MAY 1990. A Swiss art scholar questions the authenticity of
several paintings, long considered Van Goghs, in three major United
States museums and a Norwegian one. The museums react in various
ways: by "no comment," by showing convincing counter evidence, by
arguing against the claim followed by willing investigation.
August 1990. The Times of London reports that cut-price forgeries
of posters, prints, and limited edition works, copied by dishonest
printers using the latest laser-scanning technology, are flooding
1642. Georg Schweiger of Nuremberg makes a carved-stone plaque of
"The Naming of John the Baptist," and turns it into Albrecht Durer
forgery. The British Museum discovers it nearly 200 years later.
FAKES and forgeries have been ever with us. Once uncovered, they
have often been the source of acute embarrassment to experts who had
earlier endorsed them as wonderful works of art. Museums and
galleries have tended to bury them shamefacedly in their basements
and under-emphasize them in their catalogs.
But today there are signs of new attitudes toward fakes in the
museum world. Museums are prepared to be much more candid about the
fakes in their collections. They are seen to have historical value.
They are being viewed as "unbeatable evidence," according to the
British Museum's Mark Jones, of what people in the past "took to be
the hallmarks of authenticity" in works of art. "And that's
something that is far from obvious, in fact."
This summer saw a large exhibition at the British Museum called
"Fake? The Art of Deception." Mr. Jones, assistant curator in the
coins and medals department, was its organizer. "You could ... call
this exhibition a large-scale public recognition of a change of
attitude toward fakes - but also it is ... a motor force in driving
The show involved numerous curators from the British Museum and
the Victoria and Albert Museum here, and Jones encountered only a
"certain amount of difficulty from some curators - but very much the
Curatorial objections to an open discussion and display of fakes
could be on moral grounds: Fakes are "disreputable objects"; or a
suspicion that exhibiting and discussing them "might also provide a
sort of incentive for people to make them." There is also the fear
of throwing "some sort of discredit on past collectors and
Jones does not agree. "Experts who make the greatest acquisitions
can also make the most calamitous mistakes." But he feels most are
remembered for their contributions not for mistakes. "Anyone or
institution with a known interest in a particular field and a lot of
money to spend will buy fakes."
The British Museum was particularly vulnerable in the 19th
century, as were American museums. "You can see it happening at the
moment with the Getty Museum (near Los Angeles)," Jones says, "and I
wouldn't be surprised if Japanese collectors are buying a few now."
What the British Museum exhibition has done, however, is show
that the concept of what is or isn't a "fake" is not quite
straightforward. There can be extremely subtle differences between
faking for crude monetary gain, or propaganda, and copying great
artists' work out of admiration or for education. And fakers'
motives can be confused. One recent British faker, Tom Keating,
claimed that his "works" - an estimated 2,000 fakes of 100 different
artists - were made as a protest against the exploitation of artists
by dealers. …