The World of Fakes, Forgeries and Trickery by M Theresa Brown

Sometimes, in the course of creating art, it’s fun to put down the paintbrush and delve into the little known realms of art history. I did just that when I came across an excellent article on “Varsity,” an online publication from Cambridge University in the UK. The article “Faking it” is a well written and enlightening take on the world of forgeries and fakes in the Art world. The fact that the London Galleries, the Victoria and Albert as well as the National Gallery are holding an exhibition of art forgeries this year, is a testament to the roll (and havoc) that “fake art” has played throughout the centuries. And how economic turmoil fuels it!

That’s right. Centuries of fakes and economics-good and bad. A good art history course will cover fakes and forgeries from the earliest known beginnings. When the classical period saw a consumer interest in owning anything Greek, the Romans reproduced Greek sculpture at a rate that the Chinese would envy! But this period was all about the look, not a particular artist. The real profit came later as particular artists’ works escalated in popularity and price.

So what exactly is the difference between imitation and forgeries? Most artists are versatile. Having spent a good deal of time on the juried arts and crafts circuits across the US, I see it all the time. The exceptional quality of art created by these art professionals is amazing. I have seen everything from paintings to wall hangings to jewelry and sculpture…it is hard not to notice the unique style of each artist at a show with over 600 art vendors! Yet, creating a beautiful piece of art is not often enough. These traveling art gypsies are there to make a living and every so often I have seen customers line up at a booth while the other booths had minimal traffic. Just what was this hot product? Well, I guarantee that at the next show, a handful of these talented and versatile artists will be creating a similar or maybe even identical product. That is imitation.

A forgery on the other hand is creating the same product that the other artist creates and passing it off as having been created by that artist. It is designed to deceive. And money has always been at the root of it.

With the rise of a middle class in the 15th and 16th centuries, individual artists rose to the forefront in popularity. Even Michelangelo was once forced to sign his work when rumors spread that his “Pieta” had been carved by another. In the Varsity article,” the gradual growth in the importance of the identity of the artist or author provoked Albrecht Durer to inscribe angrily on one of his engravings: “Be cursed plunderers and imitators of the work and talent of others”. Art, after all, had become a commodity….”
Rembrandt paid to join a gild created by a businessman which gave he and the other group artists permission to copy the best selling paintings of the day…thus the confusion over the provenance of a painting by Rembrandt or the “school of Rembrandt!”

And of course, forgeries don’t stop with the arts. Anything that captures the public’s eye as a popular commodity is fair game. Think of Rolex watches, fake jewelry, historical objects…..
The Varsity article goes a step further though in its observation of the timeliness of the exhibitions at the two major London Galleries,” It’s little coincidence that (they), are holding exhibitions on art forgery this year. Their detailed explorations into the dark world of fakes, trickery and curator blunders, could not be more relevant today – covert and alarmingly common occurrences in a market straining to survive the recession. The last great period for forgers was the destitution of the 1980s; now that our economic situation is less confident than ever, can we be certain that the masterpieces we admire in galleries are real?

The article went on to list master forgers who go on to fame, occasional fortune and usually prison. One, John Myatt has now apparently gone legit, working with Scotland Yard and selling “original fakes” (wow-you have to admire this) for $100,000 or more! It further commented that the Lourve employs forgers to recreate their most famous and valuable pieces with the intent of protecting them from would be vandals. Apparently that Mona Lisa may not be the real thing. An artist quoted in a book authored by the late Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, said that he only hoped that any poor examples of his works would be attributed to forgerers! And the Varisity article states that “even Picasso once remarked that he ‘would sign a very good forgery.’”

So you have to hand it to the two London Galleries for holding such an exhibit on such a fascinating and controversial subject as Fakes and Forgeries! If you find yourself in London, “The National Gallery’s ‘Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries’ is open 30th June to 12th September, and the V&A’s ‘Metropolitan Police Service’s Investigation of Fakes and Forgeries’ runs from 23rd January to 7th February.”

$100,000 for a genuine, original, fake Masterpiece? Maybe I better pick up that paintbrush again!

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