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.
So we come back briefly to the ex-Cellini cup in the Metropolitan Museum, concerning which, alas, Dr. Hackenbroch, ever cautious, is not altogether satisfactory, because the evidence itself is not altogether satisfactory. Yet if you apply to the facts both common sense and some knowledge of the ways of the art market, a rational account of the history of the Metropolitan’s cup is not difficult to reconstruct.
To begin with, there is no doubt that a genuine cup that became the model for the fake in the Metropolitan was owned by the Rospigliosi in the eighteenth century. So much is certified by a remarkably detailed entry about a gold cup in an inventory of 1722 of the Palazzo Rospigliosi in Rome.
In the nineteenth century, this Rospigliosi heirloom was twice published, each time with good engravings, in Kunstwerke und Geräthschaften des Mittelalters und der Reniassance by C. Becker and J. von Hefner (Alteneck), Frankfurt am Main, 1852–1863; and in Benvenuto Cellini, Orfèvre, médailleur, sculpteur by Eugène Plon, Paris, 1883. The Plon publication was especially significant. His book ostensibly described Cellini’s complete oeuvre; he particularly adored ornate pieces of goldwork in the possession of families with famous old names; and thus he gave scores of pieces of such surviving goldwork to Cellini, whereas modern scholars allow just one, the glorious Neptune and Thetis salt, now in Vienna, that Cellini made for François I. Reductionist art historians were not a factor in the late-nineteenth-century art market, however; and Plon’s book, by attaching the Cellini label, automatically increased the value of the Rospigliosi heirloom cup by a factor of about ten.
Perhaps the Rospigliosi then fecklessly lost their heirloom and therefore ordered a copy. But it is much easier to imagine the Rospigliosi wanting a copy to cover the sale, for a huge price, of the cup that had gained value so handsomely from Plon’s attribution. The copy in the Metropolitan—for one can tell from the engravings that the Metropolitan’s fake cup is in fact a most skillful copy—is clear evidence that something like the foregoing really must have happened. Furthermore, the trick of supplying copies to Italian noble families needing to sell heirlooms was common enough among nineteenth-century art dealers. Bernard Berenson used it twice, as his correspondence shows, to ease the acquisition of great prizes for Mrs. Jack Gardner. Hence it is also a good guess that this was the time when the Metropolitan’s cup was made. If the copy was the work of Vasters, as technical and circumstantial evidence rather strongly indicates, he probably followed the particularly excellent Becker-von Hefner engraving, conveniently “Originalgrosse,” which Vasters had in his working library. And if Vasters made the copy, then it is logical to suppose that Spitzer, Vasters’s front man and partner, was the person who dealt with Prince Rospigliosi and gave Vasters his commission—as Dr. Hackenbroch plainly suspects.
Given all that is now known of Spitzer, in fact, one can hardly imagine another nineteenth-century dealer handling this delicate transaction, which necessarily included finding a rich collector ready to pledge silence “to protect dear Prince Rospigliosi.” This collector must then have died at a suitable time, however. Otherwise the Rospigliosi could not later have put their copy on the market with out risking grave trouble from the buyer of their original heirloom. And we know the copy was sold before 1909, for it had come into the hands of Charles Wertheim in London in time to be sold that year to Benjamin Altman, through whom it later came to the Metropolitan, as has been seen.
That leaves one question, about the whereabouts of the genuine cup. Dr. Hackenbroch hopes that it still exists, somewhere or other. It may well exist, too. Remember that many collectors’ heirs care nothing for the collections they inherit, or even positively dislike the types of object the collections contain. Then you can easily imagine the original Rospigliosi cup gathering dust in the vaults of one of those European families too Philistine to know much about their beautiful possessions, and still too rich to be tempted to sell them—in fact the family of the first purchaser.
