Sympathy for the Forger: An Essay by Brad Phillips

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In the May 2014 issue of Modern Painters, I wrote an article called “The Quotational Pandemic” in which I attempted to address the slew of painters I saw at that time (art being so terribly boring and unoriginal now that this has already passed) who were mimicking European Modernist painting, particularly Henri Matisse. I was seeing it everywhere, paintings packed full of sentimental marks reminiscent of Matisse, Gorky, Whistler and many others.

One artist I singled out as being the most adept at making brand new Matisse paintings was Los Angeles painter ___ _______, who subsequently had a nervous breakdown on Facebook wherein he accused me of being a neo-con Christian conservative who made paintings like Luc Tuymans. ____was very upset. There was no gratitude for the fact that I got one of his brand new Matisse paintings a very large reproduction in a popular contemporary art magazine.

My point with his work was this; I myself love Matisse, he’s my favourite painter of all time, and I would also love to sit around and make some new work by Matisse. But I can’t do that, because I steadfastly hold onto, sometimes to my detriment, ideas about integrity, and a perhaps naive belief that artistts can still be original. But ____ _______ is a very talented painter; I don’t believe that I myself could make copies (or previously unseen works by) the great French master. If they weren’t being shown in “contemporary” art galleries, and written about “critically” I would have had no problem with his work. I’ve often seen people in museums sitting in front of a Manet or Van Gogh making incredibly beautiful duplicates. If ________ had simply chosen to make new Matisse paintings, because he loved Matisse, and kept them in his apartment or gifted them to friends (or even as some famous forgers have done, advertised them as original fakes), I would never have included him in the article. That he showed them in an esteemed New York gallery was what I found problematic. This painter who I cannot name again was an anomalous variation of a forger. Homage, inspiration—these are words that artists often use to justify their work resembling the work of already well-known artists. But ____ wasn’t a forger. He was a mimic.


De Hory in the style of Matisse: Odalisque.

Forgers are primarily motivated by either revenge (and the desire for revenge can create beautiful and dramatic results in any field) or by money. I like the guys who do it for revenge. They’re almost exclusively guys, because vengeance tends to be a fairly base emotion, and base emotions are areas where men have shown great aptitude. Most of the forgers who are well known began their careers as forgers only after their own, original work was ignored by the art world of the time. They became motivated by a “fuck you” mentality, which again, a “fuck you” mentality can lead to great things, even in original works of art. Typically their own work is quite bad. In the case of most well-known forgers, they had a surfeit of skill but a paucity of original thought. So what they were left with were skill and a desire to avenge themselves. The best way to avenge themselves was to fuck over the art world that had left them feeling rejected. And there are many ways to do this. Forged paintings can alter the value of genuine works, affect auction results, nullify insurance, ruin reputations, destroy the estates of the wealthy, and cost museums a great deal of money as well as leave them eating a great deal of crow.


Robert Bateman

Skill devoid of originality is rather tragic really. Even today there are in Canada artists like Robert Bateman who are overburdened with skill, and spend it painting magical wildlife scenery. Artists like Bateman make prints and calendars and mugs, but will never get a review in the New York Times. Bateman is notoriously bitter and hostile about contemporary art, even while he makes much more money than almost any living contemporary artist, and that bitterness is the result of an unsatisfied ego. Bateman wants to be taken seriously, he wants integrity, but it’s been quite a long time since a beautifully rendered owl has meant much to the cognoscenti. This bitterness is emblematic of a model; artists who make commercial work, and often have skill or some type of gimmick, who sell work, but aren’t taken seriously. They are unhappy. They want to be treated as intellectuals, as artists who are pushing the envelope of what art might be, perhaps unaware of the fact that artists like this usually are not making much money. The commercially successful, broadly appealing artist sits in her five bedroom home overlooking a private beach longing for an inch of press in the New Yorker, and the artist who gets written up in art magazines and shown in museums and “important” contemporary galleries sits in her cramped bachelor apartment desperately longing for some financial relief. This is the line about the grass always being greener. In truth you accept one reality or the other, and if you persevere long enough, a small fraction of the original and progressive artists may see some relief, but unless there is another 9/11, the Robert Batemans of this world will never get the respect they long for, that eats away at them in palatial homes in remote islands off the coast of British Columbia.

