• IV •
This book presents a wide-ranging collection of material about historical events, forgers’ biographies and mentalities, legal cases, and philosophical views on authenticity. From that expanse there are several main takeaways I hope readers will reach—lines of thought supported by various details and that offer an overall picture of the phenomenon of art forgery as it exists today. Its many faces and shades of gray point in broad terms to key understandings.
Forgery is a prevalent phenomenon in the art world. Fakes have been found in many instances among works offered for sale on the art market and in museums and private collections, which leads to suspicion there are others that have not been discovered. Not surprisingly, this is an unwelcome message, and it is sometimes rejected in the art community. An art scholar who read the manuscript for this book stated, “Missing is recognition that forgeries/fakes are absolute exceptions to the rule; that the overwhelming, crushing majority of artworks in circulation is authentic every way around; that the absolute, vast majority of dealers, restorers, artists, auction houses, etc. is honest.” Here is a misguided optimism about the purity of the art world, as well as a confused notion that art professionals in general have been indicted as lacking integrity and are in need of defense. The fact that many fakes have been discovered, and the suggestion that there are more, perhaps many more, still out there, does not translate into an assessment of how many art professionals are honest. A single forger may account for a large number of fakes that fool people who have expertise. The volume of counterfeit artworks in existence does not point to a lack of integrity among artists in general or others in the art industry, although it is reasonable to say that some among them are bad actors (as with examples I have mentioned). It is also reasonable to say that many people have been taken in and that some forgers are quite good at making believable fakes.
What, then, about the volume of forgeries? Are they the “absolute exceptions to the rule” asserted in the quote? Simply noting the output, described in part I, of many thousands of fakes produced by forgers from recent decades says otherwise. And that list is far from a comprehensive accounting. Whatever amount might be suggested, however, offers no point of comparison with authentic works. What would be more helpful is a percentage estimate of how many of the works populating the art world are counterfeit. Occasionally, expert sources have spoken in percentages, such as 40 percent by Thomas Hoving (see the introductory quote to part I), 10 percent by Noah Charney, and more than 50 percent (perhaps as much as 70 to 90 percent) by the Fine Art Experts Institute (FAEI) in Geneva. However, all of these figures carry qualifying conditions and none apply directly to the art world in general. Charney refers to fakes actually hanging on museum walls, repeating a number he says he hears often from others but does not endorse personally. The estimates from Hoving and the FAEI combine misattributions with deliberate fakes, and FAEI experts approach their calculations through their professional experience in dealing with works that are already considered suspicious, so a finding of fraud is likely.1
As much as a comprehensive percentage figure is desirable, it could be no more than guesswork. What we do know, however, that speaks to the prevalence of counterfeit works in the art world, besides the output of certain forgers, is that there are pockets where forgery is rife, as with artists such as Corot, Dalí, Rodin, Antoine Blanchard, Mandy Wilkinson, and others who have been faked prolifically. To say that forgeries are prevalent recognizes these pockets of corruption but it is not to claim that they represent the art world as a whole. It is not suggested that the phenomenon of forgery is equally distributed throughout. Neither is it suggested that the art world is otherwise free of forgery. To refer again to the forgers chronicled in part I, they are known to have faked a wide variety of artists working in several mediums, including but not limited to noted Impressionists and Post-Impressionists, Expressionists, sixteenth-century Dutch, nineteenth-century American, twentieth-century Australian, Bombay Progressivists, German Renaissance, and Pre-Columbian.
We know as well that twentieth- and twenty-first-century forgers have built on a long history that precedes them. From ancient Rome to the Renaissance and onward, forgers have plied their trade. This was never a secret, and was notable in the legal action against copyists taken by Dürer in the sixteenth century and Rubens in the seventeenth century, journalist Justus van Effen’s disparagement of picture dealers in the eighteenth century, a mocking poem by the British Royal Academy’s chaplain about forgeries being common in auctions, and printmaker William Hogarth’s artistic satirization of art fraud. And while art forgery has long been a fixture in Western culture, the conditions that have always encouraged it have grown. The combination of artists with name recognition, collectors who want their works, and a market for buying those works is at a high in the twenty-first century. Especially with the advent of the Internet, more people have the opportunity to view more art. Increased wealth in the world makes for a greater number of art buyers and for more competition to purchase works by popular artists. The global art market has expanded to roughly $50 to $60 billion annually, and art auctions set record high prices in the 2010s. Times are ripe for fakes to supplement the shortage of originals, and forgers continue to react to an increasing demand for them. Common sense about supply and demand adds to the numerical information we have about the output of known forgers and widely forged artists, along with the suspicion of unknown forgers producing further fakes, to conclude that art forgery is indeed a prevalent phenomenon.