By now, the reader may well be asking how on earth Dr. Hackenbroch was able so confidently to condemn the Metropolitan Museum’s cup as a fake, in view of the lingering uncertainties in the reconstructed story just related. After all, in her 1969 paper, Dr. Hackenbroch raised no question about the cup’s authenticity. Instead, she remarked that her re-attribution to Jacopo Biliverti was a “high compliment” to him. There is no Vasters drawing of the entire cup at the V and A, either, although the Vasters portfolios contain designs suspiciously close to certain details. The belated stir over the Vasters portfolios caused a general backwash of suspicion, however, and the backwash in turn carried the cup to the Metropolitan Museum’s conservation department, with all its advanced technology. The new technology further permitted chief conservator Richard Stone to do what had been unthinkable in the past: to pull the cup to bits without fear of doing permanent damage. And when Stone thus brutally disassembled the cup, the formerly invisible interiors revealed clear proofs of nineteenth-century workmanship, plus interesting hints of Vasters’s style of working.
Nor was this the sole result of the backwash from Vasters’s fatal drawings. After Dr. Hackenbroch went to work at the V and A on the Vasters drawings, the backwash even extended to the Linsky Galleries of the Metropolitan. These had been opened in 1984, to receive the collections of a most remarkable New York couple, Jack and Belle Linsky, who made a great fortune from office staplers, and then used the fortune to gather works of art of several very grand kinds. Among these was a large group of pieces of Renaissance jewelry, plus other pieces of out-of-the-ordinary goldsmith’s work, plus yet another “Cellini” cup—a magnificent ewer of smoky rock crystal boldly carved and very richly mounted in enameled and bejeweled gold. This had been acquired by William Beckford of Fonthill Abbey with a Cellini attribution that had clung to it throughout most of the nineteenth century. Altogether, the Linsky collection demanded to be cataloged, and the task of cataloging the jewels and allied treasures was confided to Clare Vincent, from the museum’s curatorial staff.
Miss Vincent promptly matched a luxurious house altar and four important “Renaissance” jewels in the Linsky collection with Vasters’s drawings in the V and A. Once the ex-Cellini cup had been disassembled, Miss Vincent also felt entirely free to pass on the rest of the Renaissance jewels and other treasure-style Linsky pieces to Richard Stone’s conservation laboratory for further testing, with reasonably hair-raising results. The Metropolitan’s second ex-Cellini cup, when disassembled, divided naturally into the rock crystal bowl probably carved in Prague in the seventeenth century, and the showy mounts which seem to have been added by an unknown English Regency goldsmith in order to bamboozle Beckford. In addition, Richard Stone found clear evidence of nineteenth-century origins when he examined several more of the Linsky jewels.
Thus about 60 percent of all the Linsky’s “Renaissance” jewels are now shown at the Metropolitan as nineteenth-century products. There are also hints here of one of those dramas of connoisseurship that can leave deep wounds; for Dr. Hackenbroch published as genuine a good many Linsky pieces in her book, Renaissance Jewelry—and while some of these are still accepted as both genuine and very fine, Mr. Stone and Miss Vincent condemned all too many others as nineteenth-century work. All the same, it is a common experience for scholars to see their most cherished judgments revised or rejected by others; so the Hackenbroch-Vincent-Stone drama of connoisseurship is far from being the central feature of the art-historical upheaval with epicenters thus far (and one must emphasize that “thus far”) at the Victoria and Albert and Metropolitan museums.
The feature that stands out from this upheaval is, rather, the way visual works of art can now be judged, and have in fact been judged, without the slightest reference to their strictly visual effects, including their effects on the eyes of long-trained and recognized scholars. After all, by 1979 the Vasters products that have now been condemned had been studied, accepted, admired, and in the cases of a few like the ex-Cellini cup, had even been revered, by rather more than three generations of art lovers and scholars. As Dr. Hackenbroch and Miss Vincent both admit, the delayed-action effect of the Vasters drawings alone started the upheaval that at length began in 1979. And this upheaval was then much magnified by the advanced technologies used by modern museum conservators like Richard Stone, which permitted the formerly invisible to be scientifically inspected. Thus the Vasters-caused upheaval teaches two hard lessons about fakery.