Forgeries are often just as good and perhaps better than the originals. There are two ways to forge art. One is to recreate paintings that already exist, but artworks like this are much more apt to be found out.  Forgers working like this are the ones most often caught and prosecuted. The smarter forgers are the ones who make new works in the style of certain artists, which can suddenly be made public after being found “stashed away in mother’s attic,” etcetera. Because there have been so many works of art made by so many artists, and certain artists were not always methodical about documenting their work, it is much easier, and much smarter, to create “new” works by established artists. This, more than copying an existing painting exactingly, takes much more skill, in that the forger has to have a real sense of the style of even thinking of the artist they’re duplicating. And this is where it becomes murky. Johannes Vermeer, great Dutch master of the 17th century and perhaps the greatest Dutch painter of all time was only known to have 34 paintings verifiably attributed to him. Almost all of them are recognizable to anyone with an interest in art. So popular is his work that the painting Girl with a Pearl Earring became the title for a corny yet Academy-Award nominated film about his life and about the eponymous painting. In his book, Secret Knowledge, somewhat talented painter himself, David Hockney, posits that Vermeer was one of the first artists to use optical devices in his work, which allowed his paintings to have an uncanny realism. When someone is this talented, people want more. Kurt Cobain killed himself, how many fans of his music were saddened at the thought that there could have been more (middling) Nirvana albums that will never see the light of day?  David Foster Wallace was perhaps the most interesting novelist of the late 20th century, and after his suicide many fans of his work were saddened that there would be no more books by him. With art, the same applies to Vermeer. With an understanding of this void—a sort of public longing—in steps the forger who makes work in the style of.


Han Van Meergen working on Vermeer’s The Young Christ, 1945.


Perhaps the most famous of this type is Han van Meegeren. Born in 1889, he could, if he had a contemporary mind, been making work during the glorious era of Post-Impressionism. However van Meegeren had a love for paintings of the Dutch Golden Age, and made work that mimicked this era. His greatest fault was that he was a sentimentalist. Like the unnamed artist in the first paragraph, van Meegeren just wanted to make paintings like those he loved from the past, in the spirit of Frans Hals, Gerard ter Borch, and… Vermeer. This made them seem glaringly anachronistic and were derided by critics, rightly, as tired and derivative. One critic described van Meegeren as “a gifted technician who has made a sort of composite facsimile of the Renaissance school, [and] has every virtue except originality.” This is a sentiment that could be applied to legitimate artist Robert Bateman, as well as to most forgers spurred on by a desire for vengeance. This dismissal by critics as someone with skill but no originality planted the seed of vengeance in van Meegeren that has led to so many beautiful albeit forged paintings. It’s doubtful a coincidence that once he committed himself to making forgeries, he also married his second wife, Jo van Walraven, who brought into their marriage her child from her previous husband, an art critic. Fuck them in the bedroom and fuck them in the museums. Van Meegeren was a determined man. He assiduously studied the style, techniques and materials of painters from the Dutch Renaissance, finally settling on Vermeer as the artist upon whom he would focus his rage and his skill. From 1932 until 1944, the year in which he sold a fake Vermeer to someone more dangerous than the average aristocrat, to the monstrous Hermann Goring, van Meegeren and his family lived a luxurious life. Each new Vermeer he painted fetched enormous sums, fooling even the most esteemed experts. While he made paintings that also passed easily by lesser known Dutch artists, it was the Vermeers that helped him acquire a 12 bedroom estate near Nice. In 1943 his forgeries had earned him today’s equivalent of 25 to 30 million dollars. In a 1946 interview he claimed to own 52 homes and 15 country houses in the Netherlands. All of this attributed to skill, a desire for revenge, and a knack for convincing people he kept stumbling upon previously unknown paintings by great artists.

It took many years (and it will take many more years) to discover which paintings by certain Dutch masters in museums and private homes all over the world are in fact authentic or just more van Meegerens. That he died in 1947 and today his forgeries are complicating estates, museum holdings and insurance records is a testament to the power of  vengeance and its ability act from beyond the grave.

Today the Vermeer’s painted by van Meegeren tour the world. His own original artwork, which he persisted at making throughout his prolific career can be seen at auction websites, selling for very little money, and looking very hackneyed. But the forgeries fill a void. Art lovers, Vermeer lovers, longed to see more works by Vermeer. And that van Meegeren was so adept at fooling experts, essentially qualifies his paintings as legitimate paintings by Vermeer in their own way. He may have screwed with museums in one way, but he’s also making them money today with touring shows of his expert forgeries. Big museums will always defeat the artist, one way or another. Even more outlandishly, there are now forgeries of van Meegeren’s forgeries being made by of all people his son, which are apparently of lesser quality, but still find homes.

Perhaps there’s nothing so wrong with forgeries then. If they’re done well enough to convince scholars and fellow artists that they’re legitimate, and they fill the void the public has to see new work by a certain artist, who can really say that a well crafted forgery is a crime committed upon anyone but the original artist who, now long dead, is being copied. People spend money all the time to see “tribute” bands who play Beatles songs, Elvis impersonators—we pay to go to wax museums just to stand next to obviously unreal replications of celebrities. If a brand new David Foster Wallace book was suddenly “found” in ten years that perfectly mimicked his syntax and conceptual complexity, would it be so hard to allow yourself to enjoy the book, even if there were the shadow of a doubt as to its authenticity? If there were two dozen new hilarious and poignant quotes by Dorothy Parker unearthed that mirrored her genius for language and dark comedy would it really matter to anyone if she was the actual author?

