The plot of my new release Genuine Fake involves art forgery. One of the main characters is an artist. She manages the legacy of her famous grandfather, whose art works are being forged. I needed information on many aspects of an artist’s work and legacy, but the most extensive—and fun—was on art forgery, mostly on how forgers create works exact enough to profit from their crime.
In all the research I conducted, I never ran across the name John Myatt until after the book was completed. You’ll see why he fascinates me. Myatt, a moderately successful British painter, could not earn enough to support his family, so turned to selling copies, works he advertised as “genuine fakes.” I laughed out loud when I read that. This was not forgery because he described the paintings as fakes. Until… he teamed up with a man who turned the system into forgery by adding fake provenance and other information to swindle collectors and museums.
Investigations by the Art & Antiquities Unit of Scotland Yard led to Myatt’s (and his partner’s) conviction in 1999 of forging over 200 “undiscovered” works by well-known dead artists. After his short prison sentence, he sold his forgeries, identifying them as such, for big money. He even had a gallery show titled “Genuine Fakes.” Myatt continues to paint, and his works now command high prices.
Myatt’s story helps clarify what exactly art forgery is and what it is not. You may have seen artists and art students copying paintings in museums. It’s a legitimate way to learn different techniques and styles. Reproductions and facsimiles are not forgeries either. The selling of a fraudulent work is what makes art forgery a crime. To research how a forger might copy an artist’s work exactly enough to fool even experts, I read descriptions of paintings and how the artist created the feel and light or dark of the images. The most successful forgers do meticulous research. If it’s a painting from long ago, they use only pigments and other materials of the time period. They know if the artist was left or right-handed. They study the brush strokes, the way the artist uses light and dark and angles. I could go on, but you get the idea.
Fakes and forgeries have been created for two thousand years. The first famous art forger was Michelangelo. Long before he became famous for his David statue and the Sistine Chapel ceiling, he produced and sold fake Greek and Roman antiquities. In 1496, he made a sleeping Cupid figure and treated it with acidic earth to make it seem ancient. He then sold it to a dealer who sold it to an Italian Cardinal who later learned of the fraud and demanded his money back. Another resource said the Cardinal was so impressed by Michelangelo’s skill, he let him get away unpunished, so the history is murky here.
Han Van Meegeren, a Dutch artist, was a more contemporary art forger. In 1937, when peers criticized his work, to prove his talent, Meegeren created and sold a “new” painting by Johannes Vermeer. He called it Supper at Emmaus. Apparently he had planned to reveal he was the creator, but instead went on to create more “Vermeers” and made an estimated $60 million. Finally he sold one of these to the Nazi leader Hermann Göring and was subsequently arrested for treason—selling valuable Dutch cultural property to the Nazis. To save himself, Van Meegeren admitted to the forgery. In order to avoid the death penalty, he had to paint the Vermeer again, the one sold to the Nazi. He then became known as the man who swindled Göring.
In the past, forgeries were uncovered mostly because of overreach by the forger that brought them under suspicion. But modern detection techniques, involving dating and other analysis, have improved the identification of forged artwork. Nevertheless, it is estimated by FBI Art Crime that ten to fifteen percent of the art, Old Masters and contemporary, in any given museum is fake.
So is the Starry Night I viewed in the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam the real thing or a fake? Or maybe a “genuine fake?”
If you want the real thing, Genuine Fake is available for Kindle and in print: http://getbook.at/GenuineFake.