If it's framed and it's fake, it still may have worth

In the art world, false doesn't mean having to say you're sorry


March 28, 2004|By Ariella Budick

In a world engorged with fakery, we look to art as a haven of authenticity: What could be more irreducibly genuine than a piece of canvas stretched and daubed by the hand of a master and hung from a hook on a wall?

We look in vain. In art, it's often difficult to decide what is authentic -- and how much it really matters.

In Switzerland, an entrepreneur supervises a team of forgers manufacturing fake Monets, Renoirs and Van Goghs and claims a prestigious clientele. In Rome, a blockbuster Caravaggio exhibition consists entirely of life-size digital reproductions -- gorgeous simulacra of paintings around the world that won't or can't travel.

In San Francisco and Toronto in the fall, crowds flocked to museums to see Degas' iconic bronze ballerinas, bathers and horses -- all of them cast years after the artist's death. He never saw a single one of his intimate wax models frozen into metal.

Fakery is as old as the art trade. Collectors in imperial Rome placed a premium on classical Greek sculpture, and unscrupulous Roman forgers ensured that supply always met demand (wink, wink).

The pursuit of authenticity can encounter nasty opposition. Marc Restellini, who was about to publish a catalog claiming that nearly a quarter of the drawings attributed to Modigliani actually were fakes, was reportedly dissuaded from doing so by death threats, attempted bribes and other pressure from irate collectors.

A beautiful artwork does not cease to be beautiful once its authorship is cast in doubt, but it can cease to be precious. August Uribe, a specialist in impressionist and modern art at Sotheby's, recalls a purported Monet that hung above a collector's mantel for decades. Called in to evaluate the painting, Uribe had to demolish the owner's dreams and decree that the beloved heirloom was actually junk. "At the end of the day, we're not curators here, we're merchants. We have to play by the rules," Uribe said.

Money isn't the only reason it's important to establish authenticity. Scholars value definitive identity for what it can illuminate of history and culture. "Fakes distort and falsify our understanding of an artist and of history," said Sharon Flescher, executive director of the International Foundation for Art Research, which offers an authentication service. "The marketplace is the driving force behind a lot of it, but scholars are interested, too. Ultimately, you want to feel that you know who Monet is: his trajectory, his developments, his influences."

What kind of fake?

To help navigate the fluid distinctions between what is genuine and what is not, it's helpful to keep in mind four broad categories of questionable art: the outright fake, the misattribution, the unauthorized multiple and the work deliberately designed to sow confusion.

Daniele Donde, based in Lugano, Switzerland, makes fakes to order. The bulk of the hand-painted faux masterpieces he sells are commissioned, he claims, by collectors who want replicas of masterworks that they have been forced to sell.

Donde is unapologetic about his products, each of which bears a false signature but is accompanied by a certificate of inauthenticity. He distinguishes between a copy and a falso, or forgery: The copy can be made from a postcard and has no merit, while the falso is a work of art in its own right, a brushstroke-by-brushstroke reproduction using the same dimensions, techniques and colors as the artist did in the original.

"The art of the falsario," he said, using the word from his native Italian, "is to create something that is indistinguishable from the original. The forgery has the same artistic value of the original, even if the original will sell for $10 million and mine goes for $10,000. In 50 years, my paintings will be in all the museums."

Donde doesn't think of forgery as the shameful effluvium of a voracious art market; he believes the forger is an expert deserving of more stature. "I legalized forgery," he proclaimed. "I gave it an ideology. I gave the forger an identity and a dignity."

The forger of the Getty Kouros -- if such a person exists -- deserves kudos for a job well done. In 1985, the Getty Museum acquired what it believed to be an ancient statue of a mysteriously smiling Greek youth. It soon emerged that the provenance papers stating its ownership history had been faked, and scientific analyses of the sculpture raised more questions than they answered. Scholars still are sharply divided about the Kouros, and the museum itself has labeled it as "Greek, about 530 BC, or modern forgery."

Most questionable artworks were never intended to deceive, but rather were misattributed by scholars.

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