• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

The Faker’s Art

For every Sunday museum visit by every well-regulated New York family; for all museum tours by New York high school art classes; and especially for all students of late Renaissance gold work, whether New Yorkers or visitors, the Metropolitan Museum’s “Cellini Cup” used to be a recognized, even required, goal of pilgrimage.

The pilgrims had much to admire, too. The cup is of splendidly buttery gold, delicately enriched with enamel. A beautifully wrought and finely enameled scallop shell forms the cup’s body; the handle is a superb gold and enamel winged sphinx with a large baroque pearl trembling between her breasts; and the whole is supported by a winged dragon, standing, in turn, upon the back of a sturdy tortoise, both again of gold picked out with enamel. In sum, the cup has something for all tastes—richness and surprise for fresh-faced inexperience, and boldness of design and elegance of facture for the unfresh but expert.

In 1909, it was acquired from a London dealer by the department store magnate Benjamin Altman; and it was famous as the “Cellini Cup” even before it came to the Metropolitan with the Altman bequest in 1913. In 1969 one of the Metropolitan’s curators, Dr. Yvonne Hackenbroch, published an article pointing out that the cup was too late stylistically to be the work of Benvenuto Cellini. She therefore attributed it to Jacopo Bilivert or Biliverti, an unusually talented goldsmith from Delft employed by the Medici in Florence in the last quarter of the sixteenth century. After this, it was renamed the “Rospigliosi Cup,” because of its provenance from the treasures of the Roman princely family of Rospigliosi.

Now, however, Dr. Hackenbroch has changed everything once more by her monograph, “Reinhold Vasters, Goldsmith,” in the recently published Metropolitan Museum Journal for 1984–1985. If you care for learned, intricate detective stories centering on works of art, you will find one in Dr. Hackenbroch’s sober one-hundred-plus copiously illustrated pages. But the real point is that the ex-Cellini cup has now turned out to be a fake. And as the cup’s probable maker, Biliverti has now been abruptly replaced by Reinhold Vasters, who worked in the nineteenth century instead of the sixteenth.

Furthermore, this tentative transfer of the cup to Vasters is no more than a single incident of a general upheaval among the art historians who specialize in the luxury objects of the fifteenth through the seventeenth centuries: vessels of carved rock crystal, jasper, agate, or other hard stones, mounted in gold, silver gilt, or enameled gold; plaques, pendants, clasps, chains, and other jewelry of gold, enamel, and precious stones; extravagantly splendid house shrines of the sort you find in the Munich Schatzkammer; and so on and on. The curious fact is, furthermore, that Reinhold Vasters apparently wished to cause just the kind of art historical upheaval that has now occurred—at any rate after he was safely out of the way himself.

It has too rarely been noted that in the end, really talented art fakers are seldom content with money alone. When their deceptions succeed, and all the world of art therefore says their works are great, art fakers then tend to hanker for recognition as great themselves. Here you have only to consider the tragicomical case of the Odessa goldsmith, Israel Rouchomovski, who made the “Tiara of Siataphernes” and sold it to the Louvre in 1896 as a magnificent and rare master-piece of Greco-Scythian goldwork. There was some scholarly muttering about the tiara; but the Louvre was proud of the purchase, all the same, until Rouchomovski journeyed to Paris and impulsively announced to the press that he was the tiara’s real maker. Poor innocent, he seems to have expected loud cheers for his proven genius. But there were no cheers at all from the Louvre, and Rouchomovski even came within an ace of being sent to jail for fraud.

There are many more known instances of this faker’s hankering for recognition; and in the hankering you have about the only rational explanation of Reinhold Vasters’s habit of carefully preserving his working drawings for his fakes. He was, on the evidence, a strikingly canny fellow. Yet keeping his working drawings meant running a never-ending risk of eventual exposure. It was exactly like keeping a large supply of bombs with light-sensitive fuses, all of them set to explode if any sort of accident ever exposed them to the light. This was precisely what occurred, too, but belatedly and in just the sort of way Vasters must have hoped for.

After Vasters’s death at eighty-two in 1909, his effects were auctioned. The portfolios of working drawings then passed through the hands of two successive London dealers, and finally came to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where they gathered dust for half a century. At length, however, inferences began to be drawn from the drawings’ all too suggestive kinship to pieces in a good many museum collections, including that of the V and A itself. The first result was a short article on Reinhold Vasters by one of the keepers at the V and A, Charles Truman, which appeared in Connoisseur in 1979. This was then followed by Yvonne Hackenbroch’s more pro-longed and detailed inquiry, the results of which have just been published.

With the drawings to help her, Dr. Hackenbroch has now spotted as Vasters’s fakes nearly two score major treasures of several sorts in the collections of the Metropolitan and other museums both here and abroad. Of clever made-up pieces (such as the shell-shaped bowl of red jasper, illustrated on the next page, which was carved in the seventeenth century, and turned into a much, much more valuable object by the addition of a base and mounts of enameled gold plus some modern carved jasper), Dr. Hackenbroch has also given nearly a score to Vasters, again in various museum collections. And she has conclusively shown that Vasters made several exceptional objects at present in private collections.

