Intent to Deceive: Can You Spot the Fake?

Intent to Deceive: Fakes and Forgeries in the Art World
D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts (Springfield, MA)
Through April 27, 2014

Take a look at this luscious painting by Van Gogh. All his mastery is on display–the psychedelic colors, the thickly applied oils, and bucolic tranquility that looks as if it’s about to be devoured by the swirling sun burning across the horizon. The work is so vivid that we can imagine the mad, paint-splattered Vincent attacking his canvass with brushes and palette knife. Except that what you’re seeing is actually by John Myatt.

And what a treat to drive the 20 miles to Springfield and gaze upon Vermeer’s classic Girl with the Pearl Earring. The last time I saw it, I had to board a plane to Amsterdam and board a train for The Hague. Now that the Mauritshuis is closed for renovation, the Vermeers are free to travel. All is good, except that the image before me isn’t Vermeer; it’s Myatt again.

Intent to Deceive features five talented individuals: Myatt (1945-), Elmyr de Hory (1906-76), Han Van Meegeren (1899-1947), Eric Hebborn (1934-), and Mark Landis (1955-). You have to be talented to do what they did: make the art world think your knock-off is the Real McCoy. A newly opened exhibit at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts explores the world of art forgers. Its purpose is didactic, not laudatory. One should not equate art forgers with romantic double agents–their mischief has sidetracked careers, tarnished museum reputations, and triggered untold millions of dollars in financial losses. There are an estimated 1,000 works hanging on museum walls posing as master works that are actually by de Hory. The next time you see a museum label identifying a work as “attributed to,” chances are you’re gazing at a fraud. That may not be entirely bad. Stay with me on this seemingly outrageous remark.

The first question on everyone’s mind is: “How did the forgers get away with it?” This brings us back to the fact that one must be a superior artist even to attempt such a thing. This, in turn, begs the question of how value is assigned to art. A friend of mine judges so-called masterpieces by framing them in a question rather than gilt: “If you saw this painting at a yard sale, how much would you pay for it?” A real Van Gogh would sell for over a hundred million dollars; a faux Van Gogh for several hundred. Is the genuine article really 50,000 times better than Myatt’s work? Before you take the high ground, consider that tens of thousands of satisfied visitors annually leave a Las Vegas museum that admits its walls are adorned with simulacra.

This begs the question of whether the ultra-rich and self-anointed arbiters of public taste are complicit in the forgery trade. It’s a bit like the issue of why some athletes cheat by using steroids–because the potential monetary gain seems to justify the risk. The deceivers showcased in the exhibit made very good money off collectors, art houses, and museums more focused on value than artistry. None of the painters have made that much money with their own canvases, yet each was good enough to pass as a master.    

One can both deplore theft and raise questions about the culture of ridiculous accumulation. Take de Hory, for instance. A 1969 biography detailed de Hory’s shady career. It was penned by none other than Clifford Irving, who two years later published (and was eventually jailed for) a falsified autobiography of Howard Hughes. Did these men commit fraud for a lark, or was it for the lolly? A shadowy character named John Drewe sold several Myatt works as masters before the artist knew about it. Why did Myatt eventually go along? Follow the money.

If you’re looking for ‘good’ guys, check out the details on panel boards that explain how forgers are exposed. It’s real CSI stuff involving connoisseurship, meticulous tracking of a work’s provenance, and technical analysis (much of it using technology not available when some of the works were produced). One fascinating revelation is how an eagle-eyed art detective noticed that two prints allegedly from different time periods used the same paper. That’s a real connoisseur at work, but basic homework would have averted a lot of fraud. Myatt and Landis, for instance, legally sold acknowledged copies on the open market. 

Intent to Deceive is about mischief-makers, con men, and rubes. Its final section has small works and forgeries side by side. We are invited to identify which is fake and which is real. Can you do it? Here’s a painting. It’s a de Hory, not a Modigliani. If nothing else, Intent to Deceive made me look more closely than I normally do. It’s the only way to appreciate a true Modigliani.--Rob Weir  

1 comment:

Judy said...

I loved this exhibit! It left the viewer quite befuddled about the meaning of "real" art, and how a $$ value can be placed on it in any case. One aspect of the show that fascinated me was the variety of motivations expressed by the forgers (all of whom were in fact extremely talented artists, but couldn't make a living selling their own paintings.) One was a Hungarian refugee who was offered £50 for a painting "in the style of Picasso" the same day his rent was due, and gradually went the forgery route just to earn a "decent, but not elegant" living. One was an artist who detested the arts and auction house establishment, and wanted to thumb his nose at them. (He never sold to amateurs, only to people who "should have known better.") One was a sad soul, probably bipolar, who never took money for his forgeries, but donated them to museums in memory of his father. And deHory, the most flamboyant of the lot, loved being wealthy mainly for the fame and great party invitations!