First, what has happened calls into question the art historians’ soothing slogan, that “no fake succeeds for more than a generation.” This slogan is often dependable, since unskillful fakers tend to put their own generation’s stylistic signature on their work. Yet it is still very far from dependable in all cases, as you can see from the way the Vasters fakes succeeded for three generations plus.
Second, and far more significant, the entire concept of authenticity in the visual arts has now been called into question, too. After all, after so many years devoid of serious protest by any qualified scholar, doubts about the newly condemned fakes solely originated in long-neglected documents—in fact the Vasters working drawings—and the doubts about many pieces also needed confirmation by stern inspection of the formerly invisible, which was made possible by scientific rather than art-historical advances. Thus the causes of condemnation of all these visual works of art were entirely external to their strictly visual effects. In these circumstances, one is forced to ask whether authenticity truly matters in the visual arts.
In the search for an answer to this question, the best place to begin is the fairly celebrated essay “Art and Authenticity,” published some years ago by Professor Nelson Goodman of Harvard. This essay, in turn, in part stimulated a collection of further essays by American academic philosophers interested in aesthetics, which was edited by Dennis Dutton and published, with Professor Goodman’s essay included, by the University of California Press in 1983 under the title Forgery in Art. The assembled contributing philosophers padded round and round the same track as Professor Goodman, some clockwise and some counterclockwise. Yet it has to be admitted that none reached quite so sensible a result as Professor Goodman had reached earlier. He wrote:
Since the exercise, training and development of our powers of discriminating among works of art are plainly aesthetic activities, the aesthetic properties of a picture plainly include not only those found by looking at it but also those that determine how it is to be looked at. (Italics mine)
By the “properties” that determine how a visual work of art is “to be looked at,” which may not, however, be “properties” found by “looking,” Professor Goodman unquestionably means properties bearing on the authenticity or lack of authenticity of the work of art in question. With all respect, one can only say, “so far, so good,” yet then add that although Professor Goodman has made more sense about the question of authenticity than most people, he has not pressed his inquiries nearly far enough. The true answer to the central question must always depend, in fact, and quite directly depend, too, upon the culture that formed the person who gives the answer.
This is because the ways all of us look at and think about works of art are culture-bound in a degree so extreme that it too often traps aesthetic theorists not accustomed to range beyond our own culture’s historical boundaries. In reality, the vast majority of past human cultures we now know about, whether tribal, national, or imperial, whether long lasting or soon crushed by history’s iron tread, have not even remembered their own great artists from generation to generation, let alone writing their own art histories. Included among these cultures whose artists lost their identities in death, are many famous higher civilizations which have left records of one sort or another. If you search these records to the best of your ability, you will find the merest handful of artists who were remembered for their art, and a larger but still tiny number remembered for reasons unrelated to art like the Egyptian artist-architect-engineer Imhotep, really remembered because he became the pharaoh Djoser’s grand vizier on the way to becoming a god. You will also find in the Pentateuch that the two main pre-Greek artists as yet discovered were recorded for all time solely because of their roles as artists. They were Bezaleel and Aholiab, who received and executed the awe-inspiring commission from the God of Moses to make the Ark of the Covenant.
As will be very easily understood, the uncounted cultures that never wrote their own art histories, nor even remembered their own great artists of the past, could not possibly generate anything remotely resembling our concept of authenticity in art. To say that a visual work of art is “authentic” is simply another way of saying that it really is what the dealer, owner, or resident art historian or connoisseur represents it as being; and such verdicts are not merely unheard of, they are also entirely impossible for obvious practical reasons, in the cultures without art history. You could not very well announce, “That is my favorite Rembrandt,” if our Western culture had forgotten Rembrandt the moment he went to his grave, if we had nothing like our rooms full of art-historical discussions of Rembrandt and his oeuvre, and if we even lacked the art museums in which all but a very few of Rembrandt’s remaining works are now to be seen.
