What's in a fake?

Some forgeries are so insanely brilliant that you find yourself in a moral quagmire. The truth of a work of art arguably comes from its original form and so it is that every subtle nuance that goes into its composition is rich in cryptic, remote and imperceptible meaning.
Consider this. While the true experience of art is to be done in person, many people have to make do with engaging with seminal works in a reproduced form, be that in a book or as a facsimile copy (we cannot all own a Rothko but a duplicate will do). There’s a certain sense of loss, of course, but we appreciate that this is life and accept it for what it is.
However, when it comes to a work that has been deliberately forged in a fraudulent manner – in most cases to benefit from it financially – our gut reaction is a sense of revulsion. A fake is an atrocity, a consequence of greed as opposed to artistic inspiration, and therefore, irrespective of how amazing a replica it is, utterly worthless.
Or so you would think. Reporting on the touring exhibition Intent to Deceive: Fakes and Forgeries in the Art World, the New York Times perfectly summarised the peculiarity of this counter-industry last month.
It noted how a Vermeer entitled The Head of Christ has been subjected to intense security costing $31,000 (£19,000). So far this seems fairly reasonable, except that this is not an original by the seventeenth century Dutch painter. It had been executed by the twentieth century conman Han van Meegeren, considered one of the finest forgers of all time. An unusual accolade for a curious trade, it has to be said.
The American conceptual artist Jonathan Keats has argued controversially in his book Forged: Why Fakes Are The Great Art of Our Age, that high-end rip-offs have a certain quality about them. He explained in an article for the Daily Beast last year that legitimate art is “doing a bad job of taking us outside our comfort zone”, while art forgery pushes our buttons.
“Forgers are the foremost artists of our age,” he continued. “I’m not talking about the objects they make. Their real art is to con us into accepting the works as authentic. They do so, inevitably, by finding our blind spots, and by exploiting our common-sense assumptions. When they’re caught (if they’re caught), the scandal that ensues is their accidental masterpiece.”
In being defrauded, the expert elaborated, we are hit with a plethora of emotions, and the anxiety that arises out of this causes us consternation and intrigue. Conflict arises in our inability to properly distinguish real from fake. For Mr Keats this “is more direct, more powerful and more universal than any legitimate artwork”.
This show taxes our senses by placing original works by artists like Charles Courtney Curran, Honoré Daumier, Raoul Dufy, Philip de Lászlό, Henri Matisse, Joan Mirό, Amedeo Modigliani, Pablo Picasso, Paul Signac, Maurice de Vlaminck next to forgeries by some of the world’s most proficient art forgers.
“The ultimate question proposed within Intent to Deceive one can’t help but ask is whether the uncovering of a painting’s unpalatable history actually makes it any less of a work of art,” the organisers of the show outline.
“Does the discovery of a fake change our relationship with a painting? Admirers and collectors of the work of several contemporary forgers admit that they possess great art, no matter that they are forgeries. The brilliance is notable, and in fact, the murky history makes the work all the more interesting, as it gives it a story. That is the important point illustrated in this exhibition; the works have stories and drama behind them that are as fascinating as the images on their canvases.”
Intent to Deceive: Fakes and Forgeries in the Art World at Springfield Museum runs until April 27th 2014.
Cadogan Tate specialises in art transportation, fine art storage and art logistics, helping galleries, museums and collectors manage their collections.