Raphael's tablecloth -- the art of fakery False Impressions," by Thomas Hoving Simon & Schuster. 347 pages. $25

March 24, 1996|By RICHARD O'MARA | RICHARD O'MARA,SUN STAFF

Art fakery has been pandemic since people first began fashioning objects of particular beauty. Greeks, Romans, Medieval and Renaissance man - they all did it. The 20th Century has offered a wild bazaar of the stuff. Even great artists indulged in it: Donatello, possibly Benvenuto Cellini. Raphael? One of the better stories relates to him.

Raphael, young and poor, was in a hotel with no money to pay the bill. So he painted a stack of coins on his hotel room table cloth. The glitter of the coins on the table delayed the owner long enough to allow the starving artist to make a getaway.

The problem is, Raphael never was poor and the incident never happened. But the "proof" of it still turns up now and then in art and antique shops: Raphael's painted tablecloth.

Fakes are everywhere. Consider the works of Frank X. Kelly, the man who taught the author of this book his first lessons in art forgery. Kelly's bright Monets, Cezannes, Renoirs still circulate in and out of respectable art dealerships; they find their way onto museum walls, into private collections. They are acquired by the not-so-knowing cognoscenti: rich collectors, museum curators, greedy speculators.

Thomas Hoving is a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He now writes novels and non-fiction works about the "art business." It is a universe he knows his way around. This is an anecdotal book, written to illuminate for the average reader (certainly not the expert, for whom much that's in it is probably familiar) one aspect of that universe - fakery. He succeeds in this, and also demonstrates how fakery brings out the worst in people - especially curators who are among its principal victims. They are often impulsive, and not so knowledgeable as they ought to be. Some engage in smuggling.

Despite the gravity of the subject, Mr. Hoving presents this survey of art fakery though the ages in a blithe confessional tone which gently pulls the reader along to the end. He describes himself as an artful "fakebuster." It takes years art study to become one, he says, and something else: another sense that makes the nose itch when it comes near a fake.

To his credit, he also admits that he too has contributed his share to the Met's basement full of counterfeits. He bought a fake Goya, a forged German-Gothic sculpture, a fraudulent enamel. He might have blown the Cloister's budget had he taken the final step toward the trap set by a patient German confidence man. But he was saved by the best defense mechanism of all: common sense, the sudden realization that the deal that's too good to be true always is.

Fakers inspire more than the obvious problems. Because they stimulate such assiduous efforts to root them out, many fine and genuine pieces are stained by suspicion.

Some may recall a drama in the late 1960s when the Met announced it had learned that the pride of its antiquities collection was a fraud: a bronze Greek horse from 470 BC was actually fashioned in the 20th Century. The forgery was detected by Joseph V. Noble, the curator who had earlier revealed a spectacular Etruscan forgery. The story hit the front pages. The museum was praised for its honesty. The horse was removed from view. A few years later, after further investigation, it was found to be genuine and quietly returned. There was no big story about that. After all, what might the curators have said: Oops! Sorry.

Richard O'Mara is a features writer for The Sun. For 12 years, he was foreign editor and before that, foreign correspondent in Europe and Latin America. He has written for the Virginia Quarterly Review and the Saturday Review.

Pub date 3/24/96

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