Noah Charney is the founder of the Association for Research into Crimes against Art and the author of the novel The Art Thief. He spoke with New Inquiry editor about his new book, The Art of Forgery
Malcolm Harris: How did you become interested in working around art theft in the first place?
Noah Charney: It started back in 2002 when I was a post-grad at the Courtauld Institute and then at Cambridge. I decided I wanted to write a novel, and I had experience behinds the scenes at the art world. I worked at Christie’s during a summer, I was studying art history, and I had worked at some museums. I thought it would be fun to set a novel in the art world, but as I set about doing the sort of research I was used to as a student, and I realized there was very little from an academic perspective on the subject of art crime. And it sounded more fun than traditional art history.
And then you went on to pursue that professionally as well?
I shifted my research interest from art history to a new field that hadn’t been developed. It was an interdisciplinary study of art crime from the perspective of criminology, art history, archaeology, law, museum studies, security studies, policing and investigating. It’s a whole mixture of things. It had gone really under-studied before. I wasn’t inventing the wheel per se, but I was lucky to be the first person to look at it in a new way.
It is a glamorous field as compared to, say, restoration.
It’s true, it’s one of the things I like about it. Everyone from professors to taxi drivers thinks it’s fascinating. Maybe they’ve just seen Ocean’s 11 or The Thomas Crown Affair, but people find it intriguing. The art trade and art in general is an interesting milieu, and there’s the true crime aspect.
When people think art crime they do think Thomas Crown: rich British aristocrat doing it for thrills. How accurate is that stereotype?
Most of the stereotypes are based on several individual real crimes, but then they’ve been generalized as the norm, which is not the case. If we’re talking about art theft, most of what people know is thanks to the notoriety of the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa by Vincenzo Peruggia, the 1877 theft of the Gainsborough Portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire by Adam Worth, and some other big ones. These were extremely high-profile thefts that made international headlines, but the incorrect suppositions on the part of journalists in particular infested the popular conception of what art crime entails and made it a good deal more romantic than it has been in reality, at least since the Second World War.
Prior to World War II, most of the big art thefts we know of were perpetrated by individuals rather than organized crime. It was generally non-violent; these were people with gentlemanly aspirations. But that really got picked up on by a 1932 article in the Saturday Evening Post by journalist Carl Decker, who was himself a notorious fabricator. He invented the story that the Mona Lisa was stolen on commission by an Argentine count named Eduardo de Valfierno, who allegedly had a forger made six identical copies to sell for $1 million each to six wealthy Americans. This was entirely fictious but was published as a factual account. The story got picked up by the general public and misinformed generations of journalists.
It also colored people’s misperceptions about art forgery. One of the main things I do in my non-fiction and academic work is to try and counteract the romanticized and incorrect ideas about art crime in general. They bring people to the subject, but you also want to make it match with the real story, which I think is more intriguing.
From the stories your book, it seems like successful forgers are closer to these fantastic stereotypes than other kinds of art criminals.
That’s absolutely right, and I teach forgery differently than other categories of art crime. Forgergery is distinct because in almost every case it does not involve organized crime; it is almost always an individual or a pair. The criminological definition of organized crime is a group of three or more individuals involved in collaborative long-term criminal enterprise. This definition excludes almost everyone in the pantheon of famous forgers. The people involved are really Dickensian, larger-than-life characters who seem like they’ve fallen out of 19th-century novels, and they adhere much more closely to the cliches about art crime in general than anyone else.
A lot of them happen into forgery. Many of them are artists to start with instead of criminals
I think very few would self-identify as criminals. The cast majority have a specific psychological profile for at least what originally led them to try their hand at forgery. The continuation is usually financially motivated, but the the initial profile is: They want to be original artists, they tried and failed, they felt rejected by some member of the art world, and they projected that the art world collectively had wronged them and they wanted to get revenge. And that revenge is the primary initial motivation for most of the people who try out forgery.
And if they succeed, they get this multifaceted revenge. They can rationalize that they must be as good as the artist they imitate if an experts can’t tell the difference. And they show the experts to be foolish. Therefore the experts must have been foolish to reject their original work. The only caveat to that is both of those are private successes as long as the forger isn’t caught or outed. They’re the only ones in the world who know about their successes.
Once they were caught, a good number of forgers were very happy to tout their activities. Some of them even outed themselves because they wanted to make public the recognition and kudos they had received privately for having fooled so many people for so long.
As someone in the industry, do you get the sense that the forgers who have gone public and end up in books like yours are just the tip of the iceberg? Do a lot of people get away with it?
