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The Art of the Phony

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Ken Perenyi
The American art forger Ken Perenyi with one of his works, 1988

The existence of a market for any kind of valuable object almost always encourages the production of counterfeits. It happens with drugs, banknotes, and designer handbags. It also happens with works of art. But whereas counterfeiting banknotes or other documents has always been considered a crime, attitudes toward art forgery have changed greatly over time, as Jonathon Keats and Thierry Lenain explain in their recent books. Keats provides a succinct, intelligent, and very readable summary of the subject, concentrating on some of the most famous modern art forgers, while Lenain, in a notably learned and wide-ranging text, goes into more detail and is more concerned with the broader implications of his topic.

It is often said that art forgery has existed as long as the demand for works of art, but this is not strictly true. There is no clear evidence that art forgeries as such existed in the ancient world. There were plenty of collectors, but they seem to have found copies just as desirable as originals. Even the presence of a signature was not necessarily taken as an indication that the object in question had been made by that artist. The notion of art forgery, as we understand it today, seems to require the idea that originals possess certain qualities not found even in the best copies. It also requires the presence of an expert with the ability to distinguish between the two; but such expertise does not seem to have existed in antiquity.

We get no closer to the modern idea of art forgery in the early or later Middle Ages, when almost all painting and sculpture was meant to serve a religious function. Works of art were commissioned directly from the artist, usually for a specific location (often a church), and were seldom bought and sold. But there was one class of art object for which there was a huge demand, namely miraculous images. The most famous of these originated in the eastern Mediterranean and were supposedly representations of Christ, either made by Christ himself or based on the imprint of his features left on a cloth, or portraits of the Madonna traditionally attributed to Saint Luke. All of them, apart from the Turin shroud, whose established history begins relatively late, were recorded in various versions throughout Europe and the Middle East.

With such images, one might suppose that authenticity was a key issue. But to complicate matters, according to legend a copy of the main image of Christ, known as the Mandylion, was created miraculously shortly after the original. It too supposedly had miraculous powers, as did other copies made subsequently in various ways. The potency of the image therefore did not reside in a single version, but in several. The situation with images of the Madonna was equally confusing, since history (or legend) did not record how many Saint Luke had made.

What mattered about objects such as these was not so much whether they were originals or copies, whether they were old or modern, as whether they worked miracles. In this respect they were like relics, for which there was also an enormous demand, met in part by the production of fakes. Such forgery required no technical skill, since what was most often required was a fragment of bone, supposedly human. The church was of course alive to the danger of forgery, and had an elaborate procedure for establishing the authenticity of relics, described in fascinating detail by Lenain in Art Forgery.

Various types of evidence were used. These included any label attached to the supposed relic, the length of its known history, its source, the beliefs of the local clergy and congregation, and, most important of all, the relic’s ability to work miracles. Apart from this last criterion, these types of evidence have something in common with some of the categories of argument used today to establish the authenticity of works of art. In both cases much weight is given to provenance and to such written evidence as old labels and other documents; and in the case of relics the role of the clergy is comparable to that of art historians, with much importance given to the views of the majority and to tradition.

Even the supposedly miraculous power of the relic has a surprising parallel in discussion of the status of works of art. For the potency of the relic was thought to be generally due to some physical connection with a saint, whether because it was part of his or her body, or had touched a part of the body or some other relic. In much the same way, as Lenain explains, it is widely believed today that an authentic work of art contains in itself some trace of its maker, in a way that a copy, however accomplished, never can.

The attribution of works of art only became an issue much later than that of relics. Indeed, it was rare even in the fourteenth century for the authorship of paintings to be a matter of concern. At first sight, this might seem inconsistent with the presence of artists’ signatures on many works of the period. But these often seem to have been added as an invitation to someone praying before a painted image to remember the artist in his prayers, just as he should also remember the patron of the painting, whose name was also frequently recorded in an inscription. Signatures became much more common in the fifteenth century, frequently appearing on works other than religious images, as the names of individual artists became more widely known and their works admired, followed gradually by the formation of private collections.

