Art history book unveils The Many Faces of Art Forgery

Review by C.J. Bunce

William Casement’s new text on art forgery, The Many Faces of Art Forgery, available now here at Amazon from Rowman & Littlefield, documents brief biographies of 80 historical art forgers, focused on known characters in history primarily from the Renaissance to the 21st century.  It includes notably some artists who dabbled themselves, including Michelangelo, and digs into the psychology and profile of this unique brand of criminal.  Casement provides examples of how forgery has been around since ancient times, sprouting from the desire to own beautiful works in ages where they were difficult to reproduce, while coming from people–nearly always men–with artistic skills who decided to use them to make money off more famous artists.  But the author’s investigation goes a bit further, looking into the distinction between forgery and fakes, along with tangent subjects like appropriated works, when restorations become no longer the real deal, and how society addresses artworks never actually touched by the specified artist.  Like villains from comic books, the most famous art forgers seem to love getting caught, and have often become celebrities, thanks in no small part to short statutes of limitations in jurisdictions across the globe.

Interesting subjects of study include the extensive volume of Albrecht Dürer’s signature forgeries and Salvador Dalí’s forged prints, war era “copyists” Dutch Han van Meegeren and Belgian Jef Van der Veken, 1950s British art restorer Tom Keating, the 1960s forger of many styles and artists David Stein, and the late 20th century forger Mark Landis, who posed as a priest and donated his forgeries to charities, dodging jail since he didn’t make any money off his works.  It’s also fascinating to compare society’s views of Auguste Rodin posthumous cast bronzes and Edgar Degas posthumous bronzes. Then there are those artists that seem to cross the lines.  Like the infamous, extraordinarily wealthy modern art celebrity Jeff Koons and his virtual acknowledgement that he doesn’t create hands-on all the works under his name and that his paid artists are much better at it.  (The author could have given an entire chapter to Roy Lichtenstein, but didn’t).

Renoir, Picasso, Matisse, Chagall, Vermeer, Monet, Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Rockwell–even Charles M. Schulz–the major artists sought by art thieves are the same that have been targeted with forged art schemes.

Museums and collectors must evaluate extensively any piece considered for their collections, especially now that nearly anything and everything can be replicated with today’s available technologies.  It’s all a matter of commitment, time and resources, and illustrates why provenance can be so important when buying anything collectible.  Even the finest museums have been duped historically, and recently a few have admitted their challenges and even given exhibitions of discovered forgeries from their own collections.  Casement states that at least three European museums are devoted to forged art.

The most disturbing part of the book is the prevalence over the centuries of celebrity forgers.  These men wanted to be Masters, but didn’t get the gig.  The titles of their autobiographies are a testament to their predilection toward being sociopaths: The Greatest Art Forger of Our Time, Magenta: Adventures of a Master Forger, Self-Portrait of a Forger, Drawn to Trouble: Confessions of a Master Forger, Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger, The Art Forger’s Handbook, The Fake’s Progress, the biography Three Picassos Before Breakfast, and Tony Tetro’s website where he calls himself the World’s Greatest Art Forger.  These criminals are often pompous and arrogant characters.

Casement looks behind the mind of the forger and discusses how the intent of the creator of the copies plays a large part in determining whether they merit greater sentences (or any sentence at all).  Timing is demonstrated as a factor of whether a work is a forgery or fake, and whether posthumous works fall into these categories.

The book contains only a few photographs, which no doubt kept the price down, which would be especially useful to keep it as a supplement for college study.  But more photographs would have helped flesh out the subject.  The book contains footnotes and an index.  With a section addressing how museums, courts, and nations have attempted to address art forgery, it’s a good companion to Merryman and Urice’s Law, Ethics, and the Visual Arts and the 12-Hour Art Expert (reviewed here).  For artists and students of art history and art law, The Many Faces of Art Forgery is available now here at Amazon.

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