Do fake art works lead to false pleasures?

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The Independent Online

The authenticity of a National Gallery Rubens has been called into question again. The last time Samson and Delilah was auctioned, two decades ago, it was the second most expensive painting ever sold. That must mean something. So, apart from the millions of pounds involved, and the reputation of our best art historians, critics and academics – in what way, if any, does it matter?

The authenticity of a National Gallery Rubens has been called into question again. The last time Samson and Delilah was auctioned, two decades ago, it was the second most expensive painting ever sold. That must mean something. So, apart from the millions of pounds involved, and the reputation of our best art historians, critics and academics – in what way, if any, does it matter?

If the most educated experts can't tell for certain whether or not the thing's a Rubens, why should we art-proles worry? What does it lack, this almost perfect copy, or fake, or homage, or brilliant pupil's effort? What's the difference? What's the difference, indeed, between a perfect copy and its original? And what else are Monday mornings for than to consider the nature and value of art?

First it must be said, perfect copies of oil paintings are impossible. Your old masters are just too peculiar. I don't believe much about art but I do believe that.

It became clear for me at a Frick exhibition of Rembrandt self-portraits. We were kept back from the canvasses by a red rope a couple of feet from the wall. You could lean in and inspect the paint as close as you liked, limited only by the length of your nose. And in doing so, something very odd happened. Rembrandt's eye which had been so eloquent, so real, such a representation of a real eye, disappeared when you saw it from four inches away. It only reappeared when you leant back an inch or so.

You leant in and the eye exploded, becoming a mess of specks, slashes, splashes, splodges, spiral lines. Its components were chaotic. You leant back and there it was, harmonious and full of meaning. Well, blank despair at any rate.

There are more fakeable artists. In Orson Welles's film F for Fake, we saw the great forger Elmyr de Hory at the easel. Casually, in half-a-dozen brush strokes, he'd make a Matisse and then throw it on the fire, a Chagall and throw it on the fire, a Picasso and throw it on the fire.

Acting in this capacity, de Hory was a marvellous craftsman rather than an artist, but the product, what was that? What effect would de Hory's Chagalls have had on gallery experts, on connoisseurs, on ravished collectors? In what way would the quality of their experience be different from that provided by the original?

All the aesthetes who've sat in front of Samson and Delilah over the years, working themselves up into a lather over the brushwork, what will they say if and when Rubens is declared innocent of the painting? They who have been moved, who claim to have been changed, how will they reconcile their new state to this betrayal?

Picasso regularly used to be to be asked to authenticate works that were sold as his. He always refused ("There are too many Picassos around," he said. "It depresses the price.") One time, he was told the piece he'd condemned as a fake was indeed from his own hand. "Sometimes I fake Picassos," he said. That's an interesting idea. When he imitates his own mannerisms, he fakes himself.

Yes, there is something in a masterpiece that speaks to us across the generations. The second-rate, or the third-rate, the brilliant copies and the awful fakes reveal themselves in time. A Madonna and child forgery from the 1920s became obvious, quite suddenly, 50 years afterwards, when the similarity between the Madonna and Clara Bow was observed for the first time.

The same principle applies to Han Van Meegeren, the great 20th-century Vermeer forger. He was undetectable in his day, and yet at this remove, unmistakably of his time.

simoncarr75@hotmail.com

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