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Forging Famous

Arts & Culture | November 7, 2016

Forgery has existed alongside art for as long as 2000 years. We are reminded of this even more acutely now that $255 million worth of old European “masters” are suspected to be forgeries. While the monetary value of these works alone is shocking, the art world and its main proprietors remain unfazed. Art forgery has become part of the business, and forgers’ methods have become harder to detect. Perhaps more importantly, forgeries force consumers to question what makes art legitimate and what is being paid for.

From an academic perspective, Tufts Art History Professor Andrew McClellan remarked on how forgery makes it tricky to teach about art since we are unsure if a work is real or not. Fake works of art disorient us and challenge our notions of credibility.

The standards for what makes a work original or authentic carry with them anthropological and philosophical implications. In Chinese art, each work in a series is considered a copy or gao. Although gaos are technically copies, it does not make the work any less original.  Professor McClellan astutely concludes that when we go to museums, “We pay to tap into the brilliance of an artist’s genius.” Knowing that a work came directly from an artist’s hand is one of the main assumptions that affect how we engage with a work.

Lynn Catterson, an art history professor at Columbia University, questioned why copies are so looked down upon when they present almost identical images to original works. “If the distinction between an original and a copy cannot be discerned by eye and, in some cases, touch—why do we care?” Dr. Catterson said,  “We assign value to work on account of their rarity and age, which makes certain objects a commodity. Hence stakeholders care about authenticity.” Dr. Catterson explained that the authenticity of the work is what gives it value, as opposed to merely the image itself.

It makes sense then that art dealers are often the ones making fakes. Professor McClellan points out that when a client buys art, they are not only buying it for its physical presence, but for the concept and execution of the artist. Since forgeries are made purely for profit, art salespeople are known to take advantage of this system for financial gain.

In the same vein, art works without identifiable artists are less widely appreciated. When a work does not have an attributed artist, such as those from historical-cultural contexts where artists did not sign their pieces, their value for a typical museumgoer is negatively impacted.

Our culture’s obsession with the life of the artist plays a critical role in forgery and why we find it so offensive. So many of the contemporary greats, as well as old household names, have had whole fields of academic study dedicated to their lives outside art. How would Rothko’s emotionally controlling works be experienced differently if they were not colored by his tragic suicide? Many of Pollock’s works seem an all-too-fitting backdrop to his Bipolar disorder and alcoholism.

More recently, as McClellan notes, “The cult of genius has only picked up momentum and has raised the stakes for authenticity.” The persona and genius of an artist is almost as important as—if not equal to—the work itself. Artists’ lives have become a crux to understanding the work. As a viewer, the easiest interpretation of a work can be a biographical one. When buying a work of art, one is also buying a piece in the narrative of an artist’s life; the work is not only a fixed, physical object to be viewed, but also takes on a relative dimension, with cultural significance and an element of autobiography.

For anyone who loves, appreciates, or studies art, forgeries are rampant enough in art institutions that they deserve considerable discussion. Professor McClellan noted how the Tufts art history major, and any art history class in general, discusses the content of an image—students are never taught to step back and wonder if the image is real.

As Professor McClellan pointed out, the art that is most often forged receives the least media attention, particularly works from Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. Susan Vogel, executive director of the Center for African Art in New York, stated to the New York Times, “I have seen the fakes become progressively more sophisticated. There is a level of fakes that can fool everyone.” The lack of media coverage and experts who study African art can be observed by even a quick Google search. Trying to find a specific case of African art forgery that reached the prominence of cases involving the European “masters” is nearly impossible. The lack of academic attention being paid to African art, paired with the phasing out of connoisseurship in art schools will only make it increasingly difficult to detect fakes from the non-Western world in the future.

Art history students are not taught to be connoisseurs. All the knowledge any given art student at Tufts could gain on how to detect quality and craftsmanship that goes into a work would have to be learned in the storage facilities of galleries, while working at jobs or internships. As technology advances, the rate at which these fakes are made is only going to increase, but it should serve as a solace that our knowledge, as noted by both Professor McClellan and Dr. Catterson, is also expanding. However, the gap between art academia and connoisseurship is dwindling. The only way forgeries can be detected is if there is an active shift towards the study of connoisseurship, and if academia clearly defines what is and isn’t fake.