Do not expect that most art forgeries will be detected and rooted out. Historically, there have been art experts with confidence that it could be done, from Giulio Mancini, Abraham Bosse, and Jonathan Richardson in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to Hans Tietze and Max Friedländer in the twentieth century. Philosopher Nelson Goodman added support with the proposition that we cannot claim we will be unable in the future to spot the falsity in an artwork that seems authentic to us now. However, various factors stand as deterrents to curbing the presence of fakes in the art world and explain why they are prevalent today and can be expected to remain so in the future.
Scientific advancements have brought increasingly sophisticated means for detecting art fakes, and there have been many successes leading to legal action against forgers and fraudulent dealers while removing forgeries from circulation. But key constraints limit the effectiveness of science, particularly its application on a broad scale. The cost of testing, which for many artworks would be more than their full value or at least a significant portion of it, would be passed on to purchasers, and especially if testing were done routinely, it would cause a considerable rise in prices. Spot-checking, on the other hand, would turn up some fakes but miss others. For works of substantial worth testing is not a financial limitation, but at any price point the revelations of the main scientific techniques are limited to falsification rather than extending to verification. These techniques cannot tell us assuredly that an artwork is authentic, but can determine many works to be fakes because they are made of the wrong materials to have been created by the named artist, or involve an uncharacteristic method such as underdrawings or layering of paint. Careful forgers study the forensic impediments they are facing and work around them by using proper materials and methods. They also can submit their fakes for laboratory analysis to find out what works or does not to make them passable.
Artworks that prove acceptable scientifically also need verification by connoisseurship. Experts who express confidence in this process speak of three general principles in spotting fakes. Forgers are said to lack freedom in execution: they display hesitancies and lack the flow of movement artists have with their own works. Forgers also are said to unconsciously incorporate personal mannerisms into what they make, just as happens with legitimate artists. An expert eye can catch these mannerisms as being inconsistent with the named artist for a particular work without knowing who made it, thus identifying it as a forgery. A third principle speaks to the factor of time, with the claim that forgers work within the visual expectations of their own era, such that certain giveaways in the appearance of the works they create might not be spotted during that era because they are consistent with it. They will, however, be spotted in the future when those giveaways become apparent to minds not conditioned to the same expectations.
These ideas about uncovering fakes bear a degree of credence, but are subject to exceptions and counteracting conditions that deflate confidence in them as effective principles for combating the prevalence of counterfeit art. Forgers have been said to practice long and hard to achieve a freedom of execution like that of the artists they copy. They prepare to assume someone else’s identity as an actor does when learning to play a certain role. With repetition, the movements they impersonate seem natural. David Stein’s wife describes him as working so quickly and easily that he often finished several fake drawings in an hour (all by the single artist he was intensely focused on at that time). The assumption that fake works can be spotted because of hesitant movements is an overgeneralization that fails to recognize forgers as artists who can learn to be fluid in their movements when they are copying someone else’s style. As for noticing forgers’ personal mannerisms as giveaways, there are many cases where this has not happened, including those where connoisseurship has authenticated works that science later reveals as false. In other cases, high-profile forgeries by Alceo Dossena, Lothar Malskat, and Han van Meegeren were found out not because of faulty artistic execution, but only when they purposely exposed their own schemes. Reinhold Vasters’s fraud was discovered seventy years after his death by someone looking through papers he left in his estate. And Frank X. Kelly’s forgeries were known only to Thomas Hoving, who saw them in circulation but never exposed his friend until he had died. This is not to say that forgers are always able to avoid personal mannerisms, although we can expect that the better practitioners are good at doing so. What is suggested is that when a fake is judged by an art expert to be genuine, the forger’s personal mannerisms are legitimized for the future when they are found in other fakes. These mannerisms become part of what is acceptable within the oeuvre of the artist being faked.
