Skip to main content

Genuine article

Old Masters to an evolutionary missing link, clever forgeries have fooled the experts. Robin Buss explores our attitudes to value, art and authenticity

The American artist J S G Boggs specialises in making copies of banknotes.

When he goes out to a restaurant, he offers to pay with one of his drawings: a $20 bill, say, or a pound;5 note. Since they are painted on only one side of the paper, they are obviously not genuine currency. Boggs explains to the waitress that he is an artist and that he is pricing this particular work at the value of the bill it represents. If she accepts his home-made money, he takes a receipt and gives it to a collector. A day or two later, the collector goes to the restaurant and buys the Boggs "banknote" back for many times its face value.

The fortunate waitress makes a lot of money on the deal, but Boggs has been in trouble with both the US Treasury and the Bank of England, who take a poor view of people copying their product, even if the copies are not very convincing ones. Boggs is having a joke. But he is also asking questions about value, about art, about authenticity. How is it that a poor imitation of a pound;20 note or a $1 bill can be worth more than the real thing? How do we decide what something is worth? What do we mean by "genuine"?

Imitation, pastiche, forgery, hoaxes and counterfeiting exist in almost every sphere. A pair of trainers with a designer label, a Cartier watch, an expensive handbag or scent - is imitation the sincerest form of flattery? The luxury goods manufacturers don't think so: their merchandise is devalued by the trade in counterfeits. Brand names are like artists'

signatures, they guarantee the quality of the work, which is why imitating them is a huge, international business. Sometimes all it means is that the consumer pays a bargain price and gets cheap goods, masquerading as expensive ones. At other times, when the sums or the stakes are very high, the effects can be much more serious. Counterfeit and diluted drugs, widely sold in Africa and other developing countries, can kill patients or make them immune to the real medicines.

Occasionally, forgeries have had huge consequences. The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a document which emerged at the end of the 19th century, claimed to prove that there was a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. In fact, it was a forgery by the Russian secret service, but it was to be used repeatedly to support anti-semitic propaganda in Nazi Germany and elsewhere. It is not exaggerating to say that this fake was part of a campaign of hatred responsible for the death of millions of people.

A politically effective forgery was the so-called Zinoviev letter. This document, published in the Daily Mail a few days before the general election of 1924, was claimed to have been written by a member of the Soviet government, Grigori Zinoviev, to the Communist Party of Great Britain, calling for increased agitation, particularly in the armed forces.

Since the Labour government had been negotiating a controversial trade agreement with the USSR, the letter was taken to imply that all socialists were fundamentally disloyal, and it was thought to have made an important contribution to Labour's defeat in the election.

Both these are examples of "black propaganda", a frequent weapon of secret services: the Zinoviev letter may have been forged by MI5, though it probably came from Russian emigre sources. And the game goes on: forged documents claiming that Saddam Hussein was trying to buy uranium in Africa were among the evidence given to support the case for war in Iraq. But forgery of documents is not the only paper weapon in international politics. In the Second World War, the Germans produced millions of pounds'

worth of counterfeit British banknotes - up to 500,000 a month - which they hoped would undermine the British economy. A similar plot, perhaps masterminded in North Korea, is thought to be behind the so-called "superdollars" - forgeries of American banknotes that have been circulating around the world since the 1980s. Unlike the paintings of J S G Boggs, these superdollars are reported to be so well made that it is almost impossible to tell them from the real thing.

Nice earners

Most often, fakes and forgeries are not designed for political purposes, but simply to supply a demand in the market. The world's fascination with the Third Reich means that there is a huge trade in Nazi fakes. In 1983, the German magazine Der Stern paid nearly 10 million marks for a set of notebooks which claimed to be the private diaries of Adolf Hitler. With the backing of the historian Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper, The Sunday Times bought the rights to the translation, until tests proved that the paper was of postwar manufacture: the diaries had been forged by a dealer, Konrad Kujau, in collaboration with one of Der Stern's reporters.

For as long as there has been a market in art and documents, there have been fakes. Rich Romans liked Greek sculpture, so this was widely copied in the period of the Roman Empire; before that, Greeks had imitated Egyptian works of art. The proliferation of antiquarian forgeries in the later 18th century corresponds to an increase in nationalist sentiments and an interest in early British history. The Welsh Gorsedd of Bards was invented at the end of the 18th century by Iolo Morganwg (Edward Williams), who invented manuscripts describing their ceremonies - yet his forgeries have become the basis for authentic manifestations of Welsh national culture, particularly at the Eisteddfod.

