The Art of Deception by Patrick Gooch
In 1990, Time magazine reported that, in his lifetime, Camille Corot painted some eight hundred canvases, four thousand of which are to be found in the United States. So, how many fake Corots are there? How many Corots are by Corot? The trouble is nobody really knows. Corot tops the list as the most widely copied artist – though others, such as van Gogh, Daumier, Vermeer, Lowery, Picasso, Salvador Dalí, Modigliani, Rodin, have all been cleverly faked, and passed off as originals.
Even the experts, with their call upon modern technology, find it difficult to spot a phony. As a consequence, it is estimated that around 20% of all works of art in museums, galleries and private collections around the world, could be fakes. The market is rife with counterfeit masterpieces. Moreover, it is not a recent phenomenon. Such duplicity dates back to Roman times when, for lack of original culture, the sculptors copied the work of the ancient Greeks, and passed them off as their own endeavours.
In 1496, during the Renaissance, Michelangelo copied Roman sculptors when creating Sleeping Eros. Strangely enough, when it was discovered to be a blatant copy, Michelangelo’s reputation was sealed. Only a true master could produce such a remarkable fake.
Awareness that it was not hard to dupe the art world has really come about in the last hundred years, no doubt consistent with the phenomenal growth in auction prices for works by the masters. What is more, art forgers have achieved a certain notoriety. One of the names that readily comes to mind is Han van Meegeren. He wanted to be acknowledged as an artist in his own right, but critics dismissed his efforts. To get back at his detractors, van Meegeren replicated the works of the world’s greatest artists. Amazingly for a trickster, opinion polls in 1947 placed him as the second most popular of all Dutchmen, behind the then prime minister.
Robert Driessen made millions copying the elongated figures created by Giacometti. Hiding out on a beach somewhere in Thailand, he is still avoiding the German authorities. Closer to home, Thomas Keating was a forger with a cause. He started faking works in order to rail against ‘avant-garde fashion: with critics and dealers often conniving to line their own pockets at the expense of both naïve collectors and impoverished artists.’ The artist he perfected copying was Samuel Palmer, a nineteenth-century landscape painter. Nowadays, Keating counterfeits can be bought on the art market for as much as £10,000.
Yves Chaudron is best remembered for his involvement in the infamous art theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911. The plan was concocted with the Italian patriot Vincenzo Peruggia, who wanted to return the highly prized work to Italy. Despite his altruism, he made six copies of Leonardo’s painting and sold each of them to American buyers for over $300,000.
However, the British painter John Myatt has been described as ‘the biggest art fraudster of the twentieth century.’ Along with his accomplice, John Drewe, he has faked over two hundred different artists. The pair swindled Sotheby’s and Christie’s out of hundreds of thousands of pounds. Jailed in 1998, he only spent four months in prison. Today, his authenticated fakes sell for considerable sums of money.
It is a quirk of the times to shrug our shoulders when someone commits the passing off of fraudulent works of art. Yet there is growing interest in such acts by the criminal element in our society, who see it, dispassionately, as another avenue of enrichment. It is the venal side of the art world that, as an author, has long held my attention. Few novels have been written on the subject. Thus, little is known about the exploits of those who show blatant disregard for the law.
In my quartet of novels entitled The Art of Murder, published by Sharpe Books, readers are given an insight into the shadowy underworld of art dealing, where handsome reward is often the spur for blood-letting and murder. The main character in the series is Alan Cleverden. In the first novel of the quartet, Artifice, Alan is left a raft of paintings in his grandfather’s will. It is then he discovers that most of them are originals. How they were acquired is a mystery, but unscrupulous dealers know their true worth, and are uncaring how they gain their possession. Nothing stands in their way as they plot and scheme, with murderous intent, to wrest the works of art from Cleverden.
In dwelling on what takes place behind the scenes in the art world, the four novels expose the lengths some dealers will go to exploiting would-be buyers, and how forgers get away with producing almost undetectable copies of celebrated paintings. This is a world of genteel appearance: yet behind the facade traps are frequently set to catch the unwary. Today’s art prices are too tempting for rogues and sharp practitioners to ignore. It’s a dangerous game.
Purely as an exercise, more to understand the techniques of fraudsters, I have copied works by celebrated artists myself. Some are shown in the accompanying image. Surprisingly, they reveal much about the originals: where the masters had changes of heart, for instance, and even their errors that, to this day, go unnoticed.
Find out more about Patrick here.