The real thing?

BBC1 recently aired an entertaining series of programmes Fake or Fortune? about forgery in the world of fine art. This prompted me to read up a bit on the subject and, as an easy entry point, I've been reading Alice Beckett's Fakes : forgery and the art world. It's an interesting gallop through the dodgy world of deliberate forgery, art theft, copying, and the world of the auctioneer and art market. Very readable, some of the information is also quite jaw-dropping. Did you know, for example, that Picasso "borrowed" items from the Louvre, and was suspected of being involved in the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911?

That some items, that to today's eyes seem obviously to be faked, were proudly displayed for many years as the real thing, may not come as any surprise. To a certain extent most deliberate fakers will end up imbuing their fake with some of the spirit of their age. The "Etruscan" sarcophagus above, for example, was on display in the British Museum for some years, until 1935 in fact, when a visitor wondered why the woman was wearing Victorian underwear - the answer was that the chest was actually the same age as the undies!

Beckett's look at dishonesty in the art market ranges from the forger copying in his studio to the "fake" art market where prices are vastly over-inflated with record prices being reached with only one bidder. There are also examples of some stunning forgers, including Van Meegeren, who even fooled the Nazis. Some of the morality of all this is rather disturbing. The forgers themselves are generally represented as cheerful cheeky wide-boy types, who often didn't really mean to deceive. Where Beckett seems to have more of an issue is with the people at the top of the chain, who often suspect that items are fake, but keep this knowledge to themselves in order to artificially inflate the market. I don't altogether trust her portrayal of forgers, and so also suspect that her portrayal of those who run the market is not entirely true either, but one thing that her book does demonstrate admirably is that there is often a thin line between what is genuine and what is fake.

Which takes me back to Fake or fortune? It turns out that there is something of the fake in this too. Many assertions presented as new knowledge in the series were known to Alice Beckett in 1995 when she wrote Fakes. Which just goes to show that nothing in the world of art is quite what it seems.... 


Aarti said…
Ooh, this sounds really interesting! I don't know much about art forgery, but I think you're really astute in your observations about the author maybe romanticizing and justifying the role of the forgers in a way that probably isn't entirely accurate.

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