Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The art of forgeries

Errol Morris wrote a 7-part series in the NYTimes on the art of forgery.

Why do people believe in imaginary returns, frauds and fakes?

Bernard Madoff, A.I.G. , W.M.D.’s … How did this happen? Do we believe things because it is in our self-interest? Or is it because we can be manipulated by others? And, if so, under what circumstances?

Last year, two different books on that subject appeared within months of each other. Not only did both tackle the question of fakery, they were both about the same man: Han van Meegeren, arguably the most successful art forger of all time.


The charge on which Van Meegeren was arraigned specified that he sold works bearing the spurious signatures of famous artists. It was not a simple case of forgery, inasmuch as the defendant created the works after the style of the seventeenth century masters, without actually copying any of their canvases…

How did he do it? Why did he do it? Newspapers reveal the thinking and confusions of their time, but they don’t necessarily provide answers. Was Van Meegeren a collaborator or an artist? Or both? And if he was a genius, what was his genius? His ability to trick people? Or was he able to trick people because he was an artist of genius? Who was Van Meegeren? A con man or Nazi? Did he forge paintings solely for monetary reward or was something more sinister involved?


EDWARD DOLNICK: You would think a close copy would be the goal of a forger, but it might not be a smart way to go. If you were a brilliant technician it might be an acceptable strategy, but my forger, Van Meegeren, is not as good as that. So if he’s going to try to pass himself off as Vermeer, he isn’t going to do it by painting “The Girl With Two Pearl Earrings.” [3] He’s going to get in trouble, because that’s asking for a side-by-side comparison, and he’s not good enough to get away with that.

It wasn’t going to be about how “you can’t tell the difference,” because you could. It would be, “How could people look at these things which are manifestly so different and not see what’s going on?” It became a story about how experts can get it wrong, and in fact, how expert knowledge, instead of helping, can be a hindrance. On the surface it seemed to be a story about art and history, but really, it’s a story about psychology.


The Uncanny Valley is a concept developed by the Japanese robot scientist Masahiro Mori. It concerns the design of humanoid robots. Mori’s theory is relatively simple. We tend to reject robots that look too much like people. Slight discrepancies and incongruities between what we look like and what they look like disturb us. The closer a robot resembles a human, the more critical we become, the more sensitive to slight discrepancies, variations, imperfections. However, if we go far enough away from the humanoid, then we much more readily accept the robot as being like us


ERROL MORRIS: The question of this book of his watercolors and drawings that was found in Hitler’s library. What is your feeling about that whole deal?

EDWARD DOLNICK: Well, there are a lot of elements to that. One is that that book of drawings could have given the game away; the forgery, I mean, if anybody said, “Look, be-cause there’s a remarkably similarity between the crazy, heavy eye-lidded figures that he drew and the figures in his biblical Vermeers.” To look at those, you think right away, “Boy, these Van Meegerens and these newfound million-dollar Vermeers look awfully similar!”

Parts 1 and 2 are really, really great... along with part 6. Solid questions, good explanations, very well researched. Impressive article. The imitation of art and life, and the eventual mixture of the two really fascinates me. Where do you draw the line?; why did you draw the line? What makes a great copy - it isn't necessarily the closest match! More on this a bit later.. hopefully today.


  1. I sure hope you've seen Orsen Welles "F is for Fake"...

  2. Downloading now... give me 24 hours?