Books: The fake’s progress from a sign of genius to a nefarious act... and back again

The history and scholarship of art forgery, and a faker’s delighted account of a life of deception


Thierry Lenain’s dense and theoretical but fascinating work, Art Forgery: the History of a Modern Obsession, is an attempt to understand what people have thought about fakes and how and why their attitudes towards them have changed through time. How could a practice, he asks, that was for centuries regarded “without particular nervousness and often with much enthusiasm, come to be perceived as an immediate danger and an object of virulent detestation”?

First though he traces the rise of what he regards as a culturally specific European anxiety. His assertion is that the lack of any sustained discussion of art forgery in antiquity should be taken as evidence that Greek and Roman collectors had no developed conception of authenticity. It was, he argues, the importance of relics to medieval Christianity that first raised such issues. “Relic mongers of the ninth and tenth centuries resemble nothing so much as the suppliers of objects of art in the 20th century,” he argues. Indeed, “the whole of art history in the modern sense of the word must be definitely considered as a development of the history of Christian relics.”

Lenain’s argument is thought provoking but not wholly convincing. Similar attitudes to authenticity and faking seem to have been emerged in China as early as the 15th century in response rather to the growth of a flourishing art market than a similar precedent period of anxiety about the authenticity of relics.

For Vasari and other hagiographers of Renaissance artists, successful faking, far from being reprehensible, was a sign of budding genius. The road to greatness was considered to lie, at least in part, through the emulation of great masters. Michelangelo copied master drawings lent him by collectors, tinting and smoking them so that he could return the copies and retain the originals. He went on to make a Sleeping Cupid, 1495-96, which he buried so that it appeared old. Such deception might seem reprehensible to us now, yet it was not Michelangelo but the purchaser of the Cupid, Cardinal Riario, who came in for criticism after insisting on reimbursement when it was revealed to be new.

This attitude persisted for centuries. Bernardo de Domienici, writing in the 18th century, admired Luca Giordano’s ability to deceptively imitate the work of other artists and relates that when a disgruntled purchaser sued him for the value of a fake Dürer, the court found that since Giordano had shown himself equal to Dürer the complaint was groundless. As late as the 1860s when Giovanni Bastianini revealed himself as the author of the “Renaissance” bust of Lucrezia Donati, the Victoria and Albert Museum bought it for the price that a genuine Renaissance sculpture would have fetched.

Yet, within a few years, an attitude that had remained more or less constant for four centuries vanished, to be replaced by the view that fakers were cheats and criminals. Art forgery was made illegal in France in 1895 and the art world lined up behind art historian Max Friedländer’s assertion that “after being unmasked every forgery is a useless, hybrid and miserable thing”. Lenain is good on the role of “the modern artwork as an authorial-historical relic…allowing an actual contact and a form of spiritual communication across centuries and cultural horizons”. What happened with the emergence of Impressionism in the late 19th century is a rejection of the notion that artists should learn through copying the art of the past and a consequent revulsion against copies themselves.

As the contributors to Inganno—the Art of Deception demonstrate, copies were highly regarded until this period. The Emperor Rudolph, Charles I and Philip IV of Spain all commissioned copies of great paintings that they were unable to acquire. The fourth Duke of Bedford prized James Thornhill’s copies of the Raphael Cartoons enough to give them place of honour in the large ballroom in Bedford House and, when acquired by the Royal Academy, they were hung by the Academicians in their main studio. From the late 19th century, though, copies were increasingly despised, progressively disappearing from art schools and museums (with the exception of the V&A’s great cast courts). It was now originality that defined the importance of art. A copyist and, a fortiori a faker, ceased to be an artist. That said there had long been a sense of unease about the market in art and antiquities. Giuseppe Orologi’s essay which gives the book its title describes the stock of antiquarian dealers in mid-16th-century Italy as “dreams that feature things both past and present, but never wholly as they are, or as they were”, a description which applies as aptly to the recent and contemporary world of art dealing described by Ken Perenyi in Caveat Emptor: the Secret Life of an American Art Forger, as it does to Orologi’s time.

Perenyi, though clearly a talented painter, presents himself less as a misunderstood genius in the Van Meegeren mould, than as a good-hearted outlaw in a crooked world. He has clearly gained enormous pleasure from fooling art dealers, auctioneers and connoisseurs (it seems from his account that many must have found it convenient and profitable to be taken in), even though the rewards often seem to have been more modest than a legitimate career might have afforded. As one who was once asked by forger Eric Hebborn to ghost his “autobiography” I cannot help wondering how much of his account is fact and how much enjoyable fiction. What is wonderful is that the techniques he describes are exactly those encountered in Kristin Campbell’s article in Inganno on the 18th-century London picture dealer Noel Desenfans, who complains that some dealers “employ nefarious artists” whose copies of Old Masters “when soiled over, varnished, and exposed to the sun, decorate their shops as so many rare productions from foreign cabinets”. “But”, concludes Desenfans, in the ever hopeful and dismissive tone adopted in so many discussions of fakes but thankfully avoided by the publications here reviewed, “these impositions cannot last long”. In the nature of things we cannot know how many fakes have remained unexposed, but when we look back and reflect on the difficulty that a Bastianini or even, heaven help us, a Van Meegeren had in convincing the art world that their works were fake it would seem safe to assume that a number of well-known and much loved pieces are not what they appear to be. Certainly one of the paradoxes of technological progress is that the development of new analytical and dating techniques seems, in some ways to have made successful faking easier. It is difficult to believe that the uneducated and untrained Greenhalgh family, who faked everything from Gauguin and Peploe to Assyrian reliefs before their exposure in 2005, would have had as much success in a more connoisseurial and less scientific age.

Thierry Lenain concludes with a discussion of 20th- and 21st-century artists’ increasing fascination with reproduction, copying and falsification. The authorial trace, so important to early-20th-century connoisseurship, simply disappeared. Many artists from Warhol (or indeed Duchamp) onwards no more made their own work than architects build their own buildings. When I organised an exhibition of fakes in the British Museum in 1990, the “clever” question that I was asked with wearying regularity was: “If the fake is indistinguishable from the original why isn’t it just as good?” The production of an exact replica is now the easy part: the difficulty is estimating the worth of its certificate of authenticity, or its documented history. Sally Anne Hickson suggests that Giuseppe Orologi’s work can be read as “an indictment of those who consume art in a frenzy of conspicuous consumption, misusing it as a means of immortalising themselves and establishing a false sense of worth”. The lesson of all three books is perhaps how little things have changed.

Master of St Cross College, Oxford and former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London. His catalogue, Fake? The Art of Deception, 1990, is published by the British Museum Press

Art Forgery: the History of a Modern Obsession

Thierry Lenain

Reaktion Books, 384pp, £35 (hb)

Inganno—the Art of Deception

Sharon Gregory and Sally Anne Hickson, eds

Ashgate, 200pp, £55 (hb)

Caveat Emptor: the Secret Life of an American Forger

Ken Perenyi

Pegasus Books, 368pp, £18.99 (hb)

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'The fake’s progress'