Skip to main content

Appropriation and the Art of the Copy (May 2015): Fakes and Forgeries

By Elizabeth Mix

Fakes and Forgeries

Unlike the academic copy, which, in addition to having an educational purpose, was usually clearly identified as such and included the name of the artist being copied in its title, the intent of a forgery is deception for monetary gain.  Much literature on the topic focuses on the identification of forgeries: Frank Arnau's Three Thousand Years of Deception in Art and Antiques and the extensive exhibition in 1990 at the British Museum of London Fake? The Art of Deception by Mark Jones provide examples from all art and design disciplines from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, including works from China and Japan.  This catalogue dedicates a chapter each to how fakes are fabricated and the means by which they are exposed.  It is arranged around two central questions: what exactly constitutes a fake, and why are they produced?  Copies termed imitations and replicas complicate the answer to the former question, as well as instances when legitimate copies are later misrepresented, or extensive restoration of a work has crossed a line to compromise the integrity of the original.  The answer to the second question, why are they produced, is similarly complex.  Beyond the obvious intent to deceive for personal economic gain at the expense of supportive structures that suffer financial losses when fakes are exposed (e.g., the art market, critics, and connoisseurs), there are also important emotional factors.  Nostalgia and religious and scientific beliefs have supported environments where forged religious relics and the Piltdown Man (the faked "missing link") were readily accepted by large numbers of people who benefitted psychologically or emotionally rather than financially.  Other reasons for copying, such as the academic practice mentioned above and the "homage" purpose detailed below, are also treated.

Also in this vein is De main de maître: L'artiste et le faux, a collection of essays published from a conference held at the Louvre in 2004, which focused on establishing authenticity from the point of view of connoisseurship and art criticism.  Sculptural multiples—self-produced copies by the artists Jean-Baptiste-Siméon Chardin, Jacques-Louis David, Georges La Tour, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot, and Henri Matisse—and the cultural economies that support forgeries are also addressed.  While the focus is primarily on visual art, literature and music are also treated in this volume.  Thierry Lenain, in Art Forgery: The History of a Modern Obsession, asserts that art forgery is a modern phenomenon, meaning that many earlier instances of imitation, for instance, of Romans copying Greek sculptures, could not legitimately be termed forgery.  Thierry explores the economic and aesthetic paradoxes forgery exposes and examines the defenses that forgers mounted when caught and the psychological effect that a supposedly "rare" object wields.

Two exhibitions placed copies and originals side-by-side for comparison: Copies as Originals, Translations in Media and Techniques at Princeton University in 1974 promoted the value of copies.  Students in the department of art and archaeology under the direction of Rona Goffen and David Steadman researched the university collection, including works by Michelangelo, Peter Paul Rubens, and John Trumbull, and wrote essays treating an original and one or more copy, focusing on what elements from the original are retained in the copy and what elements reveal the individual characteristics of the copier.  Fakes and Forgeries, held at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in 1973, specifically challenged viewers to study original objects and copies (legitimate and not) side by side, with the premise that close looking would allow viewers to determine the original and learn more generally how to discern artistic quality.

Other texts focus more closely on the forger.  Ian Haywood's Faking It: Art and the Politics of Forgery is primarily focused on literature, but has a chapter on the Piltdown Man as well as two examples focusing on forgers who held grudges against critics and the art market: Hans van Meegeren, a Dutch artist who forged Vermeer, and the British painter Tom Keating, who forged Samuel Palmer.  Haywood puts these men's work into the context of the development of the art market, in which lesser works by "masters" were worth more than excellent works by relative unknowns.  He also explains how the academic training of artists and the workshop environment initiated by Rubens in the seventeenth century contributed to the acceptance of this practice.  Haywood summarizes several other examples in his footnotes, including two forgers of Renaissance works, Giovanni Bastianini and Alceo Dossena.

Anita Moscowitz treats Bastianini's case in incredible depth in Forging Authenticity, Bastianini and the Neo-Renaissance in Nineteenth-Century Florence.  Bastianini's biography is treated in detail, revealing both the extent and nature of his training, which was legitimate until his apprenticeship with Giovanni Freppa, who played on the young artist's lack of knowledge of the art market and paid him well to create what Bastianini believed were legitimate copies, but were later turned into forgeries through their sale.  Moscowitz explains the specific cultural conditions that made Renaissance work ripe for forgery in the nineteenth century.  While the development of neoclassicism contributed generally, in Italy a nationalistic drive fueled by the Risorgimento (a movement to unify the city-states) recast Italian Renaissance work in the context of nationalist pride.  Museums and private collectors alike contributed to increased demand.  Genuine Renaissance artists like Michelangelo contributed to the long history of copying classical sculptures, giving the practice a measure of legitimacy.  Moscowitz's work demonstrates how the perception of Bastianini's level of complicity changed over time as successive art historians and connoisseurs embellished his story.

Henk Tromp uses a sociological approach in A Real Van Gogh: How the Art World Struggles with Truth.  Rather than seeking to expose which van Gogh paintings are real and which are fake, Tromp examines the attitudes of twentieth-century van Gogh experts including Vincent Willem van Gogh (nephew and heir to the vast collection that formed the basis of the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam) and Jacob Baart de la Faille (who compiled the catalogue raisonné for the famous artist), who, after he discovered dozens of fakes were included in his initial version, struggled to redress the error.  While both men promoted their work as a search for truth, they wielded incredible power—when a fake (herein defined as an incorrect attribution to van Gogh) was exposed, both the expert who authenticated it and the owner of the work suffered incredible negative financial consequences.

Other texts delve more deeply into larger cultural phenomena that are revealed in the study of fakes and forgery.  An excellent example is Aviva Briefel's The Deceivers: Art Forgery and Identity in the Nineteenth Century, which explores the gendered relationship among copyists, forgers, collectors, connoisseurs, and art restorers.  Briefel uses primary sources to expose gender dynamics inherent in some aspects of the subject.  Women were called copyists; males were called forgers; forged objects were considered female—the power relationship and social implications revealed by the choice of these terms is examined carefully.  Briefel shows that while in the nineteenth century women were generally excluded from forgery, they participated by wearing "paste" jewelry.  Throughout her text, Briefel uses literature (e.g., Henry James and Guy de Maupassant) to help demonstrate the larger cultural rootedness of these gendered concepts.

Works Cited