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The Art of the Phony

Robert Cohen/Time-Life
Guy Isnard, one of the first police officials to specialize in art forgeries, curating an exhibition of fakes at the Grand Palais, Paris, 1955

The art market as such began to develop in the later sixteenth century, and has continued to expand ever since. Like many other scholars, Lenain singles out the seventeenth-century Roman physician and writer on art Giulio Mancini as a pioneer in the discussion of what was later called connoisseurship, concentrating on his treatment of the expertise required to distinguish between an original and a copy. Mancini recommended that collectors should try to acquire at least a basic level of such expertise, and suggested ways in which they could do so. It is important to bear in mind, however, that this expertise did not cover the ability to identify the authors of works of art of the past. Mancini did not dissent from the conventional belief that the final authorities in all such matters were practicing artists, and this remained the general view until the nineteenth century.

Such artists certainly possessed a degree of knowledge beyond that of almost every amateur, simply because they knew how to paint or carve, and had studied by copying the works of others. But it is evident from inventories and sale catalogs that even in the late eighteenth century attributions were often highly optimistic and unreliable. This is not surprising, given the still primitive knowledge of art history and the absence of photographs and other reproductions. It is usually impossible to say whether copies or pastiches from that period, which survive in great numbers, were made as forgeries or in good faith.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, there is no doubt about the existence of art forgery as a significant phenomenon. It coincided with the emergence of professional connoisseurs, who claimed a particular expertise in identifying the authors of works of art, and, inevitably, in the detection of forgeries. Few of the connoisseurs had been trained as artists, and none of them continued to practice as such. But they had broad firsthand knowledge of works of art, usually a familiarity with the developing study of the history of art, and were normally associated in some way with the increasing numbers of art museums.

As both Lenain and Keats stress, the task of the forger is not just to create a work of art in the style of another artist, but to do so in such a way that it meets the expectations of a connoisseur and gives him (or very rarely her) the frisson of having made a discovery. Thus Hans van Meegeren, the celebrated Dutch forger of Vermeer, chose to imitate not Vermeer’s mature works, of which a considerable number existed, but his rather different and very rare early religious paintings, of which the first had been identified by an expert named Abraham Bredius. He accordingly submitted his first major forgery to Bredius, in the confident belief that it would fit with his preconceptions of what an early Vermeer ought to look like. Likewise, in Drawn to Trouble, his fascinating autobiography, Eric Hebborn, the most intelligent and skillful of recent forgers, described in detail how he produced fake drawings of the kind that would appeal to art historians.* He knew how to anticipate the kinds of argument that they would make to themselves when confronted with a possible work by a particular artist.

A self-confessed forger is unlikely to be a particularly reliable witness about his own activities, but Hebborn’s book certainly demonstrated his knowledge of art history. It belongs to the quite large literary genre of confessions by art forgers, to which Ken Perenyi has now contributed his book Caveat Emptor. It is an entertaining account of how he made a highly lucrative career producing imitations of works mainly by eighteenth- and nineteenth-century American and British artists of the second rank. Such pictures, had they been original, could plausibly have turned up in sales and antique shops, so Perenyi avoided one of the problems facing van Meegeren, that of providing a convincing provenance for his forgeries.

Perenyi takes an obvious and understandable pride in his success in persuading gullible or greedy dealers and auction houses to sell his products, but it was always the money rather than the challenge that seems to have motivated him, and he was astute enough to fake paintings by artists of rather modest technical ability. His achievement is very different from that of van Meegeren, who faked Vermeers, or of Hebborn, who made hundreds of Old Master drawings that were then attributed to artists as varied as Pontormo, Piranesi, and Tiepolo.

