came to art. They created bronze and marble copies of famous Greek sculptures, an industry that was in high demand by the 2nd century AD. Whilst this practice wasn’t intended to deceive, it does reveal that the phenomenon of specific artworks as cultural icons, and their lucrative potential, is hardly recent. The Renaissance witnessed the true birth of art as a cultural commodity on a scale with which we would be familiar today, as a prosperous mercantile class constituted the demand for artwork. As a result, the artist’s signature became a crucial mark of authenticity, and thus inherent value. However, the copying of another artist’s works was not conceptualised in the negative light it is today; it was a tribute to the original master and an aspect of artistic education. Even one of the period’s most renowned personalities, Michelangelo, is attested to have been involved in the forgery of an antiquity.

The famous case of the ‘Dio d’amore dormente’, or ‘sleeping cupid’, involves the aforementioned talent carving a life-size cherubic figure which was deemed to be sufficiently aesthetically antique to pass as an ancient work. Apparently, the cupid was later taken and sold as exactly that, though unsurprisingly it has yet to be conclusively identified today. It’s now a desirable item precisely because of its less than angelic history.

It’s one thing to copy; it’s another thing to create an original fake. The Minoan civilisation of Bronze Age Crete produced a plethora of striking artworks, but perhaps none of these have had so lively a history as the snake goddess figurines discovered to be modern creations. Kenneth Lapatin, author of Mysteries of the Snake Goddess, believes these works to possibly be the result of the Swiss restorers Emile Gillieron “pere and fils” creating pieces deliberately to satisfy the theories of their employer, the leading Minoan archaeologist of the 19th century, Sir Arthur Evans. So extensive was the subterfuge that their possible handiwork was even acquisitioned by the Ashmolean, and our very own Fitzwilliam Museum.

A more recent incident of deliberate forgery has become something of a legend, with the counterfeiter at the heart of the tale becoming an unlikely hero. Hans van Meegeren, an obscure Dutch painter, sold a previously undiscovered Johannes Vermeer painting to Hermann Goering. After the end of the Second World War, van Meegeren was tracked down by the ‘Allied Art Commission’. Meegeren’s initial charge, of which he was innocent, was far worse than that of which he was eventually found guilty. Treason meant possible execution; being guilty of ‘obtaining money by deception’ incurred a single year of imprisonment.

The truth: van Meegeren had forged a total of six additional ‘Vermeers,’ worth $60 million. The irony is no one believed his works were fakes, so to save his own life he spent six weeks painting an original Vermeer under the surveillance of journalists and court-appointed witnesses. In plain sight, the camouflage of accurately mixed pigments fell away. Of course, you’ve heard this story before, under the guise of fiction. The Sherlock version is a mildly similar imitation.

In May 1992, a conference was held in Athens to determine the authenticity of the Getty kouros. Originally bought by the J. Paul Getty Museum, California, in 1983, the supposed 6th century BC origin of the statue was yet to be proven or disproven. It has no known providence, and the fact that it’s the only piece of its kind from the island of Thasos to be made from marble raises doubts. A fake torso with similarities to the kouros has been recovered; however, scientific analysis of the marble proves it originates from the right place. Plus, as the stone has succumbed to a process known as ‘de-dolomitisation’, which could possibly only occur over centuries naturally; it certainly constitutes an enigma. Even scientific and technological advancements cannot guard against the canny forger.

On 27 October 2011, a group of four German art forgers were sentenced to fifteen years in prison. Skilfully copying works by Max Ernst and Andre Derain, among others, earned them 16 million Euros but eventually cost them their freedom. The ringleader, a certain Wolfgang Beltracchi, described to the court his pleasure in deceiving the art world. The forgery of artwork is a crime, but one admittedly involving rare skill. As has been the case since Michelangelo experimented with a cupid, there wouldn’t be a supply without demand. If anything, the history of art forgery can teach us this: nothing is black and white, but shades of grey. After all, isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery?

Florence Smith-Nicholls