The strange power of forged art

The sophistication of fake works of art, executed by, it has to be said, highly talented scammers, is so good that you find yourself unable to fully understand the implication of enjoying something that is brilliantly wrong.
It’s been a big talking point this year. How do you get around this thriving and evolving enterprise, which is, as displeasing as it is to admit it, a superbly creative business?
And isn’t that a strange acknowledgement, to almost tip your hat in celebration of a work that looks authentic but is ultimately a lie, lacking in any kind of artistic sincerity? The questions keep coming.
Consider, for example, the assessment of some experts who speculate that close to half of all works of art in circulation today are bogus. That is an extraordinary number, made all the more difficult to verify because of the multifaceted nature of ownership and the fact that in many instances, we simply don’t have a clue.
Speaking to the Agence France-Presse recently, Yann Walther, chief of the Fine Arts Expert Institute, believes the number could be even higher. He bases this on the works that he and his colleagues identify as being fakes – around 70 to 90 per cent.
Further compounding the problem is the art world’s perceivably lax attitude to documentation, the expert explains: “When you buy an apartment, you always get an appraisal first, but in the art world, until recently, you could buy works for €10 million without sufficient documentation.”
Advances in technology are helping to dig beneath the poker face veneer of these expertly painted charades because, unfortunately, as a result of the near-perfect replication of an artist’s style and materials, it is hard to distinguish with the naked eye what is real and what isn’t.
Some of the techniques used by the institute include radiocarbon dating and infrared reflectology. These basically help experts ‘dig’ beneath the surface. This then delivers two results – one, it will verify authenticity (which is always a nice outcome if the work in question is considered seminal), or two, uncover the deceit.
At this point, with regards to the latter, there is a dull realisation that what looked the ‘real deal’ was ultimately manufactured, more often than not, for financial reasons. A lot of effort, a lot of talent went into it, sure, but work ethic of that ilk isn’t exactly laudable.
Earlier this year, The Guardian’s art critic Jonathan Jones asked what the implications of this adroitness of today’s art forgers and he did not have any easy answers. He referenced what the theoretician Walter Benjamin posited in 1936. In the Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, the essence of an original work of art would be lost, which from a Marxist point of view, would be welcome.
This, however, according to Mr Jones, never really materialised, for originals remain sacred, their aura intact, their monetary value enhanced, further and further into the one per cent stratosphere. However, he continued in his summer article, there is a further twist.
The twentieth century may have further entrenched capitalist ideologies, but, quite fascinatingly, as technology becomes even more high-tech, Benjamin’s faith in artistic liberation becomes more likely.
Controversially, art forgers may balance the excesses of the art market because if you can no longer distinguish between what is real and what is fake, how then can you determine what is worth millions and what can, if truth be told, sell for a handful of coins at a second-hand shop?
Cadogan Tate are experts in the field of art transportation and art storage.