By Tom Wachunas
“…Against those who insist that an object’s status as forged is irrelevant to its artistic merit, I would hold that when we learn that the kind of achievement an art object involves has been radically misrepresented to us, it is not as though we have learned a new fact about some familiar object of aesthetic attention. To the contrary, insofar as its position as a work of art is concerned, it is no longer the same object.” – Dennis Dutton, from “Artistic Crimes,” The British Journal of Aesthetics, 1979
Highly recommended reading: http://www.denisdutton.com/artistic_crimes.htm
EXHIBIT: Intent To Deceive: Fakes and Forgeries in the Art World, at the Canton Museum of Art, 1001 Market Avenue N., THROUGH OCTOBER 26
Once again, many thanks and praises to the Canton Museum of Art for bringing us a high-caliber show, this one being the Midwest premiere an important travelling exhibit (the first two stops were in Massachusetts and Florida) that fascinates on all levels. Curated by Colette Loll, founder and director of Art Fraud Insights (here’s a link: http://www.artfraudinsights.com/ ), the exhibit has been featured on the CBS Evening News as well as in The New York Times and The Boston Globe.
Here, original works by Honore Daumier, Amedeo Modigliani, Raoul Dufy, Henri Matisse and Pablo Picasso, among others, are interspersed with some 50 pieces by five of the world’s most infamous art forgers in modern times: Han Van Meegeren (1889-1947), Elmyr de Hory (1906-1976), Eric Hebborn (1934-1996), John Myatt (b. 1945), and Mark Landis (b. 1955).
One common element among these con men is that none was able to forge, as it were, a livelihood from producing work in his own style. This is not to say that they were wholly incompetent artists in their own right. Far from it. And at the very least, they were masterful imitators. Look at Elmyr de Hory’s Portrait of a Woman and it’s certainly plausible that he could pass it off as an authentic Modigliani. Similarly, experts in 1941 were certain that Han van Meegeren’s eerie Head of Christ was convincing evidence of Vermeer’s so-called “lost religious period.”
But for four of these artists (Mark Landis being the exception, since he donated his pieces to museums and no money was ever exchanged), the frustrations and anxieties that came with not being recognized for their talents led to their seeking lucrative commercial success by duping curators, connoisseurs and other experts of the day with their outright fakes (duplications) or forgeries (falsely accredited works done in the style of the original artist).
For all the intriguing and disturbing facts that are so well organized and presented here as to the biographies, motivations and ingeniously deceptive practices of these con men, it seems to me that the exhibit raises just as many thorny considerations about art world practices, motivations and values in general. These considerations take on even more depth particularly if you choose to delve into two excellently written books relevant to this exhibit - both available for purchase at the museum: Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue The World’s Stolen Treasures, by Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI’s National Art Crime Team; and The Forger’s Apprentice: Life with the World’s Most Notorious Artist, by Mark Forgy.
While Forgy’s account of his years with his mentor Elmyr de Hory often smacks of misplaced hero worship, both books shine a glaring light on the intricate (and maddeningly arbitrary) wheeling and dealing within the art world. It is at times a corruptible and complicated world that insouciantly operates in a whatever- the- market- will- bear milieu. It is a world wherein objects of unquestionable artistic merit as well as contemporary objects of dubious worth can be equally regarded as negotiable commodities available to the highest bidder. To the uninitiated, it would often seem to be a world whose stock-in-trade isn’t really the savoring and protecting of true art so much as the pure hype of celebrity, profitability and the allure of ownership.
I believe that the actions of the individuals spotlighted in this exhibit (again, with the exception of Mark Landis, whose activities were apparently driven by deep compulsion to be regarded as a philanthropist) demonstrate unmitigated hubris. Aside from a lust for financial profit, their activities are wholly indefensible despite any rationales built upon flimsy moralizing (such as in Eric Hebborn’s statement, “Only the experts are worth fooling. The greater the expert, the greater the satisfaction in deceiving him”), and regardless of any perceived aesthetic merit to their forged works. The deliberately fictionalized provenances (origins and ownership histories) of their works corrupted our grasp of authentic cultural realities. Of the more than 1,000 forgeries thought to be foisted on to the world market by Elmyr de Hory, for example, many are still in museums and have yet to be exposed.
But I also think one could make a fairly good argument that if “fakery” in this context can be defined as dressing shallow artifice in the guise of significant fine art (and reaping ridiculously hefty monetary reward), then the art world at large has succeeded more than once in pulling the wool over our eyes. Think of it as the Emperor’s New Clothes Syndrome. Case in point: In 2013, Jeff Koons’ kitschy, mirror-polished stainless steel sculpture, Balloon Dog (Orange), became the most expensive work by a living artist when it sold at Christie’s for $58.4 million.
Who’s fooling whom?
PHOTOS, courtesy http://www.intenttodeceive.org/ , from top: Elmyr de Hory (1906-1976), Portrait of a Woman, in the style of Amedeo Modigliani (Italian, 1884-1920), 1956-1957, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Scott and Pamela Richter / Han van Meegeren (1889-1947), Head of Christ, in the style of Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632-1675), 1940-41, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Photo: Studio Tromp, Rotterdam / Mark Landis (b. 1955), Women Seated on Lawn, in the style of Charles Courtney Curran (American, 1861-1942), ca. 2000, oil on pressed board. Courtesy of the Paul and Lulu Hilliard University Art Museum / Eric Hebborn (1934-1996), Standing Young Man Leaning on a Plinth, in the style of Jean-Antoine Watteau (French, 1684 -1721), 1970s, black and red chalk on laid paper. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC. Gift of Dian Woodner, 2008.38.6. / John Myatt (b. 1945), Charing Cross Railway taken from the Savoy, in the style of Claude Monet (French, 1840 – 1926), 2011, oil on canvas. Courtesy of Clive and Shyamali Fenton, UK. Photo: Washington Green Fine Art.