When you study any field where the people you’re studying are trying not to be recognized or identified, you’re always dealing with a funny tip of the iceberg. When I was at Cambridge, there was a professor who taught history of espionage, and he started the class by saying “If people were doing their job correctly, I shouldn’t be able to find anything about them.” This is the case with criminals too. We know about people who were caught, and we know the most about people who were tried because their story goes on the record. A number of forgers also write their own stories, which you have to take with a grain of salt because they write memoirs as part of enjoying their notoriety.
I think the names in the book are the big guns out there, but there are almost certainly some skillful and prolific forgers who never got caught. It was recently pointed out to me that there are no female forgers in this books of 60-plus names. That made me think that maybe the women were too moral to get involved, but perhaps they were too clever and none of them have been caught or felt the need to out themselves.
To be a successful forger it almost requires a larger skill set and more luck than it takes to become a successful artist in the first place. For a short cut, forgery sounds really hard.
You have to be good at different things. A number of the forgers — more than half — if you just look at their forgeries in a vacuum, it’s surprising that they fooled anyone. Han van Meegeren’s Vermeers don’t look anything like Vermeers, but they managed to fool people. It is always the accompanying story, the invented provenance — which is essentially a confidence trick that manages to pass off the object — that really tricks the buyer. On further inspection, it’s always a surprise that the work itself could fool people. The way they do it is with a very compelling provenance.
It isn’t always the forgers who come up with that clever mechanism. There are a lot of pairs involved, like John Myatt and John Drewe, where Drewe was the real dark criminal of the two and was using Myatt’s decent but not extraordinary abilities as an imitator to commit the crimes.
It’s a different sort of skillset. I would also emphasize that most forgers are not great artists. There’s a reason why their original art never made it. Forged works tend not to look particularly compelling. They’re capable of imitating the style, but that’s very different from being a great artist. Some people say “They must be as great as the artist they’re mimicking,” but it’s very difficult to come up with the concept and the execution. Making your own style is very hard.
The storytelling then is at least half the forgery job.
I would say it’s more than half. There are people passing off things that really don’t look good at all. John Myatt is a very nice painter, but he was painting in acrylic works that would have been in oil and people just weren’t noticing. The story was so good that they looked at it aesthetically from a distance. But any expert should be able to tell the difference between acrylic and oil. They should be able to smell the difference. You have to say “Shame on the experts” in a lot of these cases.
Very few of these forgers when they do get caught actually serve much prison time at all. Is forgery a low-risk crime?
One of the things to keep in mind is art forgers face very light sentences, and many of them come out to very lucrative careers. If you’re a down-and-out artist and you’re of a certain socio-psychological bent, the idea of going to a minimum security prison for a year or two in exchange for being a world-famous artist might not sound like a bad trade-off. A lot of these guys court that very publicity. Just a few weeks ago Wolfgang Beltracchi got out of prison, and he has a documentary, he wrote a couple memoirs, the German media thinks he’s a rockstar. Now he’s going to make a living giving lectures and painting. Myatt has the same thing. Thomas Keating too. Lothar Malskat actually sued himself when no one believed he was capable of having forged these Medieval frescos, so that he’d have a public platform to take credit.
Do you think people like art forgers so much partly because they reflect a more general contempt for the art world?
Yes I think that’s a big part of it. It depends on the media venue, but especially in England there’s a real enjoyment in the elite brought low and for working-class types making good by fooling the establishment. That is essentially the narrative for most of these forgers, and the media eats this up. It is one of the types of crime that people don’t find morally reprehensible. If you imagine you’re at a cocktail party and someone tells you there’s a ponzi schemer in the corner, you’d leave him alone. But if they say that shadowy man in the corner is an art forger, you might be intrigued and want to chat with him. People find it nonthreatening. The media helps support that by telling stories of the hardworking Joes who manage to fool these art world elites. The implication is it’s essentially victimless; only wealthy people and wealthy institutions are victimized, and they can afford it.
In terms of the cost-benefit analysis, forgery sounds like a good bet, especially compared to trying to be an original artist.
Absolutely. It’s surprising more artists haven’t tried it as a publicity stunt. Or having your work stolen, that’s another good way to get famous fast. It’s true that it may be happening quite a bit more than we think, there might be another 60 prolific forgers we just don’t know about.
These incidents are so popular — nearly every subject in the book has their own feature-length documentary. And from what you say it seems more prevalent than we hear. Why are they kept so quiet given the public appetite for the stories?
The main problem is so many museums essentially want to protect their own reputation and the worst thing that can happen to an expert is to authenticate a forgery. Take the story of the Getty drawings: One of the curators thought a purchase of drawings were forgeries even though the museum had just bought them for $1 million. The Getty didn’t want to test them forensically and ended up soiling the name of their own curator and getting into a series of fights with him rather than risk admitting they had been fooled and bought forgeries.
