Friday, November 6, 2015

The Art of Forgery by Noah Charney

Noah Charney has written a well planned and colorful book that will introduce the general public to the subject of art forgery. This is not an exhaustive, academic study of the topic. It is an entertaining presentation that relies on the sensations of crime, trickery and flamboyant personalities, to seduce its audience. Nonetheless, the book contains a respectable amount of information for the uninitiated.

This author has selected an uncommon, but effective direction for his book. He first sympathizes with the popular image of forgers as “artful tricksters—often ingenious, skilful, quirky and charming.”  (Charney, p. 13). These criminals are generally perceived by the public as damaging only the reputations of arrogant art experts, and the wallets of wealthy collectors who can afford a loss. But this view evolves. Charney’s evaluation progressively pays more attention to the effects of such criminal behavior on society. “A forgery scandal…damages our understanding of the past and skews the study of history.” (Charney, p. 89). Charney later examines counterfeiters who enter historical archives posing as researchers. When inside, they insert false provenance that will be later found by buyers to validate the history of the false work being sold. This is highly damaging because “once real archives have been impregnated with fake historical evidence…every piece of documentation in the archive must be called into question.” There is no other way to tell how many records have been tainted. (Charney, p. 177). Archives must then embark upon an expensive, time-consuming process of re-examining all records to expunge the fakes and become once again trustworthy for scholars. Since most archives are non-profits with little expendable cash, this is a hardship. The theme of destructiveness progresses to the point where Charney is presenting literary forgeries like “The Donation of Constantine” which permitted the Vatican to seize large provinces of property, and “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which led to numerous anti-Semitic murders and pogroms. Shifting from artworks to written forgeries, is incongruous with the rest of the book, but does illustrate the most harmful consequences of forgery.

Professor Charney purports to offer his readers the opportunity to “peer into the forger’s mind, motivation and methods.” (Charney, p. 17). While it is a dicey claim to say that one can enter the mind and motivations of another whom one has never met, using only written information, the author does make a brave attempt. His task is further complicated by the fact that he relies on the words of convicted forgers, who lie for a living. Naturally, the forgers ascribe to themselves only the most self-congratulatory explanations for their actions; and these explanations almost never involve greed. But Charney is taken-in by these professional deceivers. He claims “we might assume that money is the primary motivation for art forgery, but we see again and again that this is rarely true—although profit might be a welcome bonus. Forgers are complex psychological characters driven by many different impulses.” (Charney, p. 14). It is not certain that Professor Charney’s PhD in Art History gives him the qualifications to analyze the criminal mind. While this author primarily ignores the profit motive, he does ascribe some negative reasons for art forgery to his subjects. Chapters entitled “Pride, Revenge, Fame and Power” are headings under which individual forger’s stories are told.

One of the most interesting, contentious and mentally challenging chapters is “Genius.” Here, Charney presents the early forgery careers of famous artists. Michelangelo once carved a statue which he passed-off as an ancient Roman marble. (Charney, p. 36). Later, when famous, Michelangelo “copied drawings of the old masters…he smoked and tinted the paper to give it the appearance of age.” He was thereby able to “keep the originals and return the copies in their place.” (Charney, p. 38). This, and other examples of talented artists committing crimes, does blur the line between forger and artist. To complicate matters further, forgers do not reproduce works that are hanging in museums and galleries; they would not be able to sell their fakes as originals this way. Instead, they study the style of a master and reproduce works in that style. One might argue that they are producing an original work with aesthetic, emotional appeal. But let’s not get carried away. Most average art school graduates can copy an original work or style; that’s part of the training. This does not make one a “genius.” Concerning masters who were also forgers, one can see their original works as excellent art, while also accepting that they once created inferior derivations. Charney later challenges his own thesis with comments that “a forger’s work is inherently derivative” and that with few exceptions “forgers are largely failed artists who are missing one component of greatness.” (Charney, p. 108). The author’s chapter on “Revenge” is testimony to the failure of most forgers to produce successful original works. When they are unsuccessful in the art world, they turn to forgery for revenge and profit.

Noah Charney’s subject and presentation have the power to excite and captivate his audience. He understands his readers and appeals to what moves them. Combining the iconoclastic personalities of several forgers, with the crime drama of law enforcement’s pursuit and capture, the author spins fascinating stories while providing instruction. The Art of Forgery provides the best of opportunities for readers, to be both entertained and informed.

Charney, Noah. The Art of Forgery. London: Phaidon Press, 2015.