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Forged: Why Fakes are the Great Art of Our Age by Jonathon Keats

Updated on May 8, 2015
Are fakes the greatest art form today?
Are fakes the greatest art form today? | Source

The tricky but fascinating subject of art forgery

This is a subject I have been interested in for so many years - since I was at art college myself. It combined my interests of art itself along with that of antiques - an interesting combination.

Faking art masterpieces

Art has been faked, forged and copied for centuries. The author of this book asserts that Michelangelo started his career creating faithful copies of other works. This is not unusual; this is one of the ways in which artists develop their skills.

Tom Keating

In the second part of the book, the author discusses several of the most successful art forgers and tells their stories. The most interesting of these, to me, is British artist Tom Keating.

His story is a fascinating one. As an untrained and unqualified artist, he worked as a picture restorer. This gave him ample opportunity to study great works of art in detail. But soon, he was working for a less-than-fastidious dealer who requested that he 'improve' mediocre painting thus enhancing their value.

It was a relatively simple step from there to painting works 'in the style of ...' and Keating discovered that his employer was adding signatures, therefore making his paintings fully-fledged fakes.

Awaiting discovery

This was a great way for the stereotypical starving artist to make a living and Keting began to create works that he could control himself. However, when he painted a fake, he invariably added techniques that would reveal its provenance years down the line.

For example, he would use modern acrylic paints or would write words on the canvas before he started painting that would show up in x-rays and reveal his work to be forged. He maintained that he was doing what he did to expose the fickle, greedy world of art dealers.

What happened to Tom Keating?

Ultimately - and almost inevitably - he was exposed. He was arrested and yet his case was thrown out of court. The reason given was the accused's ill health although my personal feeling is that this subject is such a minefield, and so very difficult to untangle that there may have been other reasons.

By the nineteen eighties, his fame had spread. His paintings - both his acknowledged fakes and his own works - were in high demand and he presented a popular television program about the classical artists.

What exactly IS a fake?

People create artworks 'in the style of...'. There is also the issue of 'from the school of...' where apprentice painters would paint in the same way as their employer. None of this is illegal.

So when does it become against the law? If I were to sell you something I told you was an original Jackson Pollack and had faked documents to 'prove' its provenance, that would be illegal.

But what if I put a faked Pollack-style painting into an auction which was signed 'Jackson'? That's my last name, after all.

Can I be held responsible for the greed of art dealers and auctioneers who pass something off as an original?

When I was a kid, it was a popular thing for people to have cheap reproductions of famous artworks on the walls of their living room or dining room. These were legitimate reproductions, not fakes. The owners knew full well that they were not buying the genuine Mona Lisa. But did this stop their enjoyment of the painting?

Art is a valuable commodity. It is traded, like gold or stocks and shares. There are people who have acquired valuable stolen artworks that they can never display. Do they get the same pleasure as my mum did from her cheap reproduction Goya that hung in the dining room?

How is the value of art appraised? Rarity? Aesthetic issues? Age and antiquity?

This is why the art business is such a nebulous one. Oh, and totally fascinating too.

© 2014 Jackie Jackson


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