Fakes and Authentic Fakes

The FBI is conducting a criminal investigation in New York regarding whether a number of paintings and drawings by artists such as Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell were actually forgeries. From the New York Times,

Most of the works, which have sold individually for as much as $17 million, came to market though a little-known art dealer from Long Island, Glafira Rosales, who said she had what every gallery dreams of: exclusive access to a mystery collector’s cache of undiscovered work by some of the postwar world’s great talents, including Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn.

Anytime the following words, or a variation of them, appear you would think that experienced art experts would be immediately wary: “mystery collector’s cache of undiscovered work.”

Ah, but the potential for millions and the cachet of owning a heretofore undiscovered work created by an acknowledged master conspire to make such wariness fade swiftly away. As the Greeks first showed us, the sins of greed, vanity, and pride can each induce us to fall from great heights. Put all three together and you produce a mixture that has the potential to “go nuclear.” Which appears to have happened in this case. It is not the first time.

The fact is, if you’ve been inside any art museum, you have probably seen a fake hanging on a wall. You just don’t know it and neither do the curators. It’s a dirty secret in the Art World, one its residents almost never openly acknowledge, except under great duress.

That’s why an exhibit last winter at the Detroit Institute of the Arts (DIA) was so surprising. The museum staged an entire exhibition on forgeries and fakery. The exhibit displayed known fake works of art from the museum’s own collection and showed the techniques used to detect and authenticate a given work of art. It also showed what were called “mysteries”; objects of art whose authenticity was under question and had yet to be confidently resolved.

Around the same time as the DIA exhibit last year I read a book that for some reason I never got around to writing about on this blog. Which is a shame because it’s a book that provides a unique and important insight into the Art World. That book is: Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art by Laney Salisbury and Aly Sujo. It tells the mind-boggling story of how struggling artist John Myatt came to create art forgeries for a highly-skilled con man named John Drewe, who in turn sold the forgeries to dealers in London and elsewhere. Drewe was so smooth he even managed to con his way into gaining access to the Tate Gallery archives, access which he then used to slip in fake provenance documents. This is particularly ingenious, since “provenance” (the documented trail of ownership) is considered perhaps the most reliable way to authenticate a work of art.

Provenance is so coveted that it can be used to declare a work a fake even when overwhelming physical evidence insists otherwise. See Who the #$&% Is Jackson Pollock?

Both Myatt and Drewe were eventually sent to prison. But Myatt now makes a living selling his own art reproductions. Yes, he’s so famous as an art forger that people pay him to make “authentic” forgeries. You can see his work here.

But before the scandal of John Myatt and John Drewe, there was Elmyr de Hory.

A few months ago I saw the movie F for Fake by Orson Welles. A documentary of sorts, it centers on the famed art forger Elmyr de Hory. Elmyr created countless fake works of art in the middle of the 20th century that were sold through various dealers and ended up hanging in some of the most prestigious art museums in the world. Elmyr was a charming and irrepressible person who always claimed that he was the victim. Though at one point he says, “I don’t feel bad for Modigliani. I feel good for me.”

But it gets even more interesting because Elmyr’s biography was written by a writer named Clifford Irving. A few years after telling Elmyr’s story, Irving would go on to write a biography of the billionaire recluse Howard Hughes, claiming that Hughes had given him unprecedented access to him. It turned out that the biography was a complete fake. Hughes even came out of seclusion for a bizarre phone press conference to proclaim he didn’t even know Irving.

Welles uses all of this to explore fakery, deceit, authenticity, and the expertise of a critic’s judgment. It is one of the most fascinating and playful films I have ever seen. (F for Fake was also the last film Welles completed and released during his lifetime.)

All of this is a reminder of how tenuous an object’s relation to being “art” can often be, which without a doubt does call into question the authority and role of the critic. Which I think is part of what makes these stories of high-stakes fraud so intriguing: someone is deceiving the critics, and few people are sympathetic to critics. (Orson Welles certainly wasn’t.) That thing called “critical consensus” about a given work or artist sometimes waxes and wanes over time based on fashion (again, see Welles). Fashion is defined by what’s perceived to be fashionable, perceived to be of value.

On the other hand, with the sums paid for many of these forgeries, it’s difficult to not be stunned by the scale and therefore sympathize with the defrauded buyers. They perceived themselves to be buying something of value, which turned out to have no value at all. To bastardize Balzac, as long as there is great fortune in the Art Market, there will always be the potential for great crime in the Art Market.

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