Art Forgery. