A flawed look at forgery in art; The Forger's Art, edited by Denis Dutton. Berkeley: The University of California Press. 298 pp. $22.50.
Well, Mr. Frick, you say that you wish to buy a few paintings by Peter Paul Rubens for the house that you are just now completing on Fifth Avenue? You say you have a dealer who says he can supply several?
Well, Mr. Frick, are you aware that the art market is the last truly open market and that fraud, fakery, scams, and double dealing are daily occurrences? Are you aware that what constitutes a ''Rubens'' is a very complicated question?
. . . Oh, I see, you have hired a guide to help you. That is good. You say that he is a respected art critic and historian. Yes, I have heard of him, as has everybody in the art business. But Mr. Frick, did you know there is a persistent rumor in the trade that the dealer who wants to sell you the pictures has promised your consultant double what you are paying him if he will validate them?m
The pictures in question in this imaginary conversation between an art dealer and turn-of-the century coal magnate Henry Clay Frick hang to this day in the Frick Collection, and they are as problematical as ever.
The best advice for Mr. Frick or any other collector might be: Do your own homework, and educate your eye. Buy only what you can easily afford and are going to be pleased to contemplate for many years. Remember that if greed is your motive, there are apt to be others out there who are both smarter and greedier than you are.
The problem of art forgery is a fascinating one, and it is a great shame to have to report that this is a bad book on a good subject. The two brilliant essays it contains stand out as islands in a sea of academic twaddle.
The first essay, by Hope B. Werness, is a brisk and thoroughly competent retelling of the famous case of Hans van Meegeren, a Dutch painter who in the 1930s forged what was once accepted as the oldest extant Vermeer. How this happened would be good to know, but the author gives hardly a sentence of explanation. One has to turn to other sources to learn that van Meegeren painted seven ''Vermeers''; that he was forced to confess to the lesser crime of forgery after being charged with Nazi collaboration and selling art to the enemy; that he painted an eighth ''Vermeer'' in prison to prove his confession. Aside from this, however, Werness gives a good account of the affair, and she is to be congratulated.
Then there are 11 essays by various authors, all of whom seem to live in an overheated terrarium where it is presumed that everyone knows everyone else. The publisher, the largest of America's university presses, hasn't seen fit to tell us ordinary mortals who all these writers are, and so we must judge them not by their presumed academic standing but by their ideas. All that can be said is that they appear to be talking to one another in academese, which no one has bothered to translate.
The final essay by Francis Sparshott, however, is a splendid, pertinent piece of work. ''. . . a forgery mocks our self esteem and our aspirations,'' Sparshott observes. ''By perverting the basis of our lives as individuals and as social and spiritual beings, it may even be assigned to that special class of corruptions for which the speculative name of 'sin against the holy spirit' was once reserved. In the same vein, one might urge that a philosophy of art that does not admit or discounts this objection against forgery is itself infected with the spirit of forgery and is therefore much worse than no philosophy of art at all.''
Overall ''The Forger's Art'' doesn't take account of the fact that the art market is real and important and that very large sums of money indeed are passed around in it. Nor does it stress that museums exist to educate the young and that museum curators rightly do not wish to parade generations of teen-agers in front of a Gilbert Stuart, say, that in fact is not one.
Unfortunately this book stands in relation to the one a reader might have wished for just about where a Van Meegeren stands beside a Vermeer.