The Greeks were beyond doubt the first people to make a habit of remembering their own great masters of each generation; and the first art histories ever known were written by Greeks in the early third century BC. Logically following the first art histories, the idea of authenticity as a significant quality of works of art all but certainly originated among the Greeks in the Hellenistic centuries. The first known warning against art faking is to be found a bit later, to be sure, in a version of Aesop with considerable topical additions by the very minor poet Phaedrus, who lived under the earlier Julio-Claudian emperors of Rome. Since the art faking that Phaedrus wrote about was the subject of one of his topical jokes, the faker’s trade must, by then, have been well enough established to be widely known. Phaedrus warns against falsely aged marbles sold as the work of Praxiteles, plus fakes of the earlier sculptor Myron, and of the painter Zeuxis. And fear of fakes, of course, implies importance attached to authenticity.
As to the other cultures having art history, there are only two more main ones: our own Western culture that originated in the Renaissance; and the second phase of Chinese culture that seems to have begun with the foundation of the Chinese Empire in the late third century BC. To these you can add the culture of Japan after the heavy Japanese importations from China in the sixth, seventh, and eighth centuries AD; plus late Islamic culture in a pretty vestigial way. With these few cultures, moreover, the short list must be closed. But it must be clearly understood, in the first place, that having art history is no proof of cultural superiority (or the reverse, for that matter). And in the second place, it must also be clearly understood that the short list here given concerns the era before the rather recent worldwide cultural homogenization. Today, homogenization has even produced Ph.D.s writing art history in societies quite recently preliterate.
So much for ground clearance. The obvious money aspect, or rather the importance of the concept of authenticity in the modern art market, need not detain us; nor is it necessary to explore the equally obvious importance to art historians of having an unquestionably authentic oeuvre when they write about an artist. What really matters here is that the mere existence of the concept of authenticity implies the prior existence of art history, and the existence of art history in turn implies a highly idiosyncratic response—in fact a double response—to visual works of art.
Let me begin at the beginning, boldly, by labeling the immemorial and, above all, universal response to visual works of art as the “pure aesthetic” response. All cultures have this basic response which is not easy to define. Perhaps the best way to begin is to recall the summary by a follower of St. Thomas Aquinas’ definition of the beautiful. “Quod visum placet,” was the compressed definition. Allowance must of course be made for the simple fact that beyond certain limits of symmetry and asymmetry, color, mass, and line (limits as yet untraced by aesthetics or by science) what pleases the human eye in works of art is in some degree dependent on cultural formation. Thus in some cultures the accurate representation of visual appearances has been found pleasing; in other cultures the reverse (or what seems to us the reverse) evidently holds true; in still other cultures, abstract pattern prevails, and in certain cultures of the past, eyes have been demonstrably delighted by the depiction of what seems to us unspeakably horrible. It does not matter. What horrifies or bores people who have been formed by one culture may easily delight those formed by a different culture, and delight is the essence of the aesthetic response to works of art.
In the small number of cultures having art history, however, there is also a second, very easily detectable response to visual works of art. This is best labeled “the historical response.” At one extreme, a kind of learned and most enjoyable private game-playing reinforces this historical response, and the end result may then be complete and accurate historical identification of the work of art being examined. Among persons with a middling interest in art, in contrast, identification may go no further than a quick peek at a museum label, or mere passive acceptance of the quite possibly misleading assurances of a dealer. For all reasonably literate denizens of Western culture, in any case, this peculiar historical response to visual works of art has the final effect of transforming the works of art in question into historical documents. No sensible person is willing to accept forged or even dubious historical documents, and in the realm of the visual arts, the historical response therefore makes fakes the near equivalent of forged historical documents.
