A Masterpiece - or the Art of Deception?

Museums adopt new attitude of candor and interest in forgeries of art occurring throughout the centuries

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 D"urer 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. An example is included in the British Museum exhibition - a Keating ``Samuel Palmer'' (Palmer was a 19th-century English visionary landscape painter). When his bogus Samuel Palmers came to light in 1976, Mr. Keating publicly confessed, avoided criminal prosecution on health grounds, and wrote his life story. He gave TV lectures on great artists' techniques and became a folk hero.

THE British Museum exploration of the subject had precedents. Paris's Biblioth`eque Nationale in 1988 staged a show called ``Vrai ou Faux?'' The Victoria and Albert Museum claims, according to Paul Williamson, curator of sculpture, ``some sort of credit'' for an even earlier serious attention paid to fakes. In 1982 and '83, it set up a Fakes Gallery with all kinds of objects bought by or given to the museum.

Some, however, were actually acquired over the years as known fabrications ``because they were instructive,'' says Mr. Williamson. After World War II such doubtful objects were ignored and put in storage. Bringing them out into the galleries indicates, Williamson feels, a turnaround in attitudes toward fakes. He believes people have started to look at late 19th- and early 20th-century sculpture fakes, for example, ``for what they can tell us about sculptural procedures'' of that period.

Evasiveness over revealing forgeries does remain. I tried to get confirmation that a forged signature of British Pop artist Peter Blake had been added to a drawing. It is an authentic Blake, but an undistinguished sketch for the Beatles's ``Sgt. Pepper'' album cover, now part of EMI's compact disc of the same. EMI had purchased the drawing from the Brandler Galleries, which had purchased it from a Glasgow bookshop, John Smith and Sons.

The book shop had purchased it from a one-time ``friend'' of Blake's. The friend had fed the market with Blake drawings and memorabilia that Blake had given him, falsifying some of them, to increase their value. Blake himself authenticated the drawing but objected to the sale, not so much because of the false signature, but on the ``moral grounds'' of a friend selling gift items.

EMI was unaware the signature might be false, never thinking to question it. Blake himself has not answered a my letter asking for confirmation of the signature's falsity. The Brandler gallery says he ``regards the matter as closed.''

Dealer Brandler's approach to fakes, however, is intriguing - and once more, a sign of changed attitudes.

``People now collect fakes,'' he says. He collects them himself. He owns a Keating ``Samuel Palmer.'' He says someone once even ``tried to sell me a fake Keating! I went straight to Scotland Yard with it.''

``It took me 14 years to find a good Van Meegeren,'' Brandler boasts. Van Meegeren was the famous maker of fake Vermeers. ``What,'' I ask Brandler, ``do you mean by a `good' Van Meegeren?''

``One that looks like a Vermeer,'' he promptly replies.

``You're an expert on fakes?''

``Oh, I hate the word `expert.' What I'm fascinated by is the fact that if you've got a painting on your wall signed `Joe Bloggs,' it's worth, say, 100 pounds. Change the signature and it's worth 100,000. And when it's found to be a fake - it's either worth 200,000 or 20 pounds.''

There's more to fakes than meets the eye.

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