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Two novels on art forgery


Writing for Public Books, Maggie Cao, a professor of art history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, reviews two recent novels on art forgery: Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos and Martin Suter’s The Last Weynfeldt. In different historical and geographic settings, each novels portrays the art-market demands and personal drives that temp artists and dealers into passing off forged artworks as the real thing. They also elevate the notion of forgery to a metaphor for the fine line between authenticity and inauthenticity in human relationships. Here’s an excerpt from Cao’s review:

Forgeries expose some of the art world’s most psychologically complex figures: the collector and the counterfeiter. What compels the prototypical collector to accumulate objects of beauty is usually a peculiar devotion to the power of singularity. The collector worships art’s power to move us, a power we imagine emanates from unique objects. Meanwhile, what motivates the counterfeiter is an undue confidence in the possibilities of replication. To deceive a viewer with a copy is to affirm that copy’s interchangeability with the original.

The emotional liaisons between people with these clashing viewpoints on art is the subject of two recent forgery novels, Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos and Martin Suter’s The Last Weynfeldt. These books join a growing list of contemporary fiction that uses great works of art to propel plots of mystery and intrigue, including Michael Frayn’s Headlong (1999) and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013). For the Swiss-born Suter and the Australian American Smith, both veteran creators of rarified cultural worlds, forgeries prove more interesting than originals.

The title character of Suter’s novel, Adrian Weynfeldt, is a collector and auctioneer embroiled in a forgery scheme. A billionaire bachelor in his mid-50s and the last surviving member of an elite Swiss family, he works as a specialist of 19th- and 20th-century art at a major auction house out of passion rather than necessity. Adrian is the kind of person whose judgment is reserved for the beautiful things that fill his workplace and museum-like home rather than for the people around him. His social world consists of a handful of aging, blue-blooded friends of the family and a circle of younger, charismatic types whose unfruitful creative pursuits he alone seems to support. In their midst, he carries out quiet philanthropic gestures so as to avoid seeming showy or condescending. If Adrian has a worldview (and he would surely be too self-conscious to voice any such thing), it might be that money is ugly but art depends on it.

Image: Judith Leyster, Self-Portrait (c. 1630). Oil on canvas, 74.6 cm x 65.1 cm. National Gallery of Art. Leyster’s entire oeuvre was attributed to Frans Hals until 1893. Via Public Books.