There is a wonderful exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum called ‘Fakes and Forgeries‘. I’m sorry to be recommending it so late in the day – it finishes this Sunday (7th Feb).
The exhibits ‘belong’ not to some rich collector or charitable foundation, but to the Metropolitan Police, and they are all items that have been used as evidence in recent forgery trials.
In the first room there are some masterpieces by de Staël, Chagall and Giacometti – but they are really by John Myatt, one of the greatest forgers of the late 20th century. And as an example of changing fashions within the art market there is a ‘Balloon Girl’ stencil print in the style of Banksy, the contemporary graffiti artist.
It raises so many questions. If John Myatt can paint as well as de Staël, Chagall and Giacometti, does that mean he is the greater artistic genius (because unlike them he is not trapped within a certain style)? Why should the price of a luminous painting crash just because the certificate of authenticity is shown to be worthless? (I know, because it’s a market, and we are paying for the connection with the artist and for the investment).
A lovely twist arises from the fact that some of Myatt’s paintings are now becoming collectors’ items in their own right because of his fame and the notoriety of the cases.
I learnt some legal definitions. A ‘fake’ is an ‘innocent’ object that is later tampered with, e.g. by adding a fake signature. A ‘forgery’ is an object that is ‘guilty’ from the start – it was created in order to deceive someone. A ‘copy’ is a replica of a work of art that is created without any intention to deceive. A beautiful ‘Matisse’ is displayed here, even with his signature copied in the corner – but this is perfectly legal, because no-one was trying to pretend that it was really a Matisse.
Much of the skill lies in creating a false provenance: fake letters of authentication, false stories about how the work passed from the artist’s studio to the present-day, even tampering with archives in order to create the impression that a non-existent work really did exist in the documented history.
I know forgery is wrong, but the exhibition had all the fascination of a good heist film, and I couldn’t help admiring – not the dishonesty of the forgers, but their artistic skill and ingenuity.