In Scotland, the poet and scholar James Macpherson claimed to have discovered fragments of an ancient epic poem by a bard called Ossian, son of Fingal. He went on to "discover" an entire manuscript, which he published in 1762. Though some critics, particularly Samuel Johnson, had doubts about their authenticity, the poems of Ossian were widely accepted and readers were impressed by Macpherson's scholarship and even more convinced of the authenticity of the poems when he pointed out, in his preface, that there were many similarities between this native Scottish work and the epics of classical literature. In fact, it took no great talent for Macpherson to detect the similarities, since he had introduced them himself.

The most gifted literary forger was the "boy poet" Chatterton (see page 10) and the most prolific was the Frenchman Denis Vrain-Lucas, the author of more than 27,000 faked documents. One was a letter which the French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal was supposed to have written to Isaac Newton (then aged 12), outlining the theory of gravity - which would have made this a French discovery. Vrain-Lucas's other works included letters from Cleopatra to Caesar and from Judas Iscariot to Mary Magdalene (confessing his role in the betrayal of Christ). Though Vrain-Lucas's lawyer pleaded that his intentions were mainly "patriotic", he made a fortune from selling his work, and served three terms of imprisonment before his death in 1880, at the age of 88.

Master forgers

In theory the huge prices paid for oil paintings make them particularly attractive to forgers, but modern methods of scientific detection have meant that the forger's craft is becoming almost impossibly difficult, at least when it involves Old Master paintings. A whole industry in Italy in the late 19th century produced works supposed to have been made by the Sienese primitives of 400 years earlier, mostly designed for the American market. These fakes, some good enough to convince the experts, were the subject of an exhibition last year in Siena, several of the paintings having been lent by leading American museums which had acquired them as originals. The "prince" of Sienese fakers, Icilio Joni, was genuinely admired for his skill.

Probably the most celebrated Old Master forger was the Dutchman Han (sic) van Meegeren, an artist who was disappointed by the reception given to his own paintings and decided to get his revenge on the critics. In 1934, he produced a "lost" painting by Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675), "The Supper at Emmaus". Though one American dealer called it "a rotten fake", a leading Dutch Vermeer expert proclaimed it a masterpiece and the Royal Gallery in Rotterdam acquired it for 520,000 florins. In subsequent years, more "Vermeers" appeared, all mysteriously "discovered" by van Meegeren. Then Holland was occupied by the Nazis and one of Hitler's closest associates, Hermann Goering, a keen art collector, purchased a "Vermeer" from van Meegeren. After Holland was liberated, van Meegeren was accused of collaboration: he had sold some of the nation's art treasures to the enemy.

As the lesser of two evils, he decided to come clean and admitted that the paintings were forgeries, claiming that, as a good patriot, he had fooled Goering into buying them. Unfortunately for van Meegeren, because of the expert opinions in favour of the pictures, the courts refused to believe him, so he had to paint another "Vermeer" under the supervision of art experts and the police. He was sentenced to one year in prison and died shortly afterwards, satisfied that he had proved his talent as an artist and made fools of the experts.

"The material science has now advanced to the point where it's very difficult to deceive with a picture that purports to be two, three or four hundred years old," says Larry Keith, of the National Gallery's conservation department. The money may be in Old Master paintings, but Keith suggests that the would-be forger has more chance with art objects and drawings. Not that he is advising anyone to try. He is more interested in the way that we define "authenticity" and how our perception of pictures can change. We are inclined to think that paintings were always made to be exhibited in museums, with modern lighting and at eye level, when they could well have been intended to be seen from below, in churches, in poor light. We also imagine that the labels tell the full story. As an art historian who spends his days restoring old paintings, Keith knows that there is more to it than that: "We have 19th-century ideas of authorship - that a painting is due to the psychological struggle of a personality to create something. The Renaissance idea was that you might recycle a drawing over and over, and have assistants working almost like an assembly line. A great deal of our work in looking at Renaissance pictures is understanding how the workshop operated, how drawings were reused."

And he mentions a letter from Rubens to the English collector Sir Dudley Carleton, describing three levels of price for a picture according to how much of it was painted by Rubens himself and how much by his assistants.

The historian Jacob Burckhardt went further and divided Rubens' paintings into six categories, ranging from those done entirely or partly by Rubens, down to copies by the artist's own students and, finally, copies made at the time by students in other schools. Some artists, including Rembrandt and Corot, would even sign their students' work, as a favour, so that the student could get a better price for it.

