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The Art of the Phony

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.

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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