The point about the influence on our understanding of what constitutes a forger’s style also applies against the belief that in the future connoisseurship will spot what it does not in the present. When a fake is designated as genuine and the mannerisms it displays are then accepted to be those of the artist being forged, it will be difficult to overcome that acceptance even with the fresh connoisseurial perspectives the passage of time may bring. The new lens for analysis is countered by prior reinforcement of mistaken understandings that have been written into the past. This liability combines with another to further weaken confidence that fakes will be rooted out over time. Many fakes are produced by forgers who live in the same era as their targets. Consider the twentieth century, when Picasso, Dalí, Chagall, and various other artists were faked prolifically by the likes of Stein, Elmyr de Hory, Guy Ribes, and the Amiel family to name only some examples. Whatever mistakes the forgers may have made, they were not a result of working from the aesthetic of a different time period. The same goes for nineteenth-century forgers who simulated nineteenth-century artists, eighteenth-century forgers for eighteenth-century artists, and so on. Throughout time, many fakes have been made by forgers who are contemporaries of the artists they copied, and those fakes will not be subject to discovery based on a misunderstanding by their creators of the artistic norms of the time in which the artists being copied lived.
It is reasonable to conclude that many fakes go undetected and that this condition will hold in the future. What happens, then, to the ones that are discovered? Some of them are removed from circulation, but others are not. Of those identified in legal proceedings, some are destroyed, especially in countries like France that give strong recognition to the moral rights of artists. Other fakes, as is common in the United States with its emphasis on property rights, are returned to their owners, sometimes with an indelible marking or accompanying document of inauthenticity. Owners who are dishonest are in a position to put those fakes on the market, a practice that forger Geert Jan Jansen, who was also an art dealer, suggests is sometimes followed by dealers when they realize they have been stuck with fakes. The back of a painting or print can be covered so as to hide any markings that were placed there, and a document attesting to its falsity can be destroyed.
Beyond the factor of dishonest owners lies another impediment to rooting out false artworks. The law protects those works through statutes of limitations. Many fakes are beyond the limitation for legal action at the time they are discovered. Time periods vary, but run from about three to ten years in most countries for fraud, the charge typically brought against sellers of fake art. The clock starts running when an item is purchased, and after it expires potential charges are nullified, although in exceptional circumstances courts have allowed actions based on the date a work is detected to be fake. Statutes of limitations allow many known and suspected forgeries to remain available to be put on the market. Owners have lost their opportunity to sue for restitution, and if they sell them (at a large loss) as the work of copyists, those same fakes may eventually return to the market in the guise of originals. Wolfgang Beltracchi, for instance, claims to have put several hundred paintings onto the market during his time as a forger. Only a few of them appeared in his criminal trial or the civil suits he faced from defrauded collectors, with some others identified as suspicious. The bulk of Beltracchi’s fakes were not accounted for when they reached their limitation in 2021 (per the ten-year limitation in Germany for his crimes).
The authenticity of an artwork is generally conceived in terms of who made it, but for many works that determination is confusing. Legal and philosophical considerations often lead to uncertainty and dispute about where credit lies, as more people than the named artist may be involved in the process that produced an object. Participation by someone else can occur contemporaneously with the artist or at a later date. One such process is restoration, which could take place even centuries after a work was completed. When restorers add to a work that has deteriorated, their efforts may be judged to have compromised its authenticity. A purist perspective (à la John Ruskin, and others more recently) says any alteration to an existing piece detracts from its status as an original; it will never again be what it was and should be left alone and enjoyed as it is for as long as it remains. A contrary view sees the piece in developmental terms as having a history that is constantly changing, so restoration is welcome, and seemingly without limitation. Enterprising restorers have capitalized on the latter, as with Bartolomeo Cavaceppi’s eighteenth-century sculptural restorations that sometimes added more replacement material than remained of the original object, and painters who buy badly deteriorated canvases by prominent artists and repaint them while still designating them as originals.
