Books

Museum curators and art forgers are two of a kind: they’re both vain and self-deluded

The duped party in a forgery is not all that duped, says Jonathan Meades. He is mutely complicit with the swindler

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

16 May 2015

9:00 AM

The Art of Forgery Noah Charney

Phaidon, pp.294, £19.95

Louis the Decorator and his chums in the antiques trade use the word ‘airport’ adjectivally and disparagingly. It signifies industrially produced folkloric objects (prayer mats, knobkerries, masks, toupins, necklaces, tribal amulets, djellabas etc) which are typically sold by hawkers to departing holidaymakers.

This is the basest level of fakery and is ignored by the otherwise doggedly catholic Noah Charney. Its defining characteristic, however, is tellingly akin to that of the multi-million-dollar scams that fascinate him in The Art of Forgery. The duped party is often not all that duped. He is, rather, mutely complicit with the swindler and has faith — that is to say a belief born in witting self-delusion and undemanding of proof — that the chattel is what it is claimed to be. Those swindlers who happen also to be makers meanwhile harbour a yearning to assert their authorship but can only do so by confessing to it or being detected.

Both parties are thus capable of causing the apparatus to collapse. Both strive to keep it standing. They are conjoined in mutual dependence. The oenologist Serena Sutcliffe believes that most collectors of rare wines ‘would rather not know’ about fakes, even though there are more bogus bottles from certain estates in certain vintages than there are genuine ones. But then to collectors the prestige of possessing an object trumps appreciation of it. Especially when appreciation may cost £50k per corked glass or carry the risk of pranging, say, a Facel Vega whose price has multiplied 15-fold since the millennium but whose roadholding hasn’t.


The trade in big-name wines and marques of car is straightforward beside that of the foetid can of worms where painting, prints and objets de vertu writhe in wrapped accord with the market, with fashion, with fluctuating reputation and with the caprices of the court of provenance which is composed of vying panjandrums, venal ‘experts’, committees of backstabbers, committees of placemen, trustees, consultants, museum wallahs and gallery johnnies. A senior London operative in this last trade, idly characterised as a ‘superstar’, was recently described to me by a sculptor: ‘Knows everyone, sees nothing — no eye whatsoever.’

But you do not need an eye when provenance is all; provenance demands no eye. Provenance is obviously not established by looking, but by written evidence, by catalogues raisonnés, by dealers’ records and so on, all of them as pervious to forgery as the works to which they are attached. And for all their arrogance the investigators of provenance are often hopelessly flat-footed sleuths. One of the faked items supporting the art dealer Gianfranco Becchina’s claim that the kouros (memorial statue) he was selling to the Getty Museum was genuine was a letter from a Hellenicist written in 1952 from a postcode that did not exist until 20 years later. The purchase went ahead. Again, the same institution’s trustees, fearful for its reputation, silenced its curator of Old Master drawings after he drew attention to what he recognised as six forgeries of Raphael by the English virtuoso Eric Hebborn.

In a book which abounds in breathtaking shows of arrogance some of the more despicable concern the authentication of works by such diverse artists as Leonardo, Basquiat and Warhol. The almighty Joseph Duveen, a man for whom the handle ‘compromised’ is woefully insufficient, asserted that the version of Leonardo’s ‘La Belle Ferronière’ owned by a provincial American soldier, Harry Hahn, was a fake. He was probably correct; but he reached this conclusion on nothing other than the evidence of a monochrome photograph. He had not seen the actual painting.

Charney makes the unexceptionable observation that social class also played a role, that a common soldier ought not to dare to aspire to connoisseurship. It was Duveen and his risibly corrupt tame ‘expert’ Bernard Berenson who established the squalid mores which, a century on, still pertain throughout the global art bazaar. Conflict of interest remains the tawdry norm rather than the scandalous exception. Multiple hats are routinely worn. And the boast that art is somehow intertwined with charity and philanthropy and the common wealth persists as an unchallenged idée reçue.

The questionable pleasure to be had from Charney’s energetic trawl through scores of cases is that of seeing the clayfooted guardians of the kunsthaus being bettered by the little guy, the self-proclaimed reject. Hebborn, van Meegeren, Elmyr de Hory and Shaun Greenhalgh are only a few of those who bore attritional grudges against the admittedly vacuous and laughably pretentious art establishment and sought an arcane revenge in deception for deception’s sake. Pride rather than pecuniary gain seems to be the most common motive. An exception was the novelist Clifford Irving, who, having written Fake!, a biography of Elmyr de Hory, became so enthused by the money that might be gained from forgery that he wrote the ‘autobiography’ of Howard Hughes, whom he had never met. He was obliged to repay three quarters of a million dollars to McGraw Hill, was sent down, wrote the confessional Hoax! about the affair and, now a fully-fledged con man, became a role-supermodel for the young Malcolm McLaren.

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