As one would expect, it was from this period that the first cases of art forgery were reported. The main evidence comes from the Lives of the Artists by Giorgio Vasari, who includes about ten examples, while further cases are recorded by Vasari’s Netherlandish counterpart, Karel van Mander. Surprisingly, there is little suggestion in their texts that the practice was in any way to be deplored, let alone was criminal, except in a few cases involving the illicit copying of prints under copyright. According to these accounts, the artists responsible for forgery were in every instance highly talented. Andrea del Sarto supposedly copied a portrait by Raphael of Pope Leo X so perfectly that even Giulio Romano, Raphael’s most talented pupil, was taken in. Michelangelo, the most prolific forger in Vasari’s book, made a statue of Cupid and then had it buried and “rediscovered” as an antique, and on another occasion made a perfect copy of a print by Schongauer.

These cases were evidently recounted by Vasari because they were indicative of supreme artistic skill. And if only the most gifted artists were capable of making perfect copies of other artists’ work, then they would have had little or no financial inducement to do so, at least once they were established and their own work had high value. During that period, too, the distinction between an autograph work and one produced with the help of assistants, which now seems so important, was not regarded as of much significance; and some artists, such as Titian, made a good living out of providing replicas of their most popular paintings, often made in large part by assistants. Thus there could have been little demand for forged paintings, especially since the resale of the work of a famous artist was a rare event, making the problem of establishing a convincing provenance particularly difficult. Forgery was not a major issue, although increasingly the practice of substituting, for monetary gain, the artist’s own copy for an original was deplored.

The one exception involved ancient art. The point of the story about Michelangelo’s Cupid is that the unsophisticated patron was willing to pay an inflated price for a statue merely because he thought it was ancient rather than modern, failing to recognize that as a sculptor Michelangelo was the equal of the ancients. But the imitation of classical art was a widely shared goal among artists, especially in the circle of Raphael; and it is often hard to make a clear distinction between instances of emulation, pastiche, and outright forgery. This is particularly true of the widespread practice among leading goldsmiths and sculptors of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries of making imitations of ancient coins (usually considered at the time as medals). These included more or less accurate replicas, but more admired were entirely invented coins, with images of famous figures of antiquity such as Aristotle, Cicero, and Sappho.

Some unsophisticated collectors certainly believed that these productions were genuine antiquities. But the craftsmen who produced them were widely praised for having done so. Their names were recorded in Renaissance books on ancient medals, and leading scholars advised them about features such as inscriptions. Since ancient coins are today regarded as an important source of historical knowledge, the idea of antiquarians assisting in the production of fake historical evidence now seems very strange. But at the time their significance was interpreted differently. Coins were valued primarily for their portraits, for the allegorical figures on the reverse sides, which were widely used by Italian artists in their own works, and for samples of ancient inscriptions. The pseudo-antique coins seem to have been admired for their workmanship, but also, of course, for the portraits, because during the Renaissance there was an intense interest in likenesses of famous historical figures, and when real ones did not exist it was considered entirely acceptable to invent them.

The collection of painted portraits of historical figures assembled by the historian Paolo Giovio at Como, which was famous throughout Europe, included many invented images. Likewise, many of the portraits of earlier artists included in the second edition of Vasari’s Lives were spurious, even though Vasari sometimes took the trouble to copy heads and costumes from paintings dating from roughly the period in which the artists in question had lived.

This relaxed attitude toward ancient coins extended to ancient sculpture, the one type of art for which there was an active market. Here, if anywhere, one might want to speak of forgery, were it not for the fact that collectors were accustomed to having their statues so radically restored that their original, and almost invariably fragmentary, character was entirely obscured. From a modern viewpoint it is difficult to see much distinction between a Renaissance or Baroque sculptor transforming a damaged torso, or a collection of fragments of different objects, into a complete statue and the same sculptor producing an entirely new statue in a classical style. There seems little sense in invoking the term “forgery” in either instance, even though today we use the term to describe the production of a work of art intended to be identified as the product of someone other than its actual maker, almost always for financial gain.

The modern attitude toward forgery seems then to involve a number of features, some of which only gradually developed late in the Renaissance or after. One is the belief that works of art of all periods have a certain intrinsic value and that their historical and stylistic character should be respected, including, to some degree at least, the inevitable changes wrought by time. This belief was not held by early modern collectors of ancient art, or, for that matter, by church authorities and others who commissioned new versions of the images of the Madonna attributed to Saint Luke. Another requirement is the existence of an active art market. Finally, there has to be some widely accepted mechanism for determining the authenticity of the objects bought and sold in that market.

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