|Fakes and Counterfeits
copyright © 2007
in The Guardian
24 November 2007
The jailing of Shaun Greenhalgh, the Bolton
forger, for conspiracy to defraud art institutions is instructive.
"Forgeries," as Otto Kurz wrote in his 1948 handbook
Fakes, "hunt in packs." That is, they are rarely made
as unique specimens. The amazing Greenhalghs, the Bolton family
of Shaun and his octogenarian parents, were able to pass as
owners of an incredibly rare Egyptian statuette from the Amarna
period (a traditional area for forgery), but began to come unstuck
when they also turned out to own a couple of Assyrian bas-reliefs.
Once a single forgery from their garden workshop had been detected
(by means of a cuneiform spelling mistake), it became possible
to identify the atelier.
Generally speaking, we are susceptible to forgeries,
ready to be hoodwinked, when the forger has understood and devised
what it is we would most like to own. Something from the age
of Akhenaten, the Tel el-Amarna pharaoh, would be super-desirable,
and if there are only two statuettes in the world at all comparable
to the fake on offer, then the desirability is enough to warp
the judgment of the purchaser.
Incredibly odd stories about provenance should
be enough to warn us, but we often read about wildly valuable
objects that have turned up in unusual places - the Book of
Hours in the car-boot sale. So we can easily be seduced. And
besides, the Greenhalghs seem to have been rather professional
at creating fake provenances, as well as fake objects.
There is a neat moral point about falling victim
to forgeries in general (not in the Bolton case). We are never
more likely to be vulnerable to a cheat than when we ourselves
are trying to diddle someone out of a masterpiece. You go into
a shop and see a Rembrandt on the wall (so you think). You casually
ask the price. The vendor mentions a figure that, though not
small, is very cheap for a Rembrandt. At this point, the sensible
thing might be to get an expert to examine your "Rembrandt"
and give an opinion. But you are too greedy to do that. You
want to own the thing first, and not alert anyone else (least
of all the vendor) to your find. But this means that you are
on your own; and if you are on your own, you are vulnerable.
You are also vulnerable if you are in a hurry.
Fraudsters know this very well, and they often like to rush
the customer, to take advantage of that moment of greed and
bad judgment. And then there is the business of secrecy: the
vendor gives the impression that the transaction must remain
highly confidential, otherwise the deal is off. But secrecy
The classic example came in 1983 when Hugh
Trevor-Roper, Lord Dacre, was obliged to examine the Hitler
diaries in a bank vault, for a limited time, in secret. He was
under pressure from the Murdoch organisation to come up with
a decision on the authenticity of the diaries, and perhaps it
was a kind of vanity that made him think: if I pronounce them
genuine, they will become so. Days afterwards he had second
thoughts - too late. For when his doubts were conveyed to Rupert
Murdoch, the boss replied: "Bugger Dacre." The presses
were set to roll, and roll they did.
Forgery is an ancient skill, and there are
old accounts of the techniques involved: the smoking of paintings
to make them look antique, the manipulating of the canvas to
give a cracked surface, the use of tea and soot to create a
patina. Picasso and his circle, as young men, amused themselves
by producing dibujos fritos, fried drawings, which were exactly
what they sound like, drawings fried in oil to give them an
I was surprised to learn that the 17th-century
Italian painter Luca Giordano was a skilled counterfeiter. He
painted a scene of Christ healing the cripple, in the manner
of Dürer. One of his own patrons bought the work and proudly
showed it to Luca, who could not resist uncovering his signature.
The patron went to court, but lost the case, so Otto Kurz tells
us: the verdict was that no one could blame Luca Giordano for
painting as well as Dürer.
One suspects stories like this of being apocryphal:
they are standard biographical methods of conveying a sense
of an artist's skill. In this case, however, the painting turned
up, and it is indeed, according to Kurz, signed both with Dürer's
monogram and (along the edge, so it would be hidden by the frame)
by Luca Giordano. But, we are told, it is "executed in
a style plainly betraying the Italian baroque".
And that is another thing about fakes: however
convincing they seem at the time, in due course they tend to
betray the taste of the age in which they were made. We find
it hard to imagine what anyone ever saw in van Meegeren's forgeries
of Vermeer, and we probably wouldn't understand why Luca Giordano's
painting ever looked like a Dürer. That's the effect of
One should be very careful before disposing
of a fake, since scholarship does change, just as taste changes,
and many fine works have been rescued from museum storerooms.
And it is useful to keep fakes for the sake of reference.
Some of the most successful forgeries have
been in the area of the decorative arts, including a beautiful
kind of Renaissance jewellery using enamel and pearls. There
is a case full of this kind of fake in the National Gallery
of Art in Washington - it is put on display because it is of
such high quality that it really is worthy of admiration. It
was detected only when the forger's studio contents came to
light, with pattern books and so forth.
The Reliquary of the Holy Thorn, now with the
Waddesdon bequest in the British Museum, came from the Austrian
Imperial Treasury. It was sent to the Viennese goldsmith Weininger
for restoration. Weininger made a copy, which he gave to the
Treasury, and kept the original. "The swindle was not discovered
at once," Kurz says, "by the officials in charge of
the treasure and could not be obvious to those who bought the
original, as the Treasury was not accessible to the public."
A good example of secrecy working in the forger's favour.