Art Forgeries: Friend or Foe?
By: J. Elyse Richardson
Every major museum has forgeries in its storage and likely even a few on display. If you find that shocking, I urge you to think about why the word ‘forgery’ sets off so many alarm bells. Jonathan Keats explains that art forgery provokes anxiety because “…art is a rare refuge from the mass-produced inauthenticity of the industrialized world, and we are hypersensitive to any threat to the authenticity of art” (Keats 2013, 23). The fear of forgeries and of giving them any kind of authority or status in the art world is to do with the threat they pose to one’s intrinsic set of values and preconceptions about culture and creation. Leonard B. Meyer explains that these cultural beliefs about the intangible and high-minded conception of ‘art’ are nothing more than a learned sociological response (Meyer 1983, 80-81). The issue with these pre-existing beliefs is that they are so strong that they automatically effect a variety of emotional and physiological responses, including our responses to forgeries.
Cover of Eric Hebborn (a famous forger)’s book The Art Forger’s Handbook, 1997.
In a culture where the concept of ‘art’ has been idolized to the point that the appreciation of artwork has begun to share traits that are often associated with worshipping or venerating a religious icon, the act of forgery could be looked at as heresy (Duncan 1995, 32). One must ask themselves, however, if the apparent affront to the spirit of art which forgeries represent actually offends them in any genuine way, or if it simply offends the narrative about the idealistic notion of art that one has been fed their whole life (Lessing 1983, 66). There are many ways that a forgery can offend, be it through the financial loss to buyers or the lost reputation of an expert who thought it was genuine. However, those who feel that forgeries offend the very notion of art, and therefore do not deserve the title as such, are falling prey to what Arthur Koestler describes as The Anatomy of Snobbery. Koestler describes this kind of snobbery as occurring when two separate value systems become “inextricably mixed” in one’s mind (Meyer 1983, 79). Regarding the status of forgeries, the mixing of systems is evident in the very question ‘should art forgeries be considered art?’ The negative arguments many scholars make lend themselves instead to the question, ‘what is art?’ It is clear that the issue is not forgeries, it is ‘art’. Instead of arguing against the status of forgeries, scholars should accept forgeries as art and therefore expand and re-evaluate their own beliefs about the nature of art.
The Amarna Princess, forgery by Shaun Greenhalgh, sold by his father George Sr. to Bolton Museum for £440,000 in 2003. Image from The Art of Forgery (Charney 2015).
There are more than just philosophical and sociological reasons to grant forgeries the status of art. The physical creation and existence of these pieces permit them to hold the status of art. John Dewey’s concept of “appreciative perception” can explain how aesthetic appreciation is “…inherently connected with the experience of making” (Dutton 1983, 176). It is far simpler to appreciate the aspect of human creation with a piece made by a known artist, whom one can learn about and imagine taking the time to carve every edge or place every brush stroke. There is a sense of human agency in this kind of piece which informs our valuation of it as art. Although this agency is not always present in forgeries – especially when the forger is unknown or it is created in a forgery workshop of many people – the work is still, as Dennis Dutton puts it, “…the product of human skills and techniques.” (Dutton 1983, 176). Forgery or not, the appreciative perception for at least the fact that the physical creation of the piece represents the artistic achievement of a person or persons is the same, and is enough to grant forgeries the same creative respect under the status of art.
Fake or Fortune is a TV show on the BBC where they investigate potential forgeries.
When discussing the status of art, one will inexplicably end up tangled amid the argument of aesthetics and aesthetic value. Critics and connoisseurs will often take a reductionist viewpoint. As Tomas Kulka argues, even when observing a genuine work against the most technically impressive forgery, the genuine is still more aesthetically impressive and valuable, and will somehow evoke a more emotional response than the indistinguishable forgery (Kulka 1982, 115). To claim indistinguishable works are different aesthetically simply due to romantic notions about the near spiritual power of a ‘genuine’ work to always be recognizable as such is nothing more than egotistical folly (Hoving 1996, 163). One is reminded of the case of Han van Meegeren’s Vermeer forgeries which, once hailed masterpieces, were immediately devalued and insulted as hideous works once found to be forgeries (Lessing 1983, 59-60). Nothing physically changed about the pieces from when they were considered art to denounced as inferior aesthetic creations, proving that the idea that the technical achievement and aesthetic beauty of works could be different merely based on the concepts of genuine versus forged is blatantly untrue. Thus, one can easily dismiss the aesthetic appreciation argument against forgeries being considered art, as they are often just as technically impressive, if not more so for fooling experts, than the originals.
Han van Meegeren during his trial, possible forgery in background. Image from The Art of Forgery (Charney 2015).
Han von Meegeren, after Vermeer, The Supper at Emmaus, 1937, Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Image from The Art of Forgery (Charney 2015).