Taking into account these philosophical poles, legal and art-historical efforts have been made in determining grounds for authenticity. The focus is on how much material alteration has occurred, the visual outcome, and the methods used. Expert witnesses in US legal cases have hovered in the range of 50 percent or more of repainting on a canvas as compromising its authenticity, whereas a decision in England asserted that 100 percent of repainting would be acceptable as long as it was faithful to what the original artist rendered. During the restoration of Rembrandt’s Danaë in the 1980s and 1990s after it was splashed with acid by a crazed viewer, the Hermitage Museum exercised great care when inpainting around existing paint, claiming later that the famous work was 100 percent Rembrandt in places and entirely redone in others, and that what viewers see is not “the original” but preserves the spirit of Rembrandt. This cautious approach was in keeping with international norms that have guided professional restorers for the last half-century. In particular they emphasize documenting all work, and using materials that can be removed in the future and are visible to the naked eye or aided by basic scientific techniques. Many works bearing restoration, however, do not meet these standards, and their value both aesthetically and monetarily on the art market reflects the views of dealers and collectors.
Another practice in which the potential effect on authenticity derives from changes to an artwork over time is the posthumous production of bronzes and prints. Here, as with restoration, the generally accepted standards for determining which works are originals are sometimes disregarded when they conflict with the desires of private collectors, museums, and the general public for the availability of original works to own and enjoy viewing. Important factors include the legal and moral right to produce from existing objects (molds, models, plates), faithfulness to the original object from which the new production is made, and producing in the same medium as the original object.
Degas bronzes and Rembrandt prints demonstrate how normal expectations can be overridden. Degas’s famous sculptures were produced by his heirs against his wishes, from deteriorating wax figures that underwent repair (altering some images) and were cast into bronze models, from which molds were made for a further round of casting that created final versions (with reduction in clarity, as well as in size due to shrinkage). Although they are far from meeting conventional qualifications, museums have presented the bronzes as originals, and they have thrilled many millions of viewers. As one expert explained, “the ‘scandal’ was sanitized over time” as prominent owners invested large sums in the sculptures. With Rembrandt prints, the problem has not been the legal or moral right to produce from original plates, even centuries later. The artist did not oppose posthumous production, and many of his plates were printed from by a succession of owners. However, the quality of the prints declined after the plates were used many times, leaving dark areas where finely wrought details once appeared. The products of these printings are authentically Rembrandt, but the degree of authenticity can be challenged. In keeping with market concerns, this factor should adversely affect prices, but the Millennium prints of eight images pulled in the late twentieth century have sold for more than some of the earlier editions of the same images that have been available on the market at the same time and that are aesthetically more appealing and carry more gravitas. Demand from people who want to “own a Rembrandt” but lack knowledge of how to navigate the market demonstrates again that conventional standards of judgment are sometimes overridden when posthumous products are evaluated.
With restoration and posthumous production, questions arise about authenticity due to people other than the original artist altering completed works. The processes of collaboration and appropriation also bring concerns about the effect of multiple participants on authenticity, but here they address the initial act of creating an artwork. Collaboration has been a common practice since the Renaissance, with artists sometimes working together as partners and getting equal credit for their efforts, but in another sense the collaborating parties are artists and the studio workers they hire to help in the production process. Today, the latter has developed to a point where, although it has legal sanction, it can be troublesome philosophically and questioned by art lovers. Rubens exemplifies artists from the past who engaged surrogates, but works done entirely by the master commanded higher prices than those done partially by employees. Rodin, too, used studio workers, but their role was to work with a fully completed model by the master to translate it into a new medium (cast into bronze, carve with a pointing machine). More recently, Jeff Koons, Damien Hirst, and Dale Chihuly, among others, have handed the full production process over to employees, while considering the works that result as fully their own. Koons and Hirst are on record with unabashed statements about their impatience and lack of skill for performing the physical labor required. They say their contribution is the intellectual labor of conceiving images that will be completed by others.
The law generally supports the idea that with “works for hire” the person in creative control of the process of artistic production is not required to name employees or to share profits with them, so authenticity is not threatened in this sense. The bar is high for workers to satisfy the conditions necessary to claim coproduction and benefits deriving from it. This outlook is supported by the philosophy of conceptualism as spoken for by artist Sol LeWitt and philosophers Paisley Livingston and Alva Noë, who emphasize that what counts in art are mental constructs rather than their physical expression. Ideas are the essence, acting as architectural plans, whereas execution is a perfunctory exercise. However, conceptualism runs into difficulty as a general policy art. It works to explain the production of large-scale creations that cannot be completed without help, as with architects designing buildings and artists making works of monumental size. But it is problematic for justifying the use of surrogates to do the detailed skill work that many art lovers expect from artists who claim the normal-sized paintings, drawings, and sculptures that carry their names to be authentically theirs. The expectation is that when it is humanly possible to complete the process solo, an artist will demonstrate the desire and the skill to do so. Appealing to a division that privileges concepts to the exclusion of execution fails to recognize that a combination of both is a higher artistic accomplishment.