In museums, there aren’t so many forgeries as there are works that are misattributed. And it’s very hard to distinguish between something that a curator just got wrong because it’s not an exact science and something wilfully sold as a forgery. Especially because artists have always learned by copying the works of others, works only become forgeries when you misrepresent them. All museums in the world have a significant percentage of works that have been misattributed at some point down the line. But it’s not right to say museums have a lot of forgeries.
If you walk into the Met, can you walk around pointing out misattributions? How well known are they in particular, or is it a sense that just that a certain percentage of them are wrong.
You can see things that look suspect, but you really have to specialize. You get art experts who are experts in a certain period of a certain artist’s career. I studied 16th-century Florentine painting and 17th-century Roman painting, so I wouldn’t know an 18th-century Spanish painting. You might have a specialist in Michelangelo drawing and that’s it. So it’s incredibly specific. It doesn’t really work to have generalists. There are things you can do when you’re examining a work, to look for telltale signs that something is off. And you can look at the provenance, which is a series of documents that accompany the art: receipts, wills, contracts, exhibition listings, references in books. There are signs you can look for, but it’s almost impossible to walk into a museum and point out something wrong.
I’ll give you an example in reverse: One of my favorite paintings is called The Blue Madonna by Carlo Dolci, and it’s in the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Florida. It is so much better than any other painting by Dolci that I wonder if it’s actually by him. Dolci is super cheesy and this is the only work of his that I would look twice at, and it’s one of my favorite paintings. So then you might go to the provenance, and it might look very sound, but if all the references are to people or institutions that no longer exist, that’s suspicious. It doesn’t mean it’s a forgery, but it raises suspicion because that’s the sort of thing a forger might choose to do.
The best thing of all are forensic tests, but people are very slow to call for forensic testing because for hundreds of years the art world has relied on the word of experts who may or may not have a real and deep expertise in what they claim, because there is no standardized system to designate someone an expert in a field of art. Perhaps there should be, but there’s nothing like the Master of Wine certificate you get if you want to be an expert in wine. And as a result you can have someone set up shop as an art expert who doesn’t know what they’re talking about. And if everything looks good they don’t want the forensic testing. It’s not particularly expensive or damaging to the art any more, but people don’t want it. If the work and the provenance look good, people very rarely go to forensic tests.
I was shocked how rare forensic authentication is. In the popular imagination, if someone is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars or millions of dollars, we assume it’s at least going to be x-rayed.
I think it’s reasonable for any art buyer to require forensic tests, or to be allowed to test a work at the lab of their choice. It’s like if you were going to buy a very expensive car and the dealer won’t show you the check-up or let you take it to a mechanic. You would be suspicious about that. And yet people don’t demand these tests, it’s not part of the gentleman’s etiquette that surrounds the art world and has since the art trade was established in 18th century London. There’s a lot of peer pressure on people not to rock the boat.
Is part of the reason that no one wants to starts casting too much suspicion on the whole industry?
I’m not sure how thoroughly anyone is thinking this though, but there are very few members of the art world who are actively trying to do something untoward. But a lot of them suffer from what I would call non-malevolent wishful thinking, where they don’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth. Everyone benefits if an object is legitimate, and people only lose if an object is found to be a forgery. The people in the middle and the experts are loathe to have their opinion overturned by science, and from the buyer’s perspective a lot of people collect for the social aspect. You don’t want to be the guy who is crass enough to demand a forensic test when the rest of the people in this elitist club understand that this isn’t what one does.
Do you think the art world eliminate art forgery if it could? Is this an important part of art?
It’s not necessary to eliminate it altogether. It’s only the people who are victimized by it and feel their reputation has been tarnished who are angry. It’s almost never about money, because the people who are buying these things are very rich. It’s their reputation that matters most. You get Chester Dale who bought a van Gogh forgery, it was forensically tested and everything. But Dale said, “As long as I’m alive, it’s a van Gogh.” Most victims would rather not know, and no one else is much affected. From a criminological view, forgery is more like an elaborate prank than a crime. I think there’s a place for forgers, and no is so outraged that they put their foot down and say “This must end.”
Do you think forgers are artists? Performance artists if not necessarily painters?
Yes. A couple of cases come to mind where art theft has been a component of a performance too. You have artists like Banksy who early on in his career would make really bad forgeries and hang them on a gallery wall and see how long it took people to notice. I like when museums get in on it too and tell the story behind occasions when they’ve been tricked. It’s fun to look at an original and a fake side-by-side.