Thus Reinhold Vasters has now turned out to be the nineteenth century’s most productive single art faker—or at any rate, the most productive faker yet unmasked. More important, Vasters—or rather the unmasking of Reinhold Vasters—has added a new dimension to the nagging aesthetic problem of art faking; and since this problem is the real theme of the present essay, only the essential facts of Vasters’s life and career need to be set down here. He was the son of a locksmith; he was born in 1827 not far from the pleasant German provincial town of Aachen; and he entered his maker’s mark as a gold-and silversmith at Aachen in 1853, when he was also appointed by the cathedral chapter to maintain and repair the famous treasure of Aachen Cathedral. Very early, too, he made something of a reputation as a designer and maker of ecclesiastical silver in the German late-Gothic style. In sum, modest but obscure prosperity appeared to be Vasters’s allotted fate until he fell in with Frédéric Spitzer, one of the more bizarre figures of the nineteenth century.

Spitzer was born in Vienna in 1815, but early moved to Paris to carry on his chosen trade as an art dealer. By 1852, he had done well enough to acquire a big house on the Rue de Villejust, which soon began to be known as the Musée Spitzer. Spitzer himself meanwhile scorned to be a mere trade-stained dealer, and therefore worked to gain a Europe-wide reputation as a distinguished marchand-amateur, who was first and foremost a connoisseur and collector, but would “sometimes sell a treasure to oblige a friend.”

This elaborate disguise succeeded so well, too, that “all the aristocracy of Europe,” whether of “birth,” or of “the intellect,” or of “finance,” ended by flocking to the Musée Spitzer year after year—at least according to the Parisian antiquarian and writher on art, Edmond Bonaffé.

Behind the elegant facade Spitzer showed to his guests, however, there was quite another man who spared himself the bother of finding genuine treasures, and paid for his fine entertainments as well, by organizing art faking on an otherwise unprecedented scale. This was first disclosed by the German, Stephan Beissel. Beissel’s Gefälschte Kunstwerke was only published in 1909, however, so his researches cannot have worried Spitzer, who died in 1890. The subsequent sale of the contents of the Musée Spitzer, held in 1893, was also one of the truly spectacular events of nineteenth-century art market history. The total reached was nine million francs; and the modern equivalent of nine million gold francs of 1893 is at least forty million dollars—which makes our current “auction records” seem pretty anemic.

According to Beissel, Spitzer began employing “first rate artists” to make “old things” in the 1840s, and thus considerably before Reinhold Vasters acquired his maker’s mark in 1853. But only two years after that, in 1855, Spitzer somewhat unexpectedly established an antique shop in Aachen, although he already had his showy headquarters in Paris. So one wonders whether Spitzer merely wanted a quiet secondary headquarters where questions were unlikely to be asked; or whether he chose Aachen because he already had some inkling of the young Vasters’s talents and inclinations. We do not know; for the first solid suggestion of a link between Spitzer and Vasters appears in the record as late as 1865, when the Aachen Cathedral authorities commissioned Vasters to transform an early sixteenth-century “pax”—a sculptured tablet used in the Mass—into a “morse”—which is a large ornamental clasp for ecclesiastical vestments, again used in the Mass. Stephen Beissel’s researches showed that by a miracle of multiplication, the single pax became no less than twelve morses. The morses were located in collections all over Europe; and the distribution was evidently handled by Spitzer, for he retained a single morse, which was sold in the great auction of 1893. Hence it is safe to assume that at least by 1865, if not much earlier, Vasters and Spitzer had begun to work in tandem.

Vasters-produced as well as Vasters-improved objects in the Spitzer sale also indicate that the two worked in tandem for a long time on a big scale. They were in truth an ideal partnership, in the simple sense that each badly needed the other. For Spitzer, the organizer of fakery, Vasters was the perfect faker, highly skilled, a fine designer and shrewdly taciturn—for he must have been good at minding his own business, to succeed conspicuously without causing gossip in such a town as Aachen. For Vasters, by the same token, Spitzer was also the perfect partner; for how on earth could Vasters, the Aachen goldsmith, have disposed of so many fake morses without Spitzer? And where else could Vasters have looked for a connoisseur’s advice, for tips about useful books to add to the large working library he gradually accumulated, and for other helpful guidance?

To be sure, there was no exclusivity, on either man’s part. Spitzer dealt largely in “medieval” ivories and “Renaissance” parade armors, to which Vasters can have contributed nothing. And similarly, one of Vasters’s most ambitious known fakes, a huge silver gilt and ivory pseudo-late Gothic German ceremonial drinking horn, was apparently unloaded on Baron Karlvon Rothschild of Frankfurt without help from Spitzer. Yet Vasters seems not to have felt up to carrying on alone after Spitzer’s death, for he is believed to have closed his shop in 1890, only to reappear a little later in the Aachen directory as a Rentner—a man of property needing employment: and a prosperous Rentner Vasters remained until 1909, when his death launched the Vasters working drawings on their long journey toward the art historical upheaval they have now caused.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print