If artists employing surrogates to perform their physical labor is acceptable legally but otherwise controversial, their use of the intellectual labor of other artists has been even more contentious. Artists have always borrowed from the images of other artists, but the phenomenon of appropriation art has taken the practice to a new level in recent decades and confronted legal restrictions. Andy Warhol, Robert Rauschenberg, and Sherrie Levine for a while appropriated images, but gave it up to avoid court decisions against them under copyright law that gives artists protection against unauthorized use of their works. However, there is flexibility in the law through the principle of “fair use” to allow freedom of expression and to let existing material be put to new uses rather than isolated under exclusive control. The fair use defense has been applied in a number of cases where appropriation artists were sued. Copyright law (in the United States, with similarity in other countries) presents several factors to be considered, but often the overriding one has been the appropriationist’s purpose, which is typically expressed as parody or some other way of changing the meaning of the original work. Jeff Koons lost two cases while claiming parody, after which the concept of “transformativeness” was endorsed by the Supreme Court in a music industry case where it was determined that an appropriationist does not need to parody but only to make a general comment on culture. Koons won his next case on this basis, and transformativeness evolved further in a suit against Richard Prince, which determined that intended commentary by the appropriationist is not required and what is important is how a work is perceived by viewers. On the other hand are situations in which transformativeness has not held sway. It was outweighed in two US cases involving appropriated photographs, one of them against Prince, which focused instead on the market effect of the new works on the originals. And in France, Koons lost two cases over appropriation, one in which he appealed to transformativeness and freedom of expression and in the other to transformativeness and parody.
Besides mixed results in asserting fair use as a defense, appropriation art has faced two embarrassing ironies. One is that appropriationists themselves have attempted legal action against artists who used images similar to theirs. Koons threatened to sue the maker of bookends shaped like balloon dogs (à la his famous sculptures) but backed off after unfavorable news coverage. And Hirst claimed infringement in England against a teenage artist selling prints that incorporated an image of his famous glittering skull (which replicated a skull he bought in a taxidermy shop). These leaders of appropriationism failed to respect in the rights claimed by others what they claimed for themselves. Further, with Koons and Hirst known not only for appropriating images but also for hiring out the workmanship to make artworks from those images, art lovers are left to ask why they should respect products carrying the names of people who performed neither the intellectual nor physical labor that created them.
Still another concern about who made an artwork, as it pertains to authenticity, is cultural appropriation. Here the problem does not stem from multiple people being involved in the production process, but from the background of any artist making works identified with an Indigenous group. The United States, Canada, Australia, and other countries have laws against selling works as Indigenous if they are not made by Indigenous artists, so as to protect them against having their culture exploited, their identity usurped, and their income threatened. There have been prosecutions, for instance, in the United States for jewelry claimed to be by American Indians and in Australia for paintings and carvings claimed to be Aboriginal, although critics say enforcement overall has been lax. Although on its surface the matter may seem to be a simple one of fairness for minorities, difficulties arise on several fronts, beginning with what makes a person Indigenous. The determination is based on bloodline, but standards vary by group (or state, province), as in the United States, where the Miccosukee Tribe of Florida requires one-half blood heritage for membership, whereas the Shawnee Tribe of Oklahoma requires one-thirtieth. As one legal scholar has said, “The problem with certifying authentic Indian stuff is that it requires certifying authentic Indians.”
