The art world is a curious place. Recently it’s been shaken, again, poor thing, by a new realization that not all that appears to be gold is real. Art forgeries have been going on for as long as the value of art has reached into the stratosphere. Or should it be said, the prices rather than the value. It’s a wonder how our greatest artists’ works get to be so highly coveted. Coveted to the point that some people will lie, cheat, and steal to own a work by da Vinci, or Rafael, or Van Gogh, or even Modigliani. Yup, Amadeo M., a modernist artist whose life was short, and bio full of typical artist angst and turmoil, without which he couldn’t possibly have produce such deep, dark, profound, penetrating art. Or so it appears.
The latest scuttlebutt concerned a major show of A.M.’s work in Genoa, Italy. Accusations are that 21 of the 60 works displayed were fakes. This is big! It’s not as if just one or two slipped through the cracks. It’s more than a third of the entire exhibit. This isn’t so big when you discover that fakes are nothing new. Many big-time collectors in the past have succumbed to the temptation of fakes produced in the name of the most famed artists of yore. It’s not so big when you realize that well educated and well connected collectors and curators and art scholars also get duped, frequently. How? It’s easy. We are all easily fooled into what we want to believe.
According to Carlo Pepi, expert and collector, “In February, I was sent an image on [redacted antisocial media site] of one of the exhibition’s reclining nudes, which I immediately recognized as a fake. Then another painting appeared online and I saw that it was fake as well. Later I was shown the complete exhibition catalogue and realized there were few authentic works in the show at all.”
Wowie zowie! Can you imagine that? A fake, a number of fakes, so poorly done that they can be identified as forgeries from a digitized image only a fraction of the size and resolution of the original paintings, and who knows how far off in color balance? That’s one incredible expert. This is big, and the start of a big tit-for-tat controversy between contrapuntal experts vying for supremacy.
You may sense a little decent. You may be correct. But the decent goes deeper than you may expect. There’s something you should understand clearly first. Lying, cheating, stealing are not acceptable in a civil society. However, whenever a market is overheated, overvalued and overpriced the temptation for the less scrupulous is, to be generous, overwhelming. It’s a roaring recipe for raking it in riches.
“I don’t forge art. I fake it,” says a, shall remain nameless, British counterfeit artist. Deep quotation, ain’t it? But what’s the difference between a forgery and a fake? Uh, I dunno, and neither does every dictionary I referenced. This is the kind of brilliant statement that gets far more attention than it deserves. It’s easy to fall for it. Nonetheless, that sentence is a fake. It says nothing real.
Since the stakes are high, and getting higher, there’s outsized motivation to win from every angle, not just the forger’s. The auction record for a Modigliani painting was set in 2015 by a Chinese collector who paid over $170,000,000.00 for Nu Couché. (If you lost count of the zeros, that’s 170 million USD.) To put this into perspective, that kind of money could provide an average annual income for 3,777 people looking for work, or it could double the wages for over 10,000 minimum wage workers, or it could feed over 363,000 students for an entire school year—that’s over 65 million lunches. But instead, those resources were put into an old painting that a well trained artist could have made a good copy of, and at the same time, made a few good bucks on it to feed him/herself for a good while.
Fakes, forgeries, misrepresentations, deceptions, false attributions are all unethical. But, when there’s a good one, I can’t get past the skill, artistry, ingenuity, and talent, all those things we value in an artist, that it took to make a solid, fool-the-experts copy. Think about it. Is the forger any less talented than the original artist? Is the fake any less beautiful? Hasn’t the copyist the exact same refined skills and technical prowess? The skill and knowledge it took to make the original is no greater that what it takes to make a believable copy. In fact, it requires a good deal of extra effort to realistically replicate the aged original, more than what it takes to merely make an accurate copy brush stroke for brush stroke. An honest reproduction presented as a copy is laudable.
In the art world, there is a fixation on “original.” Why? Because the lofty pricing is based on the principle of real, authentic, original, and the idea that only the original artist is capable of doing that, and no one else has the talent, skill, etc., to make an equally good work of art. Well, that frankly, and obviously, has been proven false time and time again. There are artists all over the world just as talented. And there’s the rub.
If there are many artists, perhaps thousand, or tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands of artists, equally talented as the old masters, the price of big-name originals would collapse. No one would get rich on the labor, talent, skill, creativity, imagination, knowledge of a dead artist (or even a highly praised living one). Think about that for a second or two. Talentless, mindless, unskilled, unimaginative, fooled by the fakers, know-nothing collectors, dealers and auctioneers get rich on reselling someone else’s labor, someone else’s talent, someone else’s creative imagination.
Obviously, a crash of the high-stakes art market would have collectors and dealers looking like their Modigliani paintings. The real, true, honest value would settle down and the profit motive for fakes would shrivel. We’d still have the original. It would still be worth more than a copy. But the worth would not be so grossly exaggerated. We’d still appreciate the originality of the original. We’d still praise the first. The original would still be rare. But, best of all, instead of piling undue praise and attention on a few celebrities, we’d have a new appreciation for the talent that’s right here, right now, right around the corner. We’d have a new world of great work, affordable work. We’d have employed artists making a living. And you wouldn’t have to be a nouveau robber baron to own something special.
Actually, you don’t need to be rich even now. There are great artists everywhere. All you have to do is look. All you have to do is ignore the experts whose knowledge is severely limited to only a few big names that everyone already knows. The knowledge of the experts really ain’t so special. And they ain’t so smart. If they were, they’d be looking beyond the masters. They’d be searching for the current talent.