Hold! You crafty ones, strangers to work, and pilferers of other men’s brains! Think not rashly to lay your thievish hands upon my works. Beware! Know you not that I have a grant from the most glorious Emperor Maxmilian that not one throughout the imperial dominion shall be allowed to print or sell fictitious imitations of these engravings?
— Albrecht Durer
In his illustrated history of forgery, The Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of Master Forgers (Phaidon, 2015, $35), Noah Charney charts a course through the history of art crime and illusion while broadly examining the idea of authenticity. Beginning with Albrect Durer’s failed attempt at persecuting a forger in 1506 (a judge told Durer he should be flattered that others wished to copy his engravings), through modern times with more robust intellectual property laws, Charney reminds the reader that the world wishes to be deceived. Artists wish to prove they are as good as the famous creators they mimic. Collectors wish to believe their collections are full of real treasures instead of fakes. Academics wish to protect the sanctity of their research and published articles.
Charney says that the art industry is a “multibillion-dollar-a-year legitimate industry that is so opaque that you can’t quite understand why anyone participates in it.” This might contribute to the popularity of art crime stories and the forgers who, when revealed and prosecuted, emerge as Robin Hood characters, tricking the ruling class and making fools out of people who have $179 million to spend on a Picasso at Christie’s. But the corrosive impact of fraud dilutes the timeline of art history with a patchwork of fakes made in different qualities and different eras. These are some of the tangible and intangible costs of fraud.
Though there is an art and definite skill involved in many forgeries, the author informs us “forgers are largely failed artists who are missing one component of greatness. It is inevitably the confidence trick that marks the moment when a crime is actually committed, and that most often passes off an object which, examined in a vacuum, would fool few.” Some works, after proven to be frauds, continue to be regarded as authentic by those with enduring belief. History in this case belongs to the conquerors, and the forgeries that remain undiscovered possess the power to rewrite history.