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On fake painting


At The New Inquiry, Malcolm Harris talks to Noah Charney, the founder of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art and the author of the novel The Art Thief. Charney describes his field of inquiry as “an interdisciplinary study of art crime from the perspective of criminology, art history, archaeology, law, museum studies, security studies, policing and investigating.” Charney discusses widespread misconceptions about who steals art (hint: not the Thomas Crowns of the world), as well as the considerable skill set it takes to be a forger:

To be a successful forger it almost requires a larger skill set and more luck than it takes to become a successful artist in the first place. For a short cut, forgery sounds really hard.

You have to be good at different things. A number of the forgers — more than half — if you just look at their forgeries in a vacuum, it’s surprising that they fooled anyone. Han van Meegeren’s Vermeers don’t look anything like Vermeers, but they managed to fool people. It is always the accompanying story, the invented provenance — which is essentially a confidence trick that manages to pass off the object — that really tricks the buyer. On further inspection, it’s always a surprise that the work itself could fool people. The way they do it is with a very compelling provenance.

It isn’t always the forgers who come up with that clever mechanism. There are a lot of pairs involved, like John Myatt and John Drewe, where Drewe was the real dark criminal of the two and was using Myatt’s decent but not extraordinary abilities as an imitator to commit the crimes.

It’s a different sort of skillset. I would also emphasize that most forgers are not great artists. There’s a reason why their original art never made it. Forged works tend not to look particularly compelling. They’re capable of imitating the style, but that’s very different from being a great artist. Some people say “They must be as great as the artist they’re mimicking,” but it’s very difficult to come up with the concept and the execution. Making your own style is very hard.

The storytelling then is at least half the forgery job.

I would say it’s more than half. There are people passing off things that really don’t look good at all. John Myatt is a very nice painter, but he was painting in acrylic works that would have been in oil and people just weren’t noticing. The story was so good that they looked at it aesthetically from a distance. But any expert should be able to tell the difference between acrylic and oil. They should be able to smell the difference. You have to say “Shame on the experts” in a lot of these cases.