By William Clague


Whether a non-original art work should be called a copy or a forgery is largely a matter of intent. On any weekday, at the National Gallery of Art, a least one copyist can be seen, with easel and lab coat, copying one of the paintings on display. The copies are remarkably good. Producing a copy, that is at least superficially credible, of many works of art is not very difficult. These are sometimes done as student exercises. Producing a wholly new work in the style of a successful artist takes a little more research and practice, but it can be and frequently is done. What will become of all these copies and exercises a century or two in the future? Will they turn up in the cellar of a junk shop and be discovered as a previously unknown work of the master? It is more than possible that some of them will.

Forgers get to work as soon as an artist becomes popular. Thus many forgeries are contemporary with the work of the person being copied or aped. Age, verified by scientific tests can unmask a fraud, but they cannot verify authenticity. After science has had its say, the task of certifying a work is left to connoisseurs and experts. Experts may be defined as those who through study and experience have acquired a thorough knowledge of a subject, and who are frequently correct in their opinions.

We cannot be sure just how many copies, and fakes are out there undiscovered, and which will probably never be found out. Those resting in major galleries and collections gain more credibility by the year. Some that were discovered within the just past century probably never would have been identified if those that produced them had not come forward to claim credit for their work. Here are just three of the better known cases.

Art dealer Han van Meegeren, living in comfort and respectably in Amsterdam after the end of World War II was accused of assisting in the sale of a Vermeer to Herman Goering. That serious charge would mean a big fine, jail time and perhaps more important to van Meegeren, the world would never know that he had painted that Vermeer and many others. So van defended himself against the collaboration charge by claiming credit for the Vermeer in question, and he proved it to the incredulous court by painting a Vermeer in his jail cell. If van Meegeren had not revealed the facts himself, who would ever have known? His forgeries had never been seriously questioned by the art world, and they would still be in galleries and collections the world over, as Vermeers.

Alceo Dossena, working in Rome, produced sculptures in antique styles from 1916 until 1928 that found their way into major collections as priceless masterpieces discovered from the past.  Dossena evidently had no fraudulent intent, he was just a highly skilled workman who could produce anything that was requested of him.  He made vast sums for his handlers but received only the pay of a stonecarver, and on the low side at that.  When he found out how others had used him he revealed his and their roles in one of the greatest series of sales of fakes that there ever was.  If Dossena had never found out what his works were being sold for, and furiously spilled the beans, his works would still be acclaimed as unsurpassed examples of the antique, and still be, among other places, in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Cleveland Museum of Fine Arts, and others in this country and abroad.  It took the man who produced these works to blow their cover, nobody else had said a word.

Greed of the profiteer was also the deciding factor in the revelation by Lothar Malskat, who in 1951 disclosed that he, working for the restorer Dietrich Fey, and created new Gothic murals when supposedly working to restore damaged murals in German churches.  When the fire blackened or weathered old walls were cleaned, it was found that practically nothing remained of the murals Malskat was to restore.  So, what was a feller going to do?  He just made some perfectly good new ones.  The restorations were hailed by all involved and Fey got all the credit, and Malskat got only his little paycheck and a pat on the back.  Malskat revealed all.  If Fey had not been so stingy those Gothic murals would still be on the church walls, admired and treasured.   As it turned out they were destroyed, because, as any fool could see, they were crude and incompetent efforts of a mere restorerís assistant.

When the truth is out, it becomes apparent to everyone that, as they knew all along but didnít want to cause a fuss, the spurious works were of inferior quality and clearly not the work of a master.  Címon, gimmie a break!  The connoisseurs, dealers, directors, and experts had recognized the now condemned works as works of artistic merit because, with their experience and study, they knew quality when they saw it. They were right  up to that point.  How did that artistic merit and quality then vanish?  Well, the experts tell us, one has to possess great wisdom and superior understanding in these matters, only the experts are capable of really knowing.  Reminds you of the Hans Christian Anderson tale about the little boy who told everybody that the king was parading in his birthday suit. 

To go further into this web of deceit, greed, expertise and egos, see:

     False Impressions
, by Thomas Hoving;
     The Art of the Faker, by Frank Arnau;
     The Fabulous Frauds
, by Lawrence Jepperson
     Artful Partners, by Colin Simpson
     Fakes, by Otto Kurz, Dover Publications, LC# 67-28921
     The Genuine Article, by J.F.M. Mills, and J.M. Mansfield, Universe Books.