Faking it: A beginner's guide to the difference between fakes and forgeries

Moira Jeffrey writes about the complex, confusing and divisive world of art forgery - the bread & butter of Fire Exit's Long Live The Little Knife, in the Circle Studio 24 - 28 Feb.

What is a forgery? Is it the same as a copy or as a fake? How can you tell a forgery? And why on earth do art forgers do it? These are questions that have vexed art historians, connoisseurs, and philosophers for generations. In more recent years, the question of how the public and the experts come to recognise and value authenticity have come to preoccupy popular psychologists.

There is a general consensus that whilst a copy may be a forgery, a forgery isn’t necessarily a copy. For the philosopher Michael Wreen: ‘Many forgeries are copies but most, I would venture to say, aren’t. To cite a famous case, and one I think that is typical of forgery: van Meegeren’s forged Vermeers weren’t copies of original Vermeers.’

The most notorious forger of the 20th century, Han van Meegeren, forged the paintings of the 17th century painter Johannes Vermeer by producing “lost” Vermeers, tapping into both the cultural desire and economic motivation for the discovery of more works to add to the once forgotten artist’s tiny oeuvre.

The Supper at Emmaus
Han van Meegeren
Old canvas, relined, 115 x 127 cm.
Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam
The forgeries came to light in the most extraordinary way. Active from the nineteen thirties, van Meegeren’s most famous forgery “Christ at Emmaus” hung as a Vermeer in the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam. When a work by Vermeer was found among Hermann Göring’s art collection, van Meegeren was arrested as a collaborator for selling it to him. Prosecuted for treason in 1947, the forger was on trial for his life. His only defence was to reveal that the work was a forgery.

The point about forgery is the intention to deceive. Buying a counterfeit handbag for a few quid from an African street seller in Venice does not mean that you think you’ve got a real Gucci. For Wreen: ‘A forged Picasso is not a genuine Picasso painting but is represented as a genuine Picasso painting, and is so represented with the intention to deceive.’ Representation involves a more elaborate deceit than mere appearance.

The Belgian art theorist Thierry Lenain’s comprehensive history of the subject, Art Forgery: the History of a Modern Obsession, reveals it to be a modern phenomenon inextricably bound up with the idea of the artist as an original creator whose art work is made up of indelible traces both of its maker and of its age.

For Lenain, the anxiety around forgery is a modern phenomenon. Faking it, on the other hand, is as old as the Romans. Providing a new sculpture with the patina of age or the roughed up condition of antiquity was common Renaissance practice. Michelangelo supposedly used to borrow drawings to copy from important collectors, pass back the copies and keep the originals. Fakes were often used to play, but the copyist and the dupe were part of the same elite circle and the ruse was revealed.

The modern anxiety around forgery is inexorably tied up with the idea of art as authenticity rather than imitation. It first emerged during the medieval period in the area of sacred relics, where provenance of assorted objects and body parts was oft disputed, but utterly intrinsic to the trade.

In the 19th century the idea that an artwork was a relic, of sorts, that carried the trace of its maker and age became increasingly popular amongst writers and connoisseurs of the time. It would become unsustainable were there such a thing as a perfect fake.

This question of trace has also recently re-emerged in another discipline, that of evolutionary psychology, where Paul Bloom has used it to explain our obsession with authenticity and the market for modern relics such as the discarded clothes of celebrities. Bloom calls this phenomenon “Essentialism”.

Where many models of desire and pleasure explain our feelings about sex and food, for example in terms that are purely sensory, Bloom, a Yale Psychology Professor, proposes that human cognitive evolution has pre-disposed us to deeply cerebral and subjective desires. Our desire for art objects might be explained by a belief that human artefacts have essences. For Bloom, who is remarkably sanguine about the tricks that clever artists play around questions of authenticity, the story of van Meegeren lies not so much is the forger’s capacity for deception as the striking differential value we place between an original and a fake.

It is this relationship between artist, object, and owner that the forger threatens to disrupt. The existence of forgery was deeply de-stabilising to the modern era. The maverick forger, in the 19th century, became a dark and criminal figure shadowboxing with his first enemy, the connoisseur, and his later opponent, the scientist.

The faker lays small tricks and jokes within a fake, which might reveal an artefact’s origins to knowing insiders. The true forger uses similar tricks only to produce the aura of authenticity. The forger’s art mirrors the technology of detection; each layer of activity addressing directly the tests that the artwork might be subjected to.

This idea of the double is crucial both to forgers and forgery: Lenain points out that the more famous a work of art, the more it is haunted by the spectre of its possible forgery. It is as though every artwork has its own sinister doppelgänger.

John Myatt
The biggest art fraud of the 20th century
Scotland Yard, London

What drives a forger? The British forger John Myatt places an emphasis on straitened circumstances and happenstance. A musician and art teacher, Myatt also had a small business making “genuine fakes” which he advertised in the magazine Private Eye and sold for a few hundred pounds each. But when one of his customers, John Drewe, sold one of these works at Christie’s and approached Myatt to repeat the feat, the artist went on to paint some 200 forgeries between 1986 and 1994, using everything from household emulsion to KY Jelly.

The scam lasted close to a decade but, when an associate betrayed him, Myatt was arrested and, after co-operating with police, served four months of a 12-month sentence. These days he paints his own works and paintings, which could be called fakes but not forgeries, as they do not purport to be originals. His profile is now largely based on his successful career as a television presenter and personality.

The titans of forgery, however, are often deeply motivated by hubris, narcissism or anger. Many are failed and embittered artists: the late Tom Keating, for example, was a British artist and picture restorer who claimed to be disillusioned with the modern art world. Han van Meegeren was a failed artist, a depressive, whose own art had met with critical derision.

The extraordinary fictions that forgery entails are like plays without any audience. The expert forger, as opposed to the trickster, faker or joker, might address his work to the museum, the market, or the connoisseur, but his opposite number must never know that this is a performance. The strain in maintaining that deception and the price hiding of the forger’s evident skill, was evident in van Meegeren’s own habit of turning up in front of his Vermeer and loudly declaring to gallery-goers that it was fake.

While famous forgers have become hated figures, celebrities, cultural or counter-cultural icons, Lenain’s work shows that the “author” of a forged work of art is rarely a single individual. Like Myatt had John Drewe, forgers require more elaborate systems and secret systems of creation, authentication and distribution than even the most complex art world transaction.

Han van Meegeren was a brilliant, devious forger but remained a terrible artist. The conundrum at the very heart of the forger’s work is based on the value that we, the museum, and the market, place on the authorship of individual artists. But somehow real forgeries stand outside art and outside conventional ideas of authorship altogether. Great artists on the other hand are rarely ashamed to be associated with faking it. As Picasso is said to have told Jean Cocteau: There are no fakes, because there are only fakes.

By Moira Jeffrey

Further Reading:
Paul Bloom, How Pleasure Works, 2010
Michael Wreen, Canadian Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 32, No. 2 (Jun 2002), pp. 143-166
Thierry Lenain, Art Forgery, Reaktion Books, London 2011
Ermine Saner, “John Myatt: a story of fame and forgery”, The Guardian, September 2011

Video on Han van Meegeren's Fake Vermeers
John Myatt's website: www.johnmyatt.com

Long Live The Little Knife
plays in the Circle Studio 24 - 28 Feb