Essays on Art by Hugh Moss

Faking Things Quietly in the Country

May 2024

 

When dozens of apparently magnificent Vermeers were recently exposed as fakes made by Han Van Meegeren, a clever modern forger, they lost their value overnight. Without any material change in the works themselves, paintings which were, until then, widely acknowledged masterpieces and each worth a small fortune, were reduced to being largely worthless. After the initial shock there began a somewhat confused debate as to their real meaning as they were set adrift in the turbulent waters of the art market, surrounded by Vermeer-experts desperately paddling their coracles of credibility away from the resulting vortex.

There is a hoary old joke in the art-world that there are thought to be 126 genuine Rembrandts in the world, of which 375 are in America - the numbers vary. A significant proportion of all Renaissance painting is widely held to be of questionable authenticity. The art world is riddled with forgeries, old and new, like an ancient oak column, standing only because its heart is incorruptible, unreachable by the most voracious woodworm.

Familiarity with the art market reveals two fundamental axioms: the moment something is sought after and valued, it is faked; and the moment it is, there will be no shortage of avaricious or gullible merchants ready to convince their clients, possibly even themselves, that they are genuine.

A chance encounter in a friend’s house in Vancouver led me to consider the position of a fake in the art-world and to write this essay. On the obligatory bookcase in the spare bedroom of what is a second home to me stood the usual array of old issues of National Geographic, full of too much local knowledge to bin, and, above them two ranks of old hardbacks along with a few popular epics, well-thumbed, redeeming literature. What caught my eye, was a modest hardback, still in its worn dust-jacket, entitled Fake. There may have been an exclamation mark.

It was printed in 1969 and already its pages were yellowing at the edges, but no more than I, and I had nearly a quarter of a century on it. I asked if I might take it to read and, of course, was given it.

As a life-long aesthete, collector, dealer, author, student and theorist and I had seldom thought to do other than avoid fakes whenever possible. I understood this from the outset, but only belatedly came to consider their role in the overall process of art. Had I considered taking a batch of National Geographic, even the Fenland stoats could not have diverted me from Clifford Irving’s entertaining romp through the dignity of the art market.

It is the story of Elmire de Hory (1906-1976), perhaps the second greatest art-forger of the twentieth century - I say ‘second-greatest’ because, of course, the greatest would remain unrecognized. Hungarian and an ignored, if skilled, artist he began faking the rapidly rising stars of the modern western revolution in art. He produced hundreds of drawings, prints and paintings under the names of Picasso, Braque, André Derain, Van Dongen, Dufy, Matisse, Renoir and the Fauves and spread them across the Western world to feed the acquisitive frenzy of collectors and museums that bubbled and frothed through the fifties and sixties. He got away with it, with only the occasional unpleasant moment, for nearly two decades.

Nobody wanted his own work honestly signed, but when he produced fakes, collectors, dealers and museums fought over his works clucking approvingly. He also forged certificates rather well and in one case didn’t have to: he took one of his fake Van Dongen’s to the old man himself who looked at it with rheumy eyes and certified it in his spidery script.

De Hory comes across as a sympathetic character if a little feckless, although the fecklessness is so much a part of his sympathetic character that it can hardly be considered a fault.

Through the gathering chaos of his craft as he fell in with an unsavoury and unbalanced front-man and his agreeable boyfriend, de Hory’s lack of ambition or direction allowed him to be used, making it crystal clear that while he may not have had the necessary creative juices to interest an audience in his own paintings, whenever he assumed the style of another, he was capable of mastery. Many of his works hung in prestigious collections and sombre museums and were treated with hushed respect. In one case his fakes were considered finer than the originals, leading one expert to establish his criteria on the basis of the fake de Hory hand, finding, by comparison, the artist’s true hand less inspiring. Embarrassing but well within the bandwidth of art-world ‘expertise.’

De Hory may have lacked the vision, or perhaps the patience, to become an artist under his own name, but it must be acknowledged that as an exponent of the art of faking, the guy was brilliant – an authentic artist at creating the inauthentic.

If we shift focus in art, as we have had to do in the past century in the West, granting the process governance over its products, the definition of ‘any creative response to experience’ becomes the definition of art instead of any preconceived notion as to whether the object or other form of expression is or isn’t art. At the level of the art object, we can still decide whether or not it is authentic, but we can recognize de Hory’s process as a form of art. Such a level of internal contradiction is inevitable as we shift from the Cartesian binary divide between subject and object to a more syncretic mind, as imposed by the modern western revolution in the arts. The fancy term for this is aporia.

Coda:
As reassessments gather, irony raises its intriguing little head. Clifford Irving famously wrote an ‘autobiography’ of Howard Hughes, which was a fake, according to Howard Hughes and his very, very expensive lawyers. The evidence suggests however, that he didn’t fake the book about de Hory the Faker. But even if he had, the same conundrum is raised for the art world which provides centuries of known and unknown master-fakers. Check out an intriguing story by Jorge Luis Borges to entertain your tolerance for aporia (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pierre_Menard,_Author_of_the_Quixote).

Hugh Moss, at the Water, Pine and Stone Retreat, May 2024


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