Just Like the Real Thing

In marshalling my thoughts for the art fraud seminar on monday, I've written this essay, which I'll probably read out:

Back in 1973, an art critic called Carol Duncan tried an experiment. Writing under the name Cheryl Bernstein, she wrote a glowing review of an exhibition by Hank Herron, whose entire catalogue was composed of meticulously hand painted duplicates of paintings by another artist, Frank Stella.

Years later Herron still had defenders and detractors, and there were some very enthusiastic debates about what his repaintings added to Stella's originals. There was just one problem: Frank Herron didn't exist. The exhibition, gallery, artist and critic were all ficticious - though Frank Stella is a real artist.

Herron's commentators sometimes claimed to have seen the work, even though the only source of all the information about him was that one article. If nothing else, this should tell you something about the art world, and about fraudulence in general.

But just imagine Herron's work had existed. Would we have called him an art forger? No, we wouldn't. Because although he supposedly was making copies exact enough to be taken for the originals, he wasn't claiming that his paintings were the originals.

There's plenty of people who have prints of famous painting hanging on their walls, and some richer people have specially commissioned hand painted copies. But there's (usually) no pretense that they actually have works of art worth millions of dollars hanging over their fireplace.

For a painting to be called a fake, it has to be presented as the original. So it's not a question of the actual paint, canvass and frame - it's a matter of the art object being given a fraudulent history.

This means that in legal terms, art fraud is often document fraud - where the document is not the painting itself but the signature in the corner, or the word of the person trying to sell it.

It's been estimated that maybe 10% of the paintings in the national gallery are fakes or forgeries, and that a further 30% are misattributions - which means thousands of the gallery's paintings are not by the people who's names they hang next to. Fakes and misattributions are obviously not the same thing but they do have something in common.

when a painting by Rembrandt turns out to be by a student of Rembrandt, it's market value suddenly goes down. And when the reverse happens it suddenly becomes a lot more valuable - and the more pretentious kind of art viewer finds that's it's suddenly become a much better painting.

Likewise when a genuine goya is discovered to be really a fake, it becomes almost worthless - though it may get more talked about as a scandal. And when a goya of disputed provenance is proven to be the real deal, it's market price shoots up.

It seems that it's not the painting itself that's worth all that money. It's obviously not the physical material, or the man hours spent working on it, or the 'aesthetics' - whatever that actually is. It's the artist's name that has market value.

I should say, there's a distinction sometimes used between a fake and a forgery. A fake is a copy masquerading as the original. A forgery is a new painting masquerading as a newly discovered old painting by another artist. You might say paintings get faked and artists get forged.

Another small complication is that a sixteenth century fake of a thirteenth century painting can be prized as a valuable and beautiful work in it's own right, and this can even happen with modern fakes.

The forged Breugal sketches of Eric Hebborn are now much sought after by collectors, and the forged Picasso's of Elmyr de Hory can sell for more than Picasso's own minor works.

Now, if it's true that the history - the provenence - of the painting is the important thing, would that mean that mediocre forgeries could pass for the real thing if the historical documents relating to them could be faked?

The answer is yes, and it has happened. There was a duo of art fraudsters in the 1990s called John Drewe and John Myatt. Myatt was a good but not great pastiche painter - he did work 'in the style of' a range of well known but not very famous artists. He painted on modern canvass, using modern brushes, and his paint was actually a mixture of Duluxe emulson and KY jelly. So if any of his paintings had been subjected to chemical analysis, or even looked at closely by experts, the game would be instantly up.

But they weren't examined, because there seemed no reason to do it, because the documents in the British Museum and other prestidgious art research libraries gave them long and plausible histories. And that was because Drewe had gained access, stolen some books, filleted them, inserted new pages of fictional history on artificially aged paper, rebound the books and put them back in the libraries. So when routine checks were done into the background of Myatt's forgeries when they came on the market, they had a convincing history.

In fact, we still don't know how much expert documentation and research is Drewe's work.

It's a large area, and I haven't said anything about the motivations of fraudsters, art dealers who might go bankrupt if they didn't knowingly sell fakes, the cult of celebrity that forgers often enjoy, cultures where artists train by copying the work of past masters, or the fact that experts are sometimes employed to prove a painting is genuine, even when it obviously isn't.

Over to you.


  1. Facinating and very well written. Not that I'd expect any less. ;)

    You say:
    I should say, there's a distinction sometimes used between a fake and a forgery. A fake is a copy masquerading as the original. A forgery is a new painting masquerading as a newly discovered old painting by another artist.
    But surely it's a question of intent and knowledge?

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