At present, each institution or collection seems to have different ways of dealing with forgeries once discovered. In the case of the Chagall Foundation, they retain the right to destroy any work brought to them which they believe to be dis-genuine (Alberge 2014). Less extreme, but still saddening, is how museums and galleries often deal with forgeries – hiding them away or denying their existence, despite the public or academics still wanting to see them. In the case of the Tiara of Saitaphernes, the Louvre took the forgery off display and hid it away in the vaults for years, despite the general public still wanting to view the item and appreciate its aesthetic beauty (Archaeological Institute of America, 2009). Similarly, the forged Etruscan terra-cotta warriors stood on display for more than 60 years in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, becoming a staple of the exhibit, before finally being accepted to be forgeries (Scott 2016, 12-13). When the warriors were found to be forged, the museum all but completely disowned the pieces – putting them in storage, and not even allowing scholars to look at them because they did not want paper or articles written about the pieces (Scott 2016, 13). For a beautiful piece of work, that represents both human creativity and ingenuity, to be locked away collecting dust for the foreseeable future is just as disrespectful and wasteful as destroying art.
A golden tiara and some terracotta warriors do not offend a culture or insult a religion; they simply bruised the ego of a few institutions and were thus condemned. This vicious condemnation is exactly why forgeries need the protective status of art. And through protecting forgeries, it acts as a reminder to those working in art galleries, artist foundations, and museums: no amount of knowledge or skill in art gives any person the right to destroy the work of another simply because it does not agree with them. The protection the status of art offers not only protects the integrity of human craftsmanship and creativity, but also creates the invaluable opportunity to study these forgeries and use them for educational purposes.
Postcard ridiculing the Louvre for purchasing a tiara. Wikimedia Commons.
Additionally, granting forgeries the status of art would lead to more exhibitions of forgeries, such as the ground-breaking exhibition the British Museum held in 1990 displaying an array of the fakes and forgeries in their collections (Steiner 1990). In the exhibition catalogue, Mark Jones explains the appeal of such an exhibition, outlining the benefits of bringing together forgeries for discussion and analysis. The sensationalist attraction forgeries have on the public can be of benefit – they “both attract and repel us”, as one reviewer of the exhibition described (Steiner 1990). Jones explains that, through gathering forgeries together, experts can use that data to understand the supply and demand in the art market at certain times and how that weakness was used by forgers to deceive and trick buyers, mirroring to us what we coveted most at a certain time (Jones 1990). The presence of forgeries in exhibitions also starts important conversations about “the fallibility of experts,” and indeed, in a show the size of the British Museum’s exhibition, the sheer number of fakes will aid in disavowing the general public of the misconception that forgeries are a controlled issue and finding one is few and far in between (Jones 1990). To be more open about forgeries, and to use the ones that are known, could aid in seriously addressing the issue of forgery in the first place. But locking these pieces away or destroying them and denying them any agency as artworks only shrouds the issue in more unclarity, giving forgers and those involved in the network more room to operate within it.
The New York Times, Sunday April 29th, 1990. Source.
Mark Jones surmises the benefits of forgeries thusly, “As keys to understanding the changing nature of our vision of the past, as motors for the development of scholarly and scientific techniques of analysis, as subversions of aesthetic certainties, they deserve our closer attention, while as the most entertaining of monuments to the wayward talents of generations of gifted rogues they claim our reluctant admiration” (Jones 1990). There is a kind of illicit beauty and power forgeries have that will never cease to intrigue. Rather than ignore or denounce forgeries, I ask you - why not accept them and expand the definition of art?
Alberge, Dalya. “The man whose ‘real Chagall’ could now be burnt as a fake,” The Guardian, February 1st, 2014. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/feb/01/chagall- could-be-furnt-fortune-or-fake.
Duncan, Carol. Civilizing Rituals: Inside Public Art Museums. London and New York: Routledge, 1995.
Dutton, Dennis, ed. The Forgers Art: Forgery and the Philosophy or Art. Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1983.
Hoving, Thomas. False Impressions, The Hunt for Big-Time Fakes. New York: Simon and Shuster, 1996.
Jones, Mark, ed. Fake? The Art of Deception. London: British Museum Publications Ltd., 1990.
Keats, Jonathon. Forged, Why Fakes Are the Great Art of Our Age. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
Kulka, Tomas. “The Artistic and Aesthetic Status of Forgeries.” Leonardo 15, No. 2 (Spring 1982), 115-117.
“Saitaphernes' Golden Tiara.” Archaeology. Archaeological Institute of America, 2009. https://archive.archaeology.org/online/features/hoaxes/saitaphernes_tiara.html.
Scott, David A. Art: Authenticity, Restoration, Forgery. Los Angeles: Costen Institute of Archaeology Press, 2016.
Steiner, Wendy. “In London, A Catalogue of Fakes.” New York Times, April 29, 1990. https://www.nytimes.com/1990/04/29/arts/art-in-london-a-catalogue-of-fakes.html.
About the Author | J. Elyse Richardson
Elyse is a second-year Master of Museum Studies Student. She completed her Bachelor of Arts (Hons.) at Queen’s University majoring in Classics and Archaeology with a minor in Art History. She is interested in Collections Management and solving museum mysteries using research and archives. Elyse has experience working on archaeological digs as well as creating digital exhibitions. She has a love for discussing UNESCO Heritage sites, and her three cats love making appearances on any zoom calls.