Beyond bloodline, other problems address cultural status. Can outsiders produce works that are as authentic in presentation as those of insiders? White artist Elizabeth Durack caused outrage in Australia for paintings she presented as Aboriginal, although she had been steeped in Aboriginal culture throughout her life and one of her paintings was nominated for a prestigious award given for Aboriginal art. American artist Jimmie Durham claimed a Cherokee affiliation that was denied by tribal officials, yet he continued to be an activist for American Indian affairs and has received accolades for his American Indian art (although he has sometimes disputed the label). Another question asks whether insiders are producing authentically Indigenous art, given inevitable cultural assimilation. Australian Aboriginal paintings are made with acrylic paint by artists who do not live the simple lives in the bush that their ancestors did, especially with the presence of modern technology. Do they retain the cultural essence meant to separate their art from that of outsiders? A philosophical perspective spoken for by prominent minority thinkers such as bell hooks and Edward Said emphasizes that the essentialist view of insiders as distinct from outsiders reinforces separation and subordination. Even though it brings pride and income to minority artists, it pushes them to marginalization and emphasizes a notion of primitivism. Another perspective, represented by artist Richard Bell, promotes a revised cultural essence through Urban Aboriginal Art, with works that present the contemporary Aboriginal experience by speaking critically to the legacy of colonialism by white settlers.
To many minds, art forgery is not conceived unequivocally as morally wrong, nor its products as necessarily inferior to originals. While in legal terms it is a crime to sell counterfeit art, there are psychological, economic, and philosophical perspectives that range from mitigating a negative outlook to promoting a positive one about the practitioners of forgery and the products they create. Forgers themselves, when caught, sometimes claim they sold their works as legitimate copies only to have other parties resell them fraudulently as originals. Using this plea, Tony Tetro was convincing enough to earn a hung jury at his trial, and in other cases prosecutors have wrestled with questions about intention. They also face the prospect that collectors who know they own fake artworks may be reluctant to come forward with them out of embarrassment or the immediate financial devaluation they would incur. And those who suspect they own fakes may prefer to remain intentionally uncertain rather than having them checked and occupy a realm of moral limbo when displaying or selling them. Because art forgery is not written into legal codes as a crime, the act is typically charged as a form of fraud (often involving mail or wire fraud), and perhaps other charges are added such as money laundering and (in the United States) tax evasion. Among forgers and fraudulent dealers, prison sentences have ranged from a few months to about eight years (with early release common), although some of the most notorious forgers managed to avoid arrest or were given suspended sentences.
Another claim by forgers when they are caught is that they acted in retribution against critics who panned their work, or from a jaded view of the art industry in general. An attempt some have made to justify their actions in terms of a moral code is the idea that it is not wrong to present a fake to supposedly knowledgeable art professionals, such as auction house personnel, without making a claim about its authenticity; it is their job to figure out authenticity in a buyer-beware business world. Eric Hebborn and Ken Perenyi both played this game, and it helped them to avoid arrest. Still one more rationalization is that forgery is a victimless crime, as in Perenyi’s words: “Do I feel guilty about taking money from auction houses? The idea is laughable. . . . This was a world of glamour and money, and plenty of it.”
The general public, too, may be enticed by the notion that the victims of art forgery are upper-echelon buyers who can afford their losses, as statements in the press and blogosphere attest. In one journalist’s words, “Art forgery is the most moral way to embezzle 16 million Euros.” In reality, a large share of fakes are not bought by wealthy collectors but by art lovers who are not in a position to disregard the financial loss when they discover that what they paid several hundred to several thousand dollars for is worth next to nothing. A related attitude about collectors combines them with dealers and experts—the art establishment in general—as an arrogant elite to be ridiculed for their ineptitude when they are fooled by fakes. Forgers, then, are seen as their debunkers, with some portrayed as antiheroes, and, in the case of Wolfgang Beltracchi, even spoken of as a Robin Hood figure although he did nothing to redistribute the proceeds from his fraud. This attitude carries into fictional accounts in movies and novels, where the makers of fake art, whether in lighthearted or serious, soul-searching portrayals, outwit the prevailing order. Still another perspective respects forgers for their artistic talent, which is transferrable to a legitimate business. Enterprising ones capitalize on news accounts of their exploits, as well as biographies, memoirs, and documentary films, to support their conversion to artists who sell under their own names. In a few cases, their expertise has led to other pursuits: Guy Ribes and David Stein as movie consultants, Brigido Lara as an authentication expert for a museum, and Tom Keating and John Myatt each as a television host of his own series demonstrating how to paint like the masters.
