Saturday, December 22, 2012


Recovering from a bad week of illness I finished an amazing book by B.A. Shapiro called THE ART FORGER. I had heard of it and aside from the romantic angle, it tells the story of an artist who while having an artistic vision of her own also has an amazing ability to copy or duplicate other people's work. In one case to create an original for an artist with creative block. When she can't stand the accolades he is being given declares it her own and is made to paint it again while being watched.

I guess it is a time honored tradition to copy great works of art and is and of itself no crime.  However, selling it as an original is. Hence the plot of this book.

It is based around authentic events, the theft of 13 masterpieces from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. Focusing on one of the masterpieces, it leads us on a search for the original Degas' "After The Bath."

The story revolves around how authentic is the work? The copyist heroine has a checkered past but as a trained reproduction painter, trained by "" no less, has a gut feeling something is wrong. After a class encounter between fighting classmates in a detention home where she teaches an art class, over painting technique, she realizes that one is left handed and the other right. Inspecting her Degas after looking at and photographing the brushwork of other Degas' realizes it IS a forgery and the forger was left handed.

What is astounding in this book is what forgers have done through the ages to copy and resell paintings as originals. No painting of any time and era is immune. The driving force is a kind of fanaticism of collectors who want an original, a one of a kind. They don't even seem to care that no one else but them will see it. It is theirs and no one else's.  The ultimate power trip. The estimate today is that 40% of all art on auction is fake and thousands of fakes adorn the walls of museums all over the world. In fact a sculptor of Greco-Roman art fakes exposed his dealer when he discovered he was paid $200 a piece and the dealer was selling them for hundreds if not millions of dollars. When he had a one man show at the Met in New York City to show his masterpieces, it was a flop. People WANT to believe they are seeing an original not a copy no matter how skillful. Good thing the Romans weren't so picky. We may never have seen the glory that was Greece as the Romans copied, and copied and copied again.

Why is an original so important you ask? An artist who has a vision, who is able to get us to react to his art is one of a kind. Who can not be humbled, if you're an artist, in front of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel, a Rembrandt, Da Vinci, Monet, Van Gogh or even Pollack? They bring something to us that was not there before. They create for us, a vision that was never seen, or noticed before. The quiet moments of a Vermeer painting come to mind.

There is an amazing comment from the book I repeat loosely here about conscious dissonance. Many experts are fooled because they want something to be true whether it is or not. Like a scientist who knows (or thinks) he's right and fakes the study to prove it. When it can't be repeated its revealed to be a fraud. The art world is insular and wants things to be as they should be but often aren't.

Forgers go to great lengths to make the forgeries look, feel and touch real. I won't go into the details, but when someone declares a long lost painting is an original, you may wonder, is it really real or is it a fake in the "style" of? Fun reading for art fans everywhere. I know that my paintings will never have this problem.


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