Businessman Martin Lang has been told a painting he paid £100,000 for will be burned, after it was ruled to be a fake. He bought what he thought was an original work by Russian-born artist Marc Chagall in 1992. However, the painting Nude (1909-1910) seen above, was tested by experts for BBC One’s Fake Or Fortune? to determine whether it was genuine, then sent to the Chagall Committee in Paris, which ruled that under French law the work had to be burned.
This case raises some interesting questions. Firstly, should all artworks that are painted in the style of another be destroyed, or should they be appreciated for what they are, an entirely different work of art?
As stated by the BBC’s Melissa Hogenboom: ‘Wrong signature. Dubious provenance. Fake. These are words an auction house [and owner] dreads to hear.’ A work by a famous artist such as Picasso or Munch easily can fetch tens of millions. Yet, if there is even a shadow of doubt over its provenance, then that value rapidly declines. However, if an artwork has the level of draughtsmanship, colour and imagination that is enough or at least nearly enough, to fool an auction house expert, then shouldn’t that be worth something?
Forgery of artworks has been around for centuries, Roman classical sculptures, now thought of as national treasures such as the Laocoon seen below, were often mere copies of Ancient Greek works. Those who bought them at the time presumably knew that they were not genuine, but rather appreciated them for their aesthetic qualities rather than a signature.
Indeed, Frank Wynne stated that: ‘a famous artist’s signature gives us the romantic notion that their paintings are sacred artefacts that were touched by the hand of a genius.’ What’s more, Han Van Meegeren, arguably one of the greatest and most renowned forgers, argued that he wanted to prove that a famous signature on a painting hugely influences how beautiful we think it is.
The Dutchman gained notoriety by forging 17th Century Dutch masters that conned art-loving Nazis and while his own paintings were of very little interest to critics, his forgeries earned millions and fooled, most notably, Hitler’s deputy Hermann Goering. Van Meegeren was arrested in 1945 and charged with treason for selling a Vermeer, which is classified as a Dutch national treasure to Nazi members. Faced with the death penalty, he confessed to being a forger. However, the Dutch authorities refused to believe him. To prove he was no traitor, he was asked to paint a copy. Van Meegeren is reported to have cried out in response: ‘a copy, I’ll do better than that. Give me the materials and I will paint another Vermeer before witnesses!’
Before the war, frustrated that his style of painting did not suit the world’s new-found interest in modern art, Van Meegeren had forged a Vermeer in his own style that was, according to Wynne, his biographer: ‘unlike any previous Vermeer. What infuriated him was a skill that would have made him famous in an earlier age was of no interest to anyone at a time when the world was interested in post-impressionism.’ Certainly, it seems that his experiment was successful. His painting, The Supper at Emmaus (seen below), was welcomed as a previously unknown masterpiece by Vermeer and was one of the most visited paintings in the Netherlands until it was exposed as fake.
Interestingly, Van Meegeren’s has since come to be valued as an artist in his own right. He now even has his work forged by other forgers, an example of which was recently shown to the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow, who valued it at only £200 to £300.
On the other hand, convicted forger John Myatt has not had nearly the same level of recognition. He was arrested in 1995 for fraudulently selling around 200 paintings in the style of various modern masters. He claimed he didn’t initially set out to dupe art collectors, but after a fake sold at auction for £25,000, his collaborator John Drew offered him half the cash in a brown envelope, this proved to be the beginning of a prolific partnership of crime what was according to Scotland Yard, ‘the biggest art fraud of the 20th Century.’ In a similar vein to the Bernard Berenson-Joseph Duveen scandal of the early 1920s, where renowned art connoisseur would knowingly declare fakes as old masters for a cut of dealer Duveen’s sales, Myatt would paint new works in the style of celebrated modern artists, while Drew created false paper trails, showing supposed provenance and previous sales.
Myatt was convicted for conspiracy to defraud, and spent four months in Brixton prison. He now legitimately sells his paintings in the style of famous artists, with ‘genuine fakes’ written on the back for up to £45,000. But he believes 120 of his illegal forgeries are still in circulation.
Like Van Meegeren, Myatt does not simply copy famous works. His paintings are entirely new, but in the ‘style’ of a master. He says he ‘climbs into their minds and lives’ and searches for the inspiration behind their work. In 2012 he had an exhibition in his own name and stated that people appear to be ‘fascinated by fake paintings.’ Myatt goes on to say that ‘there can be quite a lot of demand from people who can’t afford a Van Gogh but are looking for the same aesthetic experience for a fraction of the price.’ Myatt argues that pretentious critics and the ‘disgusting amounts’ of money changing hands can leave people feeling alienated by the art world.
In my opinion, it seems sad that aspiring artists have to turn to forgery to have any chance of recognition of their skill. Don’t get me wrong I am a big advocate of modern and contemporary art, but I do think that perhaps there is somewhat of a lack of attention given to those who prefer an academic style. For all we know, while we are focusing on the next big brand maker (the Damien Hirst’s of the art world for example), we may be missing out on the next Da Vinci, Titian or Caravaggio of our age. It seems unlikely to think that they just don’t exist anymore.
On the other hand, I am afraid that in the case of forgery itself, I find it less easy to be sympathetic. Philip Mould, art detective and presenter of BBC’s Fake or Fortune? who identified the fake Chagall argues that forgers do have a certain charm. This is because they are perceived to be rebelling against the establishment. For example, an ‘outsider status captures the public imagination in a similar way that graffiti artist Banksy has.’ Yet, Mould stresses that he finds ‘this type of deception disgusting and says forgers are “unattractive chancers” who will only ever make a fraction of the value of the masters they are copying.’ I have to say I agree, the world of art forgery is as he states, ‘just a slightly more glamorous form of criminality’ than a pirated movie or a fake handbag.
Vernon Rapley, head of security at the V&A and formerly in charge of Scotland Yard’s arts and antiques unit, says that people’s interest in criminal masterminds makes the world of art forgery appeal to a wider audience than art lovers alone. But he says it is wrong for forgers to benefit financially following criminal convictions for fraud. ‘There are thousands of art students who can do the same job [as forgers]. It is repugnant that forgers are able to benefit from the notoriety of their crimes.’
Indeed, Myatt admits that his sudden esteem may be a direct result of the crimes he committed. For some, Mould says, it may simply be the story behind a forged work of art that makes it so appealing. The story is of a man tricking authority, but Myatt recognises his was not a crime without victims. ‘If I ever saw one of my paintings again I would just smile to myself and say nothing. What’s the point? The person selling it would lose a lot of money if I revealed it to be a fake, and that would be an immoral thing to do.’
Finally, is it even possible to really love a fake? Mr Lang seems to think so; he described the move to destroy his fake Chagall as ‘an injustice’ and said he hoped the decision would be overturned.
Image and Reference Citation: http://www.bbcnews.co.uk
By Carinthia Pearson