It is often argued that art forgeries are eventually unmasked, because in time they reveal, through their style, the period in which they were made, rather than that in which they were purported to have been made. But while this is true of some forgeries, there is no reason to suppose that it is true of all of them. This is widely admitted in the case of the sculptures of the early-twentieth-century Italian forger Alceo Dossena, and it is likely that many of Hebborn’s fakes have yet to be identified. Against this background, the status of forgeries as works of art has been much discussed. One of their strangest features, as Lenain explains, is that they often seem to be works of art without a single identifiable author. As a consequence, what he calls the “trace paradigm,” which seems so central to our experience of art, is decoupled from the work itself. Like Jonathon Keats, he argues that art forgeries can most readily be classed with various types of art produced over the past century, by Warhol and others, in which the notion of an original is deliberately undermined (for example, in Warhol’s case, by having multiple copies of silkscreen paintings made by printers).

Whether or not forgeries challenge received ideas of what works of art are, they certainly challenge many of the assumptions that underlie the theory and practice of connoisseurship. The early connoisseurs mostly advised museums on the basis of their unusually wide firsthand knowledge of works of art, and they also advised dealers and private collectors. What museums and collectors wanted, of course, was the strongest possible guarantee about the attribution, and therefore the value, of what they were buying. It is no surprise, therefore, that connoisseurs often behaved as if they possessed a greater degree of certainty about objects produced centuries earlier than could possibly be the case. Today, specialist connoisseurs as such have largely been replaced by art historians with wider interests, but some of the old habits still persist, such as the frequent practice of providing very little in the way of argument to justify their views.

Many connoisseurs, understandably, charged for expressing their views, and some may still do so today. Some, such as Bernard Berenson, had a financial interest in many works for which they provided an opinion, an arrangement that Berenson chose to keep private. In the nature of things, too, dealers would tend to consult those connoisseurs who were not unduly cautious or restrictive in their attributions. Although the reasons are not immediately obvious, in some countries art historians gain considerable prestige by attributing hitherto neglected works of art to major artists, but little or none for downgrading attributions.

All this means is that, in the nature of things, connoisseurship is not a disinterested pursuit of truth, based exclusively on careful and objective consideration of the evidence, whether visual or documentary. Although some who practice it are conscientious and skeptical, the chances of a competent forgery being detected are not as strong as one might suppose. Nothing better demonstrates this than the saga of the Modigliani heads, which is not mentioned in any of the books under review, perhaps because the authors considered the whole episode too absurd.

According to legend, Modigliani, as a very young man in Livorno, tried his hand at sculpture, but having been told by his friends that his works were no good, in a fury threw them into a canal. In 1984 the curator of the local museum of contemporary art announced that she would have the canals of the city dragged in the hope of discovering the lost carvings. To her delight, over a period of a couple of weeks three carved heads, with female features in the style of Modigliani, emerged from the water. They were examined by scientists, who stated that they must have been submerged for at least fifty years, and identified, or so they claimed, the type of chisels that had been used to make them.

Although there were a few dissenting voices, notably that of the late Federico Zeri, who was obsessed by forgeries, most of the leading Italian art historians of the day, including some with no particular competence in twentieth-century art, hailed the heads as major new works by Modigliani. But then three local teenagers claimed that they had made one of the heads. They were not believed until they produced a photograph of themselves holding it, and then made a second head on television, using the tools they claimed to have used for the first head: a chisel, a screwdriver, and a Black and Decker drill.

A few days later a dockworker in Livorno said that he had made the other two heads, as a protest against the ignorance of art critics (a relatively common motive of art forgers). He too produced conclusive photographic evidence for his claim. The moral of the story, of course, is that forgers often have little to fear from connoisseurs, or from scientists, whose findings are now routinely used to bolster the claims of indifferent works on the market. In a world in which most people, whether from ambition or greed, want to discover originals rather than forgeries, connoisseurs and scientists can often be the forger’s best friends. It is possible that those best qualified to detect forgeries are professional artists, but today they seem rarely if ever to be consulted on such matters.

  1. *

    Eric Hebborn, Drawn to Trouble: The Forging of an Artist (Mainstream, 1991; republished by Random House, 1993). 

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