A Masterpiece - or the Art of Deception? Museums Adopt New Attitude of Candor and Interest in Forgeries of Art Occurring throughout the Centuries

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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 the market.

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 that change."

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 minority."

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 curators."

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. …


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