One has to say “near equivalent,” however, because historical documents known to be forgeries are all but invariably and automatically worthless, whereas forged works of art can lose value in differing degrees after the forgery has been proven. As one example of a mere partial loss of value, there is the huge, ornate, fake, and perfectly hideous late German Gothic ceremonial drinking horn from the Karl von Rothschild collection, already touched upon, which was sold at Christie’s the other day with a plain attribution to Reinhold Vasters and for no less than $80,000, plus 10 percent buyer’s commission. Thus, if the Metropolitan ever chooses to offer its ex-Cellini cup, one can safely predict the auction results will be downright sensational. But these objects are treasures, and treasures made by a most talented man, too; so they do not give a fair notion of the degree of devaluation that unmasked forgery can produce.
The basic point is, however, that when forgery is proven, the historical response goes to war, as it were, with the aesthetic response; and if the historical response then entirely overcomes the aesthetic response, as most often happens, the devalued work of art is either returned with outrage to the dealer it came from, or hidden in the collector’s darkest closet, or even cast upon the nearest dump heap. This is almost always the result when paintings are proved to be forgeries, since the forger’s hand when at last recognized in a painting is always more than usually difficult to overlook.
If this seems too extreme, you have only to analyze one of the many specific cases which illustrate what I have been talking about. To cite just one such case, consider the St. Catherine attributed to Matthias Grünewald for which the Cleveland Museum paid one million dollars in 1977. Dr. Sherman Lee, the museum’s then director, had been one of the sharpest museum acquisitors of his time. Except by a few, his acquisition of the St. Catherine was briefly accepted. Too soon, however, a dreadful rumor came from Germany of a certain Christian Goler, who painted pastiche ancient pictures for new-rich German houses, and just might have painted the “Grünewald” St. Catherine as well. (He had, as he has now admitted.) Dr. Lee therefore ordered arcane tests of Cleveland’s new “Grünewald.” Although the tests left no discernible trace on the picture surface, the “Grünewald’s” paint film was found to contain enough entirely modern pigments to prove undoubted fakery.
Whereupon, the outwardly unchanged painting, bought at great cost and announced with great pride, was returned to the dealer with great indignation. More significantly still, Dr. Lee later admitted that the “picture just fell to pieces” before his eyes when he learned it was a fake. This curious “falling to pieces,” furthermore, is a familiar phenomenon among collectors—and as such, it is another proof of the double response to works of art in the art-history-minded cultures. Even the most discerning collectors will sometimes let themselves be tempted, as Dr. Lee was tempted, by extreme rarity combined with seeming authenticity—and when they find that the work of art they have acquired is “wrong,” or at least questionable, they will almost always tell you that it seems to “fall to pieces.”
It is most striking, in fact, how often very different collectors use this same phrase to describe this kind of disillusionment. It means—it really does mean, for the collectors themselves will tell you so—that the unwelcome news that an admired work of art is a fake can affect the actual visual perception of that work by highly trained eyes. And only very limited persons will brush aside this seeming mystery on grounds of money alone. Instead, aesthetic theorists and even down-to-earth persons who are interested in essentially aesthetic problems need to explore the several, as yet unexplored, aspects of the historical response to works of art. Visual perception, to begin with, is an exceedingly complicated process, and the degree to which human visual perception can be affected by essentially nonvisual factors (such as proof of fakery) has not been scientifically and fully examined. Yet in the writer’s opinion, the behavior of art experts and collectors suggests that the way the visual system perceives a work of art can be, and usually is, genuinely changed by the inflammation of the historical response (if that is the correct way to put it) which so often follows proof of fakery.* The complexities resulting from the historical response go much further, too. For example, serious art lovers in the cultures having this response have repeatedly behaved like lunatic stamp collectors who cannot bear to see important gaps in their albums.
