Book Review: The Art of Forgery

The Art Of Forgery: The Minds, Motives And Methods Of Master Forgers

by Noah Charney, Phaidon Press, 2015

THE ART OF FORGERY flat cover - resized

 

Did you know that Michelangelo came to the Rennaissance art world’s attention through creating forgeries of Roman statues? And that Durer was not only highly litigious due to printers constantly forging his works, but was perhaps the world’s first artist to use branding and marketing on an international scale?

So begins a journey through the once hidden world of art forgery. Art forgery expert, Noah Charney, starts his romp through this shadowy world with that famous Petronius quote “The world wishes to be deceived…so let it be deceived.” He gives us a look at the Old Masters and their forgers in a way that is both enjoyable, enlightening and thoughtful.

This is a well-researched story told in a straightforward but entertaining manner. Rereading the book for this review was as pleasurable as the first time. Charney puts a human face on the Old Masters—as we noted above. He also ventures beyond the world of High Art forgery to include fake ancient artifacts, maps, and religious items.

Charney divides the book into nine chapters, which could be condensed into three groups—the artists themselves, who are rarely, if ever, motivated by money; the Art World collectors, dealers, curators and academics; and the criminals who are definitely in it for the money (and who are rarely, if ever, the artists themselves).

Ego seems to be the primary driver behind the creation of most forgeries and fakes: Artists who wish to pit their skills against those of the Great Ones, artists who want revenge against the elitist snobs who rejected their work, their stories fill this book.

Then we have tales of collectors and dealers who won’t admit they got scammed. There are the academics suspected of creating fakes to further their theories… And last but not least, there are the true criminals, who usually attach themselves to artists who initially may have been quite innocent.

One fact that emerges from this book is that throughout the ages law courts haven’t been totally sympathetic to the rich getting bilked from buying forged art; or to the living artists who suffer from their work being faked. The result of Durer’s lawsuit against forgers of his internationally popular prints wouldn’t have made me want to pop the champagne. The trouble is that even today most people don’t understand the need for copyright law, and the internet hasn’t helped, either. 

When you remove the financial aspect of art forgery two lasting things remain. One could be considered good, the other definitely very bad.

The one with the happy ending is that the forger (our artist) often becomes famous and has a decent career after he is exposed. Michelangelo might be the extreme example (he tried to cover up his past), but today’s John Myatt has his own TV show about creating copies of famous works and his paintings sell for thousands of dollars.

The bad side of all this, though, is seriously criminal for it corrupts the historical record. Given the importance of provenance for a work of art, fake provenances added to museum records creates fake history. And unfortunately it is easy to do. When I researched my own book (The Sari, Thames & Hudson), I had access to museum files and records which I could have altered at will if I wished. There is an honor system with museum and library research that criminals can and have corrupted, and it puts the entire historical/intellectual record at risk.

There is a lot more to this book than I’ve given here and I would recommend The Art of Forgery to anyone— it is accessible to those who are not particularly interested in Art per se, and are looking for a good, interesting holiday read; and from the artist point of view, it is invaluable.

First, like many good books on art and the art world, it gives food for thought and adds to an artist’s knowledge of the intricacies of the world we work in. In today’s world of art forgery, the once clear distinction between Europe and the United States (Europe beset by class prejudice, the United States being venal) has blurred, but the basic issues of breaking into the closed circle of the Art World still exists—and probably always will exist.

Second, from a purely technical point of view, it is educational. It is from this book that I learned about Eric Hebborn, considered one of the greatest forgers of all time, and what interests me personally is the volume of research he did in order to create his fakes (this was well before the internet came along). The paints, mediums, canvases, etc. he used to create his paintings had to be authentic; while the brush strokes and physical mannerisms needed to make it “genuine” had to be meticulously accurate as well. And he wrote a book about it, The Art Forger’s Handbook, which on Amazon goes for a healthy chunk of money (the book is out of print, and the cheapest used copy I found was $79). It is definitely on my “want” list. Not to make forgeries, of course, but to delve into the wealth of information about painting in the Old Master style.

Charney ends The Art of Forgery by discussing the need to produce legislation that will stop the money flow—but as he has so poignantly shown, money is rarely the primary or initial motivation for creating the fakes in the first place. Human snobbery, cliquishness and covetousness have to be removed before the urge to create fakes will disappear, and that, along with old fashioned cupidity, isn’t going to go away any time soon…. As Charney’s stories reveal, there is nothing new under the sun, and the more things change the more they stay the same.

 Notes:

Just in case you are wondering, I’ve sometimes capitalized Art World and sometimes not. Maybe I’m being facetious, but the difference is clear to me, hope it is to you.

If you are interested in looking up any of the publishers/writers mentioned in this review, here are a few websites:

Noah Charney, has written a lot of interesting books and articles about art forgeries, his site is well worth perusing.

Phaidon Press Inc, has a good selection of books on art, as well as other related topics such as decorative arts, architecture, design.

Thames & Hudson, which published my book on South Asian textiles, The Sari, is internationally well known for its art and art-related books.

 Details: The Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of Master Forgers, by Noah Charney, ISBN: 978-0-7148-6745-8