The art of lying

Which is more fraudulent: art forgery or the market which sustains it? By David Ekserdjian Fakes: Forgery and the Art World by Alice Beckett Richard Cohen Books, pounds 18.99

David Ekserdjian
Friday 15 September 1995 23:02

If artists are by definition less interesting than their art, then forgers are no less inevitably more interesting than their fakes. Under the circumstances, it may have been prudent of Alice Beckett to focus her attention on ripping yarns about individual forgers rather than to attempt to understand the complex phenomenon itself.

The pleasure people derive from reading about successful forgers derives from a fear and loathing of experts. Both Eric Hebborn and Tom Keating clearly despised the bow-tied snootiness of the art world, and delighted in cocking a snook at it. They particularly resented the fact that all the so-called experts could not paint or draw themselves. It is pointless to observe that only the most pin-headed of connoisseurs could imagine that he or she was infallible, and that the study of the visual arts is a notably inexact science. Where forgers have their main chance is in the destructive allure of discovery that excites scholars and dealers in equal measure. For learned articles represent quite as much of a carrot to the former as money in the bank to the latter. If Hebborn is telling the truth when he says that he never offered an opinion as to the authorship of his productions, then he certainly showed cunning, because it left his victims something to add. Less gracious, perhaps, is the fact that Konrad Oberhuber, who finally rumbled him, is not even named here ("a curator" is all he merits).

The great mystery, as time goes by, is how they ever got away with it. It has something to do with the virtual impossibility of escaping from one's own age. Fashion gives the best analogy, because it always seems all right at the time, but is almost invariably cringe-makingly embarrassing years later. Old fakes look about as convincing as bell-bottom trousers and platform shoes, as the abysmal "Vermeer" nonsenses by Van Meegeren poignantly testify. The forger's fallacy is to assume that because he can fool the pros, he is on a level with the great artists he counterfeits. Hebborn is quoted comparing himself with Michelangelo and Rembrandt, when he is just one more failed artist to add to the list. This book, like most popular accounts of the subject, concentrates on painting and drawing, when in fact much the most successful forgeries, many of which remain undetected a century and more after their creation, are of the decorative arts. The Rospigliosi Cup in the Metropolitan, now recognised as a forgery and sometimes attributed to Reinhold Vasters (1827-1909), still adorned the back cover of a distinguished general survey of Mannerism after his unmasking in the Seventies, while Salomon Weininger, the Viennese goldsmith and restorer, copied the Reliquary of the Holy Thorn from the Imperial Treasury, returned his version undetected and kept the original, which eventually made its way to the British Museum. Only this year a new star, Alfred Andre (1839-1919), has entered this particular firmament with the publication of archival material and other evidence which demonstrates that he was responsible for virtually all the Renaissance jewellery in the National Gallery of Art in Washington. Eat your hearts out, Elmer de Hory and the rest. As for the all-time big three (the Turin Shroud, Ossian, and Piltdown Man), they are in a wholly different league.

Beckett's cast of characters tend to be presented as lovable rogues with more than a hint of the Ealing comedy or "Carry On" film about them. The intention is to suggest that they ain't done nuffink wrong, and that if anyone was foolish enough to be taken in, then they deserve no more sympathy than the idiots who think they can win at Find the Lady. This leads on, however, to a completely different line of argument, which is summed up in the book's finale, and goes like this:

"Yet real fraud is less the fault of the individual forger, a flawed and ephemeral individual trying to make a living, than the salerooms and the market-makers, since they stand to profit from fakers just as they do from 'legitimate' artists.

"Fakers vanish like the Cheshire Cat. The market is eternal. It is the most complete fake of all."

Clearly we are all guilty, and so too, since she presumably stands to profit from fakers (in fact the wicked market dislikes them, because they tend to be costly as well as providing copious quantities of egg on face), is Alice Beckett. What is more, she is a wee bit of a faker herself. In a slightly desperate attempt to string together the pearls of anecdote that make up the necklace of her slim volume, each chapter is prefaced with a more or less apposite quotation from Lewis Carroll. Of course, Lewis Carroll was the pseudonym of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and musing on the fact made me wonder what Alice Beckett would have done if she'd been called something else. One option might have been to change her name - and there is a well-known arts journalist, who calls herself Alison Beckett. Are we to assume they are one and the same person, and if not, which one is real? Curiouser and curiouser, as Alice would have said.

Howard, the flamboyant model for Evelyn Waugh's Anthony Blanche

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