So where along Burkhardt's scale does a picture cease to be a "real"

Rubens? Authenticity can be hard to prove: not only paintings, but also certificates and letters authenticating them can be forged; and expert attributions to well-known artists are not always determined by pure scholarship. Bernard Berenson, the leading expert on Italian Renaissance art in the first half of the 20th century, made a fortune from his arrangement with the dealer Joseph Duveen, firmly attributing doubtful paintings to famous names. Paul Craddock, a former expert at the British Museum, recently announced that most so-called "antiquities" on the market in Britain are "either stolen or fake".

How much does it matter? It has even been argued that the market benefits from fakes, which supply a demand for art works, keep the business moving and give pleasure to their purchasers. And if a van Meegeren "Vermeer"

gives an aesthetic pleasure equivalent to a real painting by the master, isn't it just snobbery to care who painted it? Certainly, the discovery that a previously unattributed work is by a well-known artist enhances its value many times, but has the work changed?

One answer to this is that forgery distorts our view of a particular artist and of the period. If van Meegeren's imitations of Vermeer are accepted as genuine, then everything about them, including details that may not be obvious at first, will be attributed to Vermeer. The forged painting may be taken as evidence of life in Vermeer's time or of Vermeer's method or of his stylistic development. And works of art change over time: the most convincing argument against van Meegeren's "Vermeers" lies in the fact that they seem so unconvincing today. Looking particularly at the later forgeries, it is hard to believe that anyone could have taken them for genuine. Of course, this is largely because we know that they are fakes - that in itself alters our perception. But it may also be because van Meegeren's pictures were designed to appeal to a 1930s view of what constituted a Vermeer and we have a subtly different idea now of Vermeer's work. In the end, van Meegeren may turn out not to have been a very good forger after all - because, as Theodore Rousseau, a curator of the Metropolitan Museum, once remarked: "We can only talk about bad forgeries.

The good ones are still hanging on the walls."

Thomas Chatterton 1752 - 70

The family of Thomas Chatterton held the hereditary post of sexton at the church of St Mary Redcliffe, Bristol, so he grew up in the precincts of the church. There, in the muniment room over the north porch, he found a trunk of medieval manuscripts and by the age of 11 he was already making imitations of what he found in them. He attributed his forgeries to an imaginary 15th-century monk, Thomas Rowley, and convinced several antiquarian scholars who could not believe that the poems were the work of a boy from a poor family with little formal education.

In 1770, he set out for London, hoping to succeed in literature and journalism, but he was paid little for his work and, after four months and nearly starving, he died of an overdose of arsenic.

It may be unfair to class him as a forger, because he had an undeniable gift for poetry that would surely have developed if he had lived. Here are two verses from his "Minstrel's Song":

O! synge untoe mie roundelaie, O! droppe the brynie teare wythe mee, Daunce ne moe atte hallie daie, Lycke a reynynge ryver bee; Mie love ys dedde, Gon to hys death-bedde, Al under the wyllowe tree.

Harke! the ravenne flappes hys wynge, In the briered delle belowe; Harke! the dethe-owle loude dothe synge, To the nyghte-mares as heie goe; Mie love ys dedde, Gon to hys deathe-bedde, Al under the wyllowe tree.


In The Origin of Species (1859), Charles Darwin described how animal species have changed and developed through time. From Darwin's theory it was believed that the humans were ultimately related to the apes, but there was no concrete evidence for this in the fossil record. Then, in 1912, a solicitor and amateur palaeontologist called Charles Dawson brought some specimens to a friend at the British Museum for examination.

The fossils had been found in a quarry near Dawson's home at Piltdown, in Sussex, and appeared to belong to a creature with a distinctly human skull, but the jawbone of an ape. Piltdown man seemed to provide the "missing link" in the evolutionary chain, and this was apparently confirmed by a second discovery in 1915.

The finds indicated that the emergence of humankind had taken place in England, which was precisely where patriotic English scientists had always assumed it would happen. It was not until 1953 that Piltdown man was exposed as a hoax, probably carried out by Dawson himself. There had been serious inadequacies in the examination of the material, because it confirmed what the palaeontologists expected to find, so they ignored evidence, for example, that the teeth had been filed down and that the jaw and skull were of different dates.

The result was an improvement in techniques for dating early specimens.

Meanwhile, the Piltdown affair gave ammunition to those who rejected Darwin's theory of evolution on religious grounds, by showing that scientists, too, sometimes find evidence for what they already believe.

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you