The usu­ally furtive mas­tery of fraud­u­lence

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY ADRIAN HIGGINS Adrian Higgins is The Washington Post’s gar­den­ing colum­nist. For more books cov­er­age, go to wash­ing­ton­post.com/books. adrian.higgins@wash­post.com

The most ab­stract as­pect of art to­day is its price: High-value fine art now fetches so much at ma­jor auc­tions that the cost of a paint­ing by Gau­guin or a bal­loon sculp­ture by Jeff Koons is mean­ing­less out­side the rar­efied world of the su­per-rich. For the rest of us, it’s the cir­cus that counts, such as the sin­gle evening in May when Christie’s sold 34 con­tem­po­rary works for $706 mil­lion, in­clud­ing a wiry Gi­a­cometti sculp­ture for $141 mil­lion and an in­del­i­cate “Women of Al­giers ( Ver­sion ‘O’),” by Pi­casso for $179 mil­lion. Christie’s dubbed the event “Look­ing For­ward to the Past,” but maybe it should have been called “Look­ing For­ward to the Com­mis­sions.”

Those works are demon­stra­bly the real thing, but where we find valu­able art, we also find forg­ers. Sur­pris­ingly, as read­ers of art his­to­rian and nov­el­ist Noah Char­ney’s book, “The Art of Forgery,” will dis­cover, greed alone is rarely the prime mo­ti­va­tion for art-world fraud­sters.

The art­ful dodgers whose fakes have in­fected pri­vate col­lec­tions and public mu­se­ums alike are driven by a num­ber of com­pli­cated im­pulses. One is the idea that it’s okay to dupe, say, a col­lec­tor who made his bil­lions on the backs of lit­tle peo­ple, or the auc­tion houses that feed at the trough. Another is the faker’s need to stick it to an art es­tab­lish­ment that re­jected him (al­most all forg­ers are men). How sat­is­fy­ing for the spurned artist to prove his work good enough to pass as a Pi­casso, Dalí or Pol­lock, fool­ing the su­per­cil­ious con­nois­seur. Recog­ni­tion feels so good that some forg­ers ex­pose their own fraud­u­lence— or, if un­veiled by oth­ers, revel in the ex­pe­ri­ence. The public seems to love these vil­lains, and the press is happy to whip up in­ter­est. Many outed forg­ers, Char­ney points out, “are greeted as he­roes of a sort and go on to lu­cra­tive ca­reers” even af­ter con­vic­tion and im­pris­on­ment.

Char­ney re­minds us of some high-pro­file cases. There was the Dutch forger Han van Meegeren, whose fak­ery saved him from the gal­lows. Van Meegeren’s Ver­meers had lit­tle of the del­i­cate lu­mi­nes­cence of the real thing, but he con­vinced the ex­perts that they were the artist’s early paint­ings. In 1947, he found him­self on trial for high trea­son for “selling a piece of Dutch cul­tural her­itage,” a Ver­meer, to Hitler’s side­kick Her­mann Göring. Van Meegeren’s de­fense was that the paint­ing was one of his fakes, and he proved it by knock­ing out another “Ver­meer” while in cus­tody. The de­fen­dant “went from Nazi col­lab­o­ra­tor to folk hero” for swin­dling Göring.

Oth­ers pro­duced works that were of such qual­ity that they fooled the most dis­cern­ing con­nois­seurs. Icilio Joni led a ring of master forg­ers who pro­duced sa­cred pic­tures in­dis­tin­guish­able from those of the late Gothic Sienese School. The Ger­man master gold­smith Rein­hold Vasters crafted a gold and enamel cup fit for a king and passed it off as the work of the great­est Re­nais­sance gold­smith, Ben­venuto Cellini. It ended up in the Metropoli­tan Mu­seum of Art.

Char­ney re­gards the English pain­ter Eric Heb­born as the most skill­ful of forg­ers. He spe­cial­ized in Old Master draw­ings, but be­yond his artistry, Heb­born paid close at­ten­tion to the prove­nance and foren­sic pit­falls await­ing the care­less forger. “No doc­u­mented forger was as care­ful, as pas­sion­ate about the re­search and de­tails, nor as ar­tis­ti­cally skil­ful,” writes Char­ney. Mean­while, forgery is get­ting harder all the time. To­day, tech­ni­cal skill alone is not enough for a forger to pull it off. He must cre­ate a cred­i­ble pa­per trail of own­er­ship — prove­nance — and also fool mod­ern foren­sic tech­nolo­gies that can scru­ti­nize pig­ments and var­nishes and re­veal hid­den lay­ers as never be­fore.

The book is or­ga­nized as a se­ries of case stud­ies. They move desul­to­rily be­tween char­ac­ters, art media and pe­ri­ods, and the de­vice of group­ing them un­der such rubrics as Ge­nius, Pride, Re­venge and Money is in­suf­fi­cient to cre­ate an easy nar­ra­tive flow. Each, though, is a fas­ci­nat­ing ac­count of avarice and hubris. Af­ter a sec­ond read­ing, the dis-joint­ed­ed­ness didn’t bother me be­cause the ma­te­rial was so rich. (Char­ney is the founder of the As­so­ci­a­tion for Re­search Into Crimes Against Art; note that it is styled “crimes against art,” not “crimes against art buy­ers.”)

A forgery scan­dal “can ruin ca­reers, lose mil­lions, pay crim­i­nals and harm rep­u­ta­tions,” Char­ney writes. “But it also dam­ages our un­der­stand­ing of the past and skews the study of history. ”If the pop­u­lar im­age of the forger is that of a lov­able rogue, Char­ney chips away at that ideal, to his credit. Aren’t real artists the ones whose work is in­stilled with their own orig­i­nal­ity and in­ven­tion? Their value is that they teach the rest of us a newway to see and feel. Char­ney writes that “no mat­ter how con­vinc­ing the forgery, a forger’s work is in­her­ently de­riv­a­tive.” He sees them as “largely failed artists.”

The forg­ers, it turns out, are cheat­ing them­selves.

IN­DI­ANAPO­LIS MU­SEUM OF ART

For Han vanMeegeren, forgery pro­vided a fine line be­tween hero­ism and trea­son. Dur­ing his trial in 1945, he forged a copy of “Je­sus Among the Doc­tors” by Johannes Ver­meer to prove that what he sold to the Nazis was a fake.

COUR­TESY OF NA­TIONAL GALLERY OF ART

A sup­posed self-por­trait of Vin­cent van Gogh was one of the first fakes to be un­cov­ered by foren­sic test­ing.

THE ART OF FORGERY The Minds, Mo­tives and Meth­ods of Master Forg­ers By Noah Char­ney Phaidon. 282 pp. $35

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