Masterful Art Forgery: Is Imitation the Sincerest Form of Flattery?

Throughout the grand history of art, there has always been individuals who want to profit off the success of major Artists by forging works of art. The media loves a daring art forgery story, such as the in the case of a New York art dealer called Ely Sakhai, who was convicted in a series of frauds in 2004, forcing him to pay back twelve million dollars in restitution. Pop culture idolizes forgers in movies like, “Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery” detailing the story of a German couple who shocked the world in 2010 after being arrested and jailed for pulling off one of the biggest art hoaxes in modern history. According to the film, “They collected millions of dollars from the sale of an estimated 300 bogus paintings that they passed off as found works by great European artists—the majority Expressionists and Surrealists—from the early 20th century.”

Major law enforcement institutions such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Scotland Yard, and INTERPOL, have fully staffed teams solely dedicated to arresting and prosecuting these individuals. Obviously, the criminal element is present; faking, falsely advertising, and selling these modern copies as old originals clearly constitutes the crime of fraud; also severely devaluing “real” works of art. Simply put, the a major motive for art forgery, is the ludicrous amount of money to be made at little cost, by selling their “fake” paintings. Yet it is much more complex than simply profit for many forgers; the thrill of creating these forgeries is based on obsessions with creating the perfect painting and proving oneself in the art world.

In this specific San Diego Union Tribune article, it focuses on John Drewe and John Myatt, two forgers who were master painters and created false authentication documentation, ultimately making millions. The illegality is present, but one cannot help but notice how beautiful these paintings are. These forgers are master artists, both professionals and amateurs, who strive to create “fake” masterpieces to sell to unsuspecting art collectors or prestigious museums. Their obsession to detail and their knowledge of art history clearly labels these individuals as artists, but also as criminals due to their fraudulent misrepresentation.

According to the British news outlet the Independent, John Myatt, “described as the greatest art faker of the 20th century, after being convicted in the 1990s of creating bogus Renoirs, Picassos and Modiglianis, claims to have been at least partially driven by a perfectionist’s desire to create near-perfect art.” This is his vision of art, which people truly enjoy as it stimulates the sensory receptors of our brain, yet forgers are outcasts within the art world. These artists are labeled as criminals who ruin the world of art and are not real artists contributing to the greater good of the field. However, is it fair to label these individuals as dirty criminals? Yes, they have broken specific laws on prohibiting fraudulent documentation, but if they are able to fool high-class art collectors and experienced museum directors into buying their work, the art must be pretty good.

In 2006, Robert Thwaites, an amateur forger sentenced to prison time who described, “forgery is a “risk” that he took in order to make the most of his talents. ‘I was pragmatic enough to realize that it could all go wrong and that if it did go wrong I would be punished.'” This kind of perfectionist individual would otherwise be celebrated in the ritzy art community, especially for his dedication to the craft. He knew the risks and was willing to continue his forgeries because he wanted to test his art abilities.

Clearly, this demonstrates a “shadow space” located in the intersection of art and crime, because this is criminal activity that is actively prosecuted, but they are still beautiful creation by themselves. Many would argue these forgers are ruining the entire culture of art and harm true artists by casting doubt on authentic paintings which in turn lose value. According to the Union Tribune article, “Art historian Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, has estimated that up to 40 percent of the market is made up of some type of forgery.” This does harm the actual values of authentic paintings and can create public mistrust aimed at art directors because of the difficulty of spotting fakes.

Yet, many fail to see the positives associated with art forgeries. For example, the copying of masterpieces has long been regarded as a form of apprenticeship which increases the amount of publicity for artists and assists with improving the quality of their work. Even after serving his prison sentence, John Myatt, has taken hundreds of purchase orders for what he calls, “genuine fakes”, i.e copies of famous paintings often charging buyers thousands of dollars. Obviously, there is a high demand for quality art created by these master forgers yet they are still ostracized from art collections and museums worldwide. Is it fair that we label individuals such as John Myatt and John Drewe simply as criminal offenders, causing substantial harm to culture and true pieces of art? I believe it is not that simple, because art comes in various forms and if there is a sensory appeal to their work that people love to see, it is art. Not only is it art, but it is art that is in high demand even though it is “fake” art. Their detailed oriented work would otherwise be celebrated in the art world, if it were not for the false advertising or documentation. Does copying art somehow make it not art? After all, imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

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