Originals and Forgeries


Tags Film

I recently watched two documentaries about forgers, Beltracchi: The Art of Forgery (2014) and Sour Grapes (2016), which are about the art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi and the wine forger Rudy Kurniawan respectively. Both of these gents possessed great talent in their particular field–Beltracchi has been called the forger of the century and now sells his own paintings for millions, and many have said Kurniawan has the best palate they’ve known. Both flooded the markets with forged items and helped drive up prices…

One weak link for both was source. Kurniawan’s made-up personal history was debunked and he was unable to explain who allegedly sold him the fake wine. Beltracchi fabricated a story of his deceased father-in-law being a great art collector, a story that apparently could have been easily debunked, but it never went there–instead, Beltracchi was busted for his use of titanium white in a Campendonk. The other weak link was compulsion. They both kept going when they probably understood they should stop.

Beltracchi’s documentary has the benefit of Beltracchi himself, as he has admitted to forging around 300 paintings (he was actually convicted of a little over a dozen forgeries) and had no problem being candid. He was sentenced to six years in prison, but spent only three on a work-release program that allowed him to return to his home to paint all day with his wife. The documentary never explains this leniency, but I assumed it was so he could continue to create art to sell for restitution. At the time Sour Grapes was filmed Kurniawan was in an actual prison and was maintaining his innocence, so there is only commentary by his lawyer and associates.

In both cases the market players were complicit and might even be actively opposed to exposing forgeries. An art dealer explains there are more people who want to make money from art than actual art, so prices will continue to be driven upward. In the case of a new rare painting, everyone in the process–the dealer, experts who get commissions for certification, the auction house, the buyer–wants the painting to be authentic.

As I said before, Beltracchi’s downfall was the use of titanium white, which would not have been available the year the painting was allegedly made. Early in the documentary Beltracchi picks up a mostly-spent tube of paint and says something like, “This was the one they were looking for.” His advice to would-be forgers? Never use titanium white.

I still cannot quite wrap my brain around the hypervaluation of wine and art. The wine market is dumb, even the vinters agree with me on that, but I am apparently missing something in regards to art and original works. I understand the value of a Picasso as a historical piece, but I look at it this way: you can spend 100 million on a painting, which if authentic is guaranteed to appreciate in value, or you can spend 100 million as a patron of contemporary artists. The latter is a genuine art lover. The former is simply an investor who happens to be buying a painting, they might as well be into stocks or anything else.

The documentary interviewed a couple who collects art. They had several paintings I have seen in some of my art books. The woman was asked if she would keep a forgery she had expressed aesthetic and emotional admiration for. She remarked that if she had, she would have kept it in a closet or placed it with knick nacks, as it was “decoration” and not real “art.”

The ultra-wealthy make much art possible. Again and again, I read about masters searching for patrons and making steady streams of commissions so that they can continue to work. But patronage, and buying paintings at exhibition or galleries so living artists can continue to produce, is different from profiting millions on works after the artist’s death. At some point the artist’s idea becomes part of our collective culture. You cannot own Starry Night or Mona Lisa, they belong to anyone who gazes upon it, be it the original or a facsimile. A person looking at the original Starry Night owns that idea just as much as someone who admires it on a tote bag.

It seems copyright is irrelevant in the world of paintings. Beltracchi says a painting becomes a forgery the moment he signs another person’s name to it, but he’s talking about fraud, because he didn’t actually replicate existing paintings he created new ones to fill the gaps in an artist’s oeuvre. I could paint a bunch of Picassos, but even if I sold them, would it matter? The art world only values Picassos painted by Picasso. Prints and replications are meaningless. If I’m painting “a Picasso” the work has no meaning and is therefore decoration. Decoration is aesthetic without meaning.

If I’m painting an idea of my own design which is influenced by Picasso, then it does have meaning, but according to people who profit in such things it is still decoration and not art. Work by the common man is not art in their eyes. Art by the common man is “decoration.” Patrons and the art community and the market determine what is “art” by consensus and the subsequent monetary value they attach to it. Did I get that right?

In unrelated news, I’ll be farting quietly in the corner for the next two minutes, if you want to time it.