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Jonathon Keats


For the Love of Forgery

Posted: 01/08/2013 8:47 am

Jonathon Keats is the author of Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age ($19.95, OUP)

"Utterly rotten." Those were the words with which Tom Keating described the art world that he failed to impress as an artist, and subsequently humiliated as a forger, passing off fake Gainsboroughs and Renoirs to gullible collectors and curators who declined to acquire paintings bearing his own signature. To buttress his case, Keating embellished his counterfeits with anachronistic details, ensuring that people would eventually realize they'd been duped.

Keating's story, which played out primarily in England in the 1960s and '70s, can be read as a typical tale of vengeance, and his popularity following his capture -- including his own TV program on Channel 4 in the UK -- can be seen as a standard case of underdog allure. Keating deserves more credit. A closer look at his work and its impact reveals a challenge to tradition more subtle, and probably more potent, than the majority of Dada and Pop Art. In a stroke, Keating's paintings called into question sanctified notions ranging from the authority of connoisseurship to the importance of authorship to the cult of originality. And they did so with a directness that was accessible not only to insiders, but to everybody.

Keating is far from the only forger whose work is as worthy of serious consideration as the art of acknowledged masters. Han van Meegeren invented a whole period in the career of Johannes Vermeer -- making up Biblical scenes unlike anything Vermeer ever painted -- effectively hijacking Vermeer's reputation. Elmyr de Hory passed off fakes by Picasso and Modigliani by faking his own past, pretending to be a fugitive aristocrat desperate to sell his belongings. Eric Hebborn made his fakes more difficult to detect by claiming that some authentic old master drawings were his counterfeits.

In myriad ways, forgers have powerfully challenged 'legitimate' art in their own time, breaching accepted practices and upsetting the status quo. Moreover, many of the present-day cultural anxieties that are major themes in the arts -- from the ways we establish value to the reasons we trust our beliefs -- are more provocatively confronted by forgers than by the vast majority of contemporary artists. A successful forgery depends on a keen sense of our vulnerabilities. When they're exposed, forgeries reveal aspects of our character we've ignored or suppressed.

Vilified by institutions and applauded by outsiders, art forgery has been much discussed as a crime. The time has come to look at great forgeries as high art.

Here are ten 20th-century art forgers who deserve recognition as great artists:

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  • Riccardo Riccardi and Alfredo Fioravanti

    For nearly half a century, the Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibited several counterfeit statues of Etruscan warriors incompetently crafted by Riccardo Riccardi and Alfredo Fioravanti, two boys from a small town near Rome who had no idea what authentic Etruscan artifacts looked like. Despite the skepticism of outside experts, the oddly proportioned figures were kept on view in order to avoid institutional embarrassment, enshrining for several generations an arrestingly strange Etruscan aesthetic that never existed in ancient days.

  • Jean Charles Millet

    The grandson of the Barbizon painter Jean-François Millet, Jean Charles Millet exploited the family name – and a stencil Jean-François had made for signing his paintings – by employing a deaf housepainter named Paul Cazot to copy his grandfather's canvases by the hundred. Charged with forgery, Millet defended himself in French court by saying he sold his fakes only to Americans and Englishmen, arguing that he couldn't be blamed for their ignorance. Eventually he was convicted, but only for passing bad checks.

  • Yves Chaudron

    Following the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911, Leonardo's masterpiece was illicitly offered for private sale to six different collectors, each of whom received a copy painted by Yves Chaudron. The con worked because the collectors had all heard about the missing original, but each had to keep his illegal purchase secret. It would have been the perfect crime, if only it were real. Later research has shown that Chaudron himself was a fake, fabricated by the<em> Saturday Evening Post </em>journalist Karl Decker, a forger's forger.

  • Han van Meegeren

    The eminent art historian Abraham Bredius believed that Vermeer once went through a religious phase, and that paintings from that period would eventually be discovered. Han van Meegeren helped Bredius to prove his theory by fabricating a Vermeer on a Biblical theme and having it submitted to Bredius for authentication. Though van Meegeren's painting bore no resemblance to authentic Vermeers in terms of content or quality, Bredius declared it a masterpiece. On the strength of that endorsement, van Meegeren made more 'Vermeers'. And the more of them he made, the more convincing all of them became as the growing body of work changed how people viewed Vermeer's actual paintings.

  • Lothar Malskat

    Hired to restore a Gothic church in the West German town of Lübeck in the 1950s, the art conservator Lothar Malskat exceeded expectations by discovering a whole cycle of medieval frescos. Only after two million postage stamps had been printed to celebrate the find did Malskat reveal that he'd made the murals himself, modeling his Biblical figures on school friends and movie stars. Even after the trial, the Lübeck government debated keeping the paintings, loathe to give up the town's newfound popularity with art enthusiasts. Some of the murals remain in place today, six decades after the scandal. Guidebooks don't mention they're fakes.

  • Elmyr de Hory

    The storied life of Elmyr de Hory, master forger of paintings by Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, is known primarily through a biography written by Clifford Irving in the late 1960s, a source that is questionable not only on account of de Hory's characteristic self-mythologizing – including a make-believe aristocratic upbringing – but also because of his biographer's next project: Irving's attempted forgery of Howard Hughes's memoirs. The combination of myth and mystery has made de Hory's known forgeries so highly collectable in their own right that de Hory copies are often now forged.

  • Tom Keating

    Frustrated as an artist, Tom Keating set out to prove the art world's stupidity by forging drawings and paintings by past greats ranging from John Constable to Amedeo Modigliani, in many cases including what he called "time bombs" – such as underpainting messages in lead white that would be revealed by x-rays – to flaunt the paintings' fraudulence years after they'd been bought. The British public embraced his anti-elitist cause following his eventual confession, garnering a large audience for his TV series teaching everybody how to paint like the masters: his ultimate revenge.

  • David Stein

    After he was convicted of counterfeiting modern masters including Pablo Picasso and Marc Chagall in the late 1960s, the French art forger David Stein began signing his own name to his fakes, and even having some of them featured as movie props in <em>The Moderns</em>. It was ideal cover for his ongoing illicit production of forgeries essentially identical to the paintings for which he was taking public credit.

  • Konrad Kujau

    Konrad Kujau made his living defrauding neo-Nazis and nostalgically fascist Germans by supplying them with memorabilia falsely attributed to Hitler, including nude paintings of Eva Braun, pages from an opera, and ultimately the Fuhrer's personal diaries, which were duly published in <em>Stern</em>. Many who were duped seem to have known it, deeming the money they gave Kujau a small price to pay for 'evidence' of Hitler's culture and humanity.

  • Eric Hebborn

    Counterfeiting drawings and paintings by old masters from Rubens to Brueghel, Eric Hebborn delighted in boasting about his achievements, publishing a handbook sharing his techniques for faking pigments, and claiming that numerous works in public collections were his creations. While some were, others he identified as fakes were genuine, though no amount of scholarship has fully overcome the taint of doubt.