Art of the Phony (NYRB review by Charles Hope)

Charles Hope has a fascinating review of three books on forgery in the New York Review of Books, August 15, 2013 issue (paywalled). Perhaps his most interesting points are

  • that our ideas of authenticity have changed greatly from the medieval period, from religious-effectiveness to historical-original (e.g., a religious relic would be authentic because it worked–it healed people or win battles or did other miraculous things),
  • that great artists of the Renaissance were sometimes themselves great ‘forgers’ (the cases of Andrea del Sarto and Michelangelo, mentioned by Vasari in Lives of the Artists faking classical antiquities), and
  • that perhaps the best authenticators of artwork may be professional artists themselves!

Parenthetically, I wonder to what extent importing notions of credit, of belief (credo, credere), from early financial markets into the art market played a role into developing notions of authenticity.

Some tidbits:

The modern attitude toward forgery seems then to involve a number of features, some of which only gradually developed late in the Renaissance or after. One is the belief that works of art of all periods have a certain intrinsic value and that their historical and stylistic character should be respected, including, to some degree at least, the inevitable changes wrought by time. This belief was not held by early modern collectors of ancient art, or, for that matter, by church authorities and others who commissioned new versions of the images of the Madonna attributed to Saint Luke. Another requirement is the existence of an active art market. Finally, there has to be some widely accepted mechanism for determining the authenticity of the objects bought and sold in that market. [emphasis added]

And he comments on the notorious Eric Hebborn:

Likewise, in Drawn to Trouble, his fascinating autobiography, Eric Hebborn, the most intelligent and skillful of recent forgers, described in detail how he produced fake drawings of the kind that would appeal to art historians. He knew how to anticipate the kinds of argument that they would make to themselves when confronted with a possible work by a particular artist. A self-confessed forger is unlikely to be a particularly reliable witness about his own activities, but Hebborn’s book certainly demonstrated his knowledge of art history. [emphasis added]

And finally, Hope makes this excellent point:

It is often argued that art forgeries are eventually unmasked, because in time they reveal, through their style, the period in which they were made, rather than that in which they were purported to have been made. But while this is true of some forgeries, there is no reason to suppose that it is true of all of them.

I’ve certainly believed this idea (that our expectations blind us to fakes that are geared to our expectations) and we do need to be wary of how our predispositions and conditioning may blind us.

We need to approach every work, every document, with a certain humility, and approach our predecessors in this scholarly game with that same humility.

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By Paul Romaine

Paul Romaine is a grant writer and independent curator in New York City.

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