A different approach that puts a positive spin on counterfeit art comes in economic terms, where the thrust is to look beyond the financial losses incurred at the hands of forgers and to focus on other factors. One line of thought sees the making and selling of fakes as a part of the fabric of a social or national group. An example is Italy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, when art dealers did a thriving business passing off forged works at cheap prices to visitors from other countries who were taking the Grand Tour as a rite of passage into adulthood in elite society. The practice of fraud found justification with the local citizenry for maintaining Italy’s reputation in the world as a leader in the history of fine art and for bringing in much-needed revenue. A reversal on the immorality of selling fraudulent works asked who was being more dishonorable when a dealer sold a Donatello to a tourist for a few thousand lire and the tourist believed its worth was hundreds of times that amount. The idea of selling fake art to bolster a waning economy, and with the support of local residents who are aware of the practice, can easily carry through in other markets such as Egyptian artifacts in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries and Pre-Columbian figures.
A broader version of economic thought considers the institution of forgery in general, arguing that the wrongful act of art fraud is part of a larger, positive outcome. Taken as a whole the results are more beneficial than harmful. The school of thought termed “happiness economics,” as spoken for by leading proponent Bruno Frey, sees financial gain as well as loss when there are fakes on the market and also finds benefits of other sorts. Not only do forgers and art dealers earn money, it is argued, but artists command higher prices when their profiles are raised due to more works in their name being available to viewers. There is benefit for consumers, who have a greater number of “original” works to purchase and to enjoy seeing on display in museums. Further, fakes are valuable as a teaching device, and the risk to buyers of being stuck with a fake can be reduced by doing business with respected dealers. Overall, the collective happiness of the whole—owners and viewers of artworks along with art professionals—more than balances the unhappiness of financial loss to those who are victims of forgery. This line of thought is based on the philosophy of utilitarianism, which promotes the “greatest good for the greatest number.” It is subject to the standard rebuttal that weighing harm and good is subjective, and harm done to a smaller group may be more substantial than good done for a larger one. Also missing in the formula is consideration of the negative effect of forgery on art history.
The last, and especially perplexing, topic of the book asks about the aesthetic value of a “perfect fake.” For all practical purposes, “perfection” here means a level that fools experts but not claiming there are no flaws. Whatever flaws exist have not been noticed and have been accepted as part of the forged artist’s style and mannerisms. Does such an artwork approach the status of an original in aesthetic terms? The philosophy of formalism says that the quality of workmanship that went into the object is the key. Observing its formal elements—the look of the thing—tells us what we need to know. A forgery of this quality is just as good as a work by the artist being copied, although it was made by someone else. If the workmanship is so skillful that the falsity is not evident to expert eyes and only revealed in some other way, perhaps by materials science or by the forger personally, why should it not draw a level of respect similar to that accorded an original?
Contextualism, on the other hand, looks beyond an object’s form to the mindset from which an artist creates it and viewers approach it. The history of the object’s production includes the way the artist thought about constructing it. For an original artist this factor is unique. A forger, on the other hand, works from a mindset that is steeped in copying what is unique to someone else. Shaun Greenhalgh’s fake of a Gauguin sculpture looks like an original, but does not derive from the insight, discovery, and innovation that Gauguin carried out. Put in terms of intention, Greenhalgh’s intention was of a lesser sort than Gauguin’s. As for viewers of the sculpture, they, too, are affected by context. They will see it in terms of what they already know about art. For some this may be a great deal and for others little, but they will all have thoughts and expectations of some sort, and not a blank slate that simply records visual stimuli. Their judgment of an artwork relies necessarily on this precondition, which is then informed in the future by their present experience.
Forgeries infect this experience with falsity. They corrupt the art-historical record by giving us erroneous information and skewing our notions of what various artists accomplished and what culture consisted of over time. A particularly ominous example because of its scope is Brigido Lara’s use of his own iconography to fashion thousands of Mayan and Aztec sculptures and so many Totonac pieces that they may total more than there are originals in existence. It has been said that his inventiveness skewed our perception of a whole period and style of Pre-Columbian art. How does forgery’s corruption of art history relate to assessment of a perfect fake—not just any fake, but a most excellent one? A formalist perspective says the more excellent a forgery is, the less it damages our understanding of the past, hence the greater its aesthetic value. If it is faithful to the way an artist worked, with only insignificant flaws, it does little harm to our historical consciousness. A contextualist rejoinder reiterates that the intangibles in an object’s history cannot be duplicated, and the closer a forger comes to perfecting copyism, the further away the act of creation is from originality and from the accomplishment of an original artist.