Elmyr de Hory _06

Portrait of a Woman in the style of Modigliani, by Elmyr de Hory

Elmyr de Hory was another art forger motivated by revenge. He had a special gift for avoiding the law for some time, which was to make a new painting by for example Monet, with Monet’s signature exactingly reproduced on the bottom right, but would present it to auction houses and collectors as “this” painting I found, not “this Monet” painting I found.

It’s a good loophole. De Hory was also a sentimentalist with a great deal of talent. Orson Welles made a film about de Hory called F for Fake in which de Hory makes this very point, questioning what makes his paintings inferior to the artists he imitated since he had fooled so many experts and the works were always appreciated when it was believed they were genuine. In 1968 de Hory was imprisoned in Spain for 2 months for being a homosexual and for conspiring with criminals.

He was never actually, due to his gift for sliding through loopholes, charged with forgery. Upon his release, he sold his story to the author Clifford Irving, who wrote the long-windedly-titled book Fake! The Story of Elmer de Hory The Greatest Art Forger of Our Time. This was essentially the end of de Hory, although he sadly, with little luck attempted to make a living off of his own work before dying by his own hand in 1976. Interestingly, perhaps inspired by de Hory, in the early seventies Irving himself was caught in an enormous scandal of forgery after writing a fake autobiography of recluse Howard Hughes, this time simply titled Autobiography of Howard Hughes. He may have been inspired by de Hory, but he was also doing what the previous forgers had done, which was noticing and filling a void in the public. Irving was already a successful writer when he decided to write the phony Howard Hughes autobiography. He was one of the ones motivated by money, not revenge. Hughes had been a prominent figure in America in the beginning of his career, the first American billionaire; he dated every prominent Hollywood starlet. He made a plane out of wood. But mental illness and childhood abuse slowly turned Hughes into the most famous (and legitimate) recluse since perhaps Emily Dickinson. Even his right hand man, whom he worked closely with for the last 25 years of Hughes’ life never once saw him in person. He was a notorious germaphobe yet also extremely filthy. Before his death his hair went down to his ass, his nails were long and curled—but he had elaborate instructions about how many pieces of tissue paper were required to open door knobs that led to his inner sanctum where he would be passed letters by gloved hands covered in yet more tissue. He commanded a large empire entirely over the phone. He would rent entire floors of hotels for years on end, and when complaints were filed about the mess, or the media attention, he would simply buy the hotel. The public was fascinated with Hughes, who had gone from being a dashing and handsome bon vivant and premiere American industrialist into a mysterious recluse from whom nothing was ever heard except the most bizarre rumours, which all proved to be true, as well as things beyond imagination, when an actual biography was published in 2004 by Donald L. Bartlett and James B. Steele.


Irving was operating from the same place as van Meegeren. He was appealing to the appetite of a public who had been told there was no more to consume. Inside of this void much money can be made. All of it however, dubiously.

In January 1972 Irving confessed to his book being a fake. He spent 17 months in prison, where apparently, he quit smoking, and picked up weightlifting. Upon his release, he wrote the book The Hoax, which was a thrilling account of himself having written a fake autobiography. And having written this fake autobiography did involve some thrilling events, moments of high drama, fake moustaches, the like. The Hoax was a bestseller, doubling back on the public longing for information on a missing figure, from a fake story about said figure, to a captivating account of the entire affair. In 2005 The Hoax was turned into a film starring Richard Gere, for which Irving was paid an untold although assumedly not small sum, as well as being given a job as screenwriter on the movie. He himself later said that the movie was an inaccurate portrayal, and went so far as to criticize the filmmakers for adding scenes that “had not occurred.” The irony is truly delectable.

In the end all entertainment (art included), although it fails more than it succeeds (the failure entertainment in itself), involves the suspension of disbelief. If one were to walk into a museum today and see hanging on the wall a beautiful painting by Helen Frankenthaler or Agnes Martin, there is nothing that would alter the viewer’s experience if in fact the painting had not been made by either of these two brilliant artists. If after leaving the museum someone were to tell them, hey, that Frankenthaler is a forgery, there is a chance of being bothered. Of feeling that the experience was inauthentic. But this is an intellectual reaction, not an emotional one. It’s a reaction to a feeling of being duped. It’s a sleight against the intellect. But the experience of standing in front of that same painting,  no matter who it was made by, and being moved; this is an emotional, or physical reaction. And entertainment primarily appeals to things more visceral than the intellect. So if forgers are bad people, it’s only because they point out to us, one, how very little we know about certain things, and two, that skill and virtuosity are not the sacred god given gifts we’ve saccharinely allowed ourselves to believe that they are.