This is a subject never adequately investigated, yet the proof that this happens is clear enough in both the Western and Chinese cultures. In China, calligraphy became that culture’s recognized art-of-arts toward the very beginning of the Christian era, and by the fourth century AD, Chinese calligraphy had produced the father and son, Wang Hsi-chih and Wang Hsien-chih, who are still regarded as the greatest calligraphers China ever had. Painting in turn was also recognized as China’s only other major art a couple of centuries or so after calligraphy, but by the seventh century AD. China had also produced Wu Tao-tzu, who is still regarded as the unmatched giant among Chinese painters. Yet no stroke from the brushes of any of these men can be found anywhere today.
For the two calligraphers, therefore, collectors, museum curators, and eminent art historians cheerfully accept, even viciously compete for, the best substitutes available in the form of very fine seventh-and eighth-century copies of then-surviving fragments of the two Wangs’ original work. For Wu Tao-tzu, moreover, not even a decent copy of an original is available as consolation. Hence the accepted substitutes are much later Chinese painters’ experiments with what Professor Max Loehr describes as “painted art history.” Yet the reverence of virtually all Chinese for these three great masters of the past is not diminished one iota by the utter disappearance of their products.
In the Western story, too, this odd though strong urge to fill important gaps in art history, originating in, or somehow linked to, the historical response to works of art, was clearly the most probable cause of the largest and most persistent art historical error ever recorded in any culture’s story. From the fourteenth to the early nineteenth centuries the Greco-Roman marbles like the Apollo Belvedere, usually copies of bronze originals, were in effect accepted as substitutes for the true works of the great Greek masters recorded in Pliny’s Naturalis Historia. This lasted until actual Greek originals in the form of Elgin marbles brought the first reminder to all Western art lovers that they had been worshiping mere copies, and rather bad copies at that.
Nor is this entirely unconnected to the main subject of this essay. In discussing her findings with me, Miss Vincent remarked that she now thought she could achieve what she had not previously achieved—in fact what had not been achieved in the very long period when the Vasters fakes went undetected: namely, rather confidently distinguishing between genuine Renaissance goldwork and the numerous nineteenth-century pastiches made to satisfy rich persons with rich tastes. I asked her how she told the difference, where so many had failed before, and she replied, “After all the work I’ve done, especially with the conservation people, the pastiche pieces just look different from the genuine pieces. On a tiny scale, it’s like Greek originals and Greco-Roman copies. Now that interested people can study fair numbers of Greek originals of the great centuries, the Greco-Roman marbles look decidedly different. But before, when there were no originals for purposes of comparison, this was not merely difficult. It was really never thought of, so far as one can tell.”
Finally, a word still needs to be said about the very special cases in which authenticity is of no consequence at all, and what we would normally call a fake can be joyfully accepted by all. To begin with, as has been pointed out elsewhere, Michelangelo was the first faker identified by name in the history of Western art. If someone could now find the master’s very early Sleeping Cupid, which he sold in Rome as a classical antique, the finder would be an instant hero, because the frontiers of delight would thus have been permanently pushed back.
One may be certain, too, that if the Frick Collection were abruptly to offer The Polish Rider on the open market, this would cause something dangerously close to a riot, for the Rider is surely among the two or three most beloved pictures in all the multitudinous museums of New York City. All the same, the so-called Rembrandt Commission sponsored by the Prince Bernhard Foundation has just sat in judgment on the Rider. By a vote of three to two, the commissioners decided to remove it from the sacred list of authentic Rembrandts. If the three august commissioners are correct—and who is to say they are not?—then the dealer who sold The Polish Rider as a Rembrandt years ago peddled what would normally be classed as a fake to Henry Clay Frick. But if you are one of those who love The Polish Rider as a very great painting, how much do you care about the dealer’s profit and morals, or, for that matter, about the Rembrandt Commission’s verdict?
October 23, 1986
A most useful clue to what really happens when an unmasked fake “falls apart” is to be found in Israel Rosenfield’s recent report on the new work being done on the many problems of visual and other sensory perception by the Rockefeller University’s Nobel Prize winner, Gerald M. Edelman (NYR, October 9). Recognition, writes Dr. Rosenfield, has been shown to depend upon “our ability to organize the world around us into categories.” ↩