The fine art of faking it Art buyers are being reminded again of the daring of forgers, writes Simon Caterson
August 12, 2006
ART forgery is almost as old as portable art itself, dating back at least as far as the Romans copying the Greeks, but its exposure never fails to cause a sensation.
In purely monetary terms, the National Galley of Victoria's disputed Head of a Man is worth an estimated $25million if it really was painted by Vincent van Gogh, but almost nothing if it was not.
As The Australian's art critic Sebastian Smee has pointed out it is not the first time doubts have been raised about this jewel in the NGV's crown. In 1999, Rembrandt's Portrait of Rembrandt, bought in 1933, was confirmed as genuine sufficiently to satisfy the NGV after testing. Nor, by any means, is the now disputed picture the only van Gogh painting that has been called into question.
In 1932, a Berlin cabaret performer turned gallery owner named Otto Wacker went on trial in connection with 30 fake van Goghs he had displayed. Suspicions were aroused by the paintings even though Wacker had obtained certificates of authentication from Julius Meier-Graefe, an art critic at one of Germany's most respected newspapers.
In his 1970 book The Fabulous Frauds: Fascinating Tales of Great Art Forgeries, Lawrence Jeppson writes that Meier-Graefe testified in court that some of Wacker's van Goghs "were of such high quality that, if proved false, no expert in future would ever be able to distinguish between true and fake van Goghs with any certainty". Wacker was convicted of fraud on circumstantial evidence and the source of the fake van Goghs was never discovered.
Despite the exposure of the Wacker forgeries, not all of them dropped out of circulation. As late as 1970, a "self-portrait" peddled by Wacker was hanging in the National Gallery in Washington, DC.
The NGV's van Gogh portrait may be many things, including the genuine article, but at least the disputed picture does not appear on the list of known Wacker forgeries. Nor does the van Gogh sunflower painting bought by a Japanese corporation in 1987 for nearly $US40million; its authenticity has been defended by the National Gallery in London, where it was exhibited for 10 years, against claims that it is a fake.
The NGV's portrait could be considered a bargain compared with Blue Irises, for which disgraced Perth entrepreneur Alan Bond agreed to pay $US49million in 1987, though he subsequently failed to produce the cash. Even an unsigned minor work by van Gogh can attract serious money, as occurred in 2003 when a Japanese auction house sold an obscure portrait for $US500,000 after initially setting the reserve price at $US80. A last-minute authentication resulted in some spirited bidding.
"The problem with art," writes novelist Peter Carey in Theft: A Love Story, "is the people who buy it." But while art forgery typically emanates from unscrupulous dealers and neglected artists out for revenge on the snobbish art world that has failed to reward their genius, the practice is not unknown even among the old masters.
Michelangelo was not above producing fakes, according to his contemporary biographer Giorgio Vasari, who died in 1574. In Lives of the Artists, Vasari, who met Michelangelo, describes how the then struggling young artist, who was an accomplished copyist, was advised that an original life-size statue of a sleeping Cupid he had sculpted could be sold for a higher price if the buyer thought it was an ancient artefact. Vasari wrote that Michelangelo then buried the statue and used other ageing techniques.
When the buyer, a cardinal, learned of the deception, he promptly demanded a refund. Interestingly, in this case Vasari sided with the artist against the victim of the hoax: "The fact is that, other things being equal, modern works of art are just as fine as antiques; and there is no greater vanity than to value things for what they are called rather than for what they are."
In despair, the artist character in Carey's novel asks: "How do you know how much to pay if you don't know what it's worth?" Vasari acknowledged that "every age produces the kind of man who pays more attention to appearances than to facts". Meanwhile the Cupid statue, which, despite the deception perpetrated by Michelangelo would now be considered priceless, appears to have been lost.
The life of an artist is often chaotic and some modern artists have proved themselves adept at manipulating the trade in their work. Pablo Picasso, who was the most commercially successful artist in history as well as one of the most widely imitated, was aware that his signed works were much more valuable to collectors than unsigned ones.
Picasso would also authenticate his own work on the basis of his own assessment of its quality. He told an interviewer who asked him how he remembered which paintings were his and which were not: "If I like it, I say it's mine. If I don't, I say it's a fake."
Picasso has even been quoted as saying he was prepared to claim a fake as his own work: "If the counterfeit were a good one, I should be delighted. I'd sit down straight away and sign it."
The art market in Australia, as elsewhere, is riddled with fakes, or at least it's rumoured to be. In contrast to the vigorous public discussion of literary hoaxes, little is said publicly by the art establishment about forgery in this country, a reticence that has been interpreted as self-protection. No one who buys or sells art wants to see the expensive investment suddenly rendered worthless.
It is a matter of public record, however, that forgeries of many of Australia's best-known artists have been listed in sale catalogues, only to be withdrawn. According to online consultancy Caslon Analytics, assumed Australian fakes include a "Russell Drysdale" known as Boy Feeding Dogs, a "Brett Whiteley" called Lavender Bay, and a picture entitled Siege at Glenrowan that, it was claimed, formed part of Sidney Nolan's iconic Ned Kelly series.
Whistleblowers such as historian Susanna De Vries-Evans and art dealer Lauraine Diggins have claimed that art fraud in this country is highly organised and extensive. DeVries-Evans admits to having once bought a fake Arthur Streeton and alleged that she received death threats followed her attempts to return it.
De Vries-Evans holds our libel laws partly responsible for creating what she says is a climate of fear in the art world. An unsubstantiated accusation of fraud can certainly prove costly. In 1995, a Double Bay art dealer who was falsely accused of selling fakes was awarded more than $100,000 by the NSW Supreme Court after a disgruntled overseas buyer claimed he had been sold a phoney Picasso lithograph.
Occasionally, though, some light touches this dark trade. A scandal broke in 1998 when it was revealed, during a court case in Sydney over a contested will, that hundreds of fakes had been sold by deceased Paddington art dealer Germaine Curvers. Painter William Blundell admitted that he had been paid by Curvers to produce a steady stream of what he termed "innuendos". The commissions from his patron included supposed Nolans, Arthur Boyds, Drysdales and even the odd Picasso. According to Blundell, the works were produced for a nominal fee merely as "decoration", though Curvers was said to have resold them at a profit of as much as 2000 per cent.
Blundell boasted of producing thousands of fakes over three decades; if true, that would make him one of the most prolific and versatile art forgers of all time. Some artists, he said, were a doddle. "The Whiteleys are easy," Blundell said in an interview with Ben Hills, "I can do 20 or 30 sketches in a couple of hours." A week after Blundell made his stunning confession, a Sydney auctioneer withdrew a Whiteley charcoal sketch from sale, citing buyer nervousness.
Forgery on an impressive scale has also been uncovered in indigenous art, with the incidence of real or alleged fakery similarly dependent on the stature and saleability of the individual artist.
Leading painters such as Turkey Tolson Tjupurrula, Kathleen Petyarre and Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri have all found themselves embroiled in controversy. In 1997, Petyarre's estranged de facto husband claimed he was largely responsible for a prize-winning work entered by his former partner. A subsequent inquiry by the Museum of the Northern Territory found insufficient evidence to sustain the allegation.
Two years later, Tjupurrula admitted he had signed a work that was painted by someone else, while fellow artist Ginger Riley identified works bearing his name which he said he had not produced on sale at galleries in Melbourne and Adelaide.
In 2001, Adelaide art dealer John O'Loughlin pleaded guilty to selling fake Tjapaltjarri paintings, some of which had reportedly found their way into the NSW Art Gallery and Sydney's Museum of Contemporary Art.
Other indigenous artists have been exposed as impostors. Sakshi Anmatyerre was revealed to be Farley French, an Indian from Kolkata who sold works to Paul Hogan, the Sultan of Brunei and members of the Packer family. Male Aboriginal painter Eddie Burrup turned out to be Perth-based Elizabeth Durack, a white woman of Irish descent.
Large sums are involved, but art forgery is not just about the money. In reality, the estimate as to the market value of a painting such as Head of a Man is immaterial, given that a picture owned by a public gallery for so many decades is never likely to again be offered for sale. Of greater importance to the NGV, and the taxpayers who fund it, is how individual art lovers would respond to the picture if it turned out to be a fake. Would they be entitled to feel that their trust in the experts has been abused?
When the Eddie Burrup hoax was revealed, Art Gallery of NSW director Edmund Capon was quoted as claiming that the issue was of no importance in relation to the gallery's attitude to the work. "I don't give a hoot who painted it," he declared. "We're not judging the artist. We're judging the work of art."
Some of his colleagues, however, expressed outrage at the deception. Though some commentators claim that the issue of the artist's identity does not affect the aesthetic quality of creative work, no art exists in a vacuum. Biographical, historical and emotional factors are among those that inevitably shape appreciation of art.
The well-known legend of van Gogh, the painter who suffered for his art, feeds the public fascination inspired by his work and drives up the price. In our secular modern world, works of art attract some of the idolatry once associated with religious relics. Much of the popular appeal of Aboriginal art lies in the perception of an aura of pre-commercial spiritual authenticity.
We should not underestimate the ethical aspect of human creativity. Even if Picasso was correct when he said that art is the lie that tells the truth, faith in the genuineness of art is essential to an appreciation of its meaning and value. As professor of philosophy Denis Dutton explains: "Part of what individuals admire and enjoy in art is innovation and originality; forgery by its nature is derivative and unoriginal. Historically speaking, the artist is an imaginative and revolutionary creator; the forger is always a parasite."