The dynamic and ingenious Albrecht Dürer had had quite enough of forgers profiting from his work. He brought a lawsuit against Raimondi and the Dal Jesus family in Venice, in an effort to prevent the Dal Jesus printers from publishing and selling more of these copies. He thought that this might set an example and dissuade future forgers.
The suit proved only partially successful. The Venetian authorities declared that because Raimondi had hand-carved the engraving plates, and because he made three subtle alterations to the original design, the prints were not exact copies, but merely excellent imitations. Raimondi should not be blamed for being as skilled an artist as Dürer, and Dürer should be flattered that his work was considered important enough to copy. Raimondi was required to remove Dürer’s signature from the plates, and the Dal Jesus family was forced to sell Raimondi’s versions as explicit copies, revoking the claim that they were Dürer originals.
Had this case been brought to court today in Italy or the United States, Columbia University Law Professor Jane Ginsburg notes that the outcome would be quite different. Contemporary copyright law would see Raimondi’s work as an infringement because it substantially copied the original image, and the inclusion of the AD monogram would be considered “passing off” copies as originals, thereby violating trademark law. But in 1506, in the first known case of art-specific intellectual property law brought to trial, Dürer would not receive complete satisfaction.
Dürer stormed off back to Nuremberg, unhappy with the result. He had heard the argument before, that he should be flattered that his work was so famous as to draw copyists—but the last time he had heard it, it related to the crazy old man selling doodles “by Dürer” outside the Nuremberg town hall. When he came to publish his 1511 edition of The Life of the Virgin, Dürer was careful to include his vituperative copyright warning.
The history of forgery is filled with such entertaining, but likewise informative, anecdotes that are still relevant today. Arguments over brand-name authenticity, copyright and trademark are staples of contemporary intellectual properties law. That the origins of artistic copyright law date back to a legal brawl between one of history’s first self-promoting celebrity artists and a renegade Venetian pornographic print-maker turned forger does not detract from its contemporary application.
Art has been copied, misattributed and forged since long before the Biblical era. Indeed, the authenticity of artworks was already a concern in ancient Rome, where Greek vases and sculptures were prized above Roman copies of them. In the Middle Ages a lively trade in fake religious relics flourished along pilgrimage trails, as we will see when we discuss the Shroud of Turin. The history of art forgery is as old as the art trade.
What fascinates people about forgery? In any given case we find an intriguing amalgam of the desire for fame, money, revenge, and the expression of genius. The renowned art forger Eric Hebborn had his original works dismissed by the art community, which considered him talentless. To make matters worse, when Hebborn found what he thought was an original Old Master drawing at a car boot sale and brought it to the storied Colnaghi Gallery, they bought it for him for a lowly sum, saying that it was of little value. When Hebborn walked past Colnaghi the following week, he was enraged to see that very drawing in the window, priced at ten times what he had been paid.
Revenge against first Colnaghi, and then the art world collectively, prompted Hebborn to introduce some of his own attempts at “Old Master drawings” into the art market. The wealth that he would accumulate by selling forged Old Masters was the icing on the cake, with revenge as his primary motivation. That revenge might never have become a public one had Hebborn not blown his own cover, with enthusiasm. When his career had run its course, his own abilities and genius proven (at least to his personal, private satisfaction) at the expense of art experts who mistook his drawings for the work of 16th century masters, Hebborn wrote several memoirs about his exploits, adding the desire for fame and public mockery of those he fooled to the cauldron of his motivations for revenge, money, and proving his genius.
Art forgery explores and exploits the art trade, and involves incredible talent, treachery and detection, forensic science and a measure of mysticism—for the art world still relies to a great extent on the word of individual experts, connoisseurs whose personal opinion can shift an artwork’s value by millions. While deception in the art world is the primary focus of this book, it is truly a history and how-to of a wide variety of fakes and forgeries, from art to money, from scientific discoveries to religious relics, from luxury goods to literature.
This book uses as case studies the criminal adventures of famous forgers like Eric Hebborn, examining both how they succeeded in tricking the art world, and how they were eventually caught, through shrewd detective work, scientific examination, and a good measure of luck. These prominent historical and contemporary true-crime stories are fascinating, illuminating, and often bizarre: for instance, how a young, unknown Michelangelo schemed with a crooked art dealer to break and bury one of his sculptures in the dealer’s vegetable garden, then dig it up and sell it as an ancient Roman original; and how, after seventeen years of success, a contemporary master forger was caught when he misspelled a single word in cuneiform. What appeared to be the “missing link” proving Darwin’s theory of evolution correct was later found to be simply a monkey’s jaw attached to a human skull. The personal diaries of Adolph Hitler proved to be a work of creative writing, and the world’s most expensive wine featured doctored contents and a bottle engraved with a dentist’s drill. As we relate these stories, readers will learn how to become art detectives themselves, a skill which they can put to practical use, telling fakes from originals and identifying authentic gems, whether on a visit to a storied museum or hunting for hidden treasures at a car boot sale.
Although The Book of Forgery focuses on the art world, we also examine anthropological deceptions (the Piltdown Man skull) and literary frauds (the Hitler diaries) and even political forgeries that changed world history (the Donation of Constantine), to show how forgery in general damages not only those involved in the fraud, but can also infect the historical record, through the contamination of archives and oeuvres with fake material. Because British con man John Drewe slipped fake archival material into real archives, in order to establish the provenance of forgeries created by his partner, John Myatt, future generations of historians will trawl through libraries that may be tainted with the inclusion of such deceptive material. The work of forgers can forever damage what historians believe: not only is there the risk that false information will become an “authentic” part of the past, but the flip side is that historians might come to doubt genuine archival documents because they know that criminals like John Drewe may have tampered with them. Another area that we address is the grey one of disputed attributions, exemplified by the Getty’s Kouros—recognized as a forgery by many, except for the munificent institution that bought it. From fossils to anthropological specimens, from literature to Louis Vuitton, from political documents to counterfeit cash, fraud, fakes, and forgeries have played a key role in material human history.
This book combines profiles of a pantheon of famous forgers of the past, their methods, stories of success and failure, and most importantly, a lavish selection of images of their fakes and the originals they sought to emulate along with analysis of past successful forgery and deception techniques, how the confidence tricks succeeded, and how the majority of forgers were finally undone by astute detectives, scientists, and art historians. By illustrating and relating the successes of past forgers and the genuine, often fabled art that they sought to duplicate, we will present a sort of how-to manual for future detectives, revealing the tricks of the trade and how best to distinguish originals from fakes. This book aims to inform through thorough scholarship while presenting material in an approachable, entertaining way. But in the process we will present practical lessons from history that may be applied today, from visits to major museums to shopping trips to local antique shops—a user’s guide to what is real and what is not.
Welcome to this world of deception. A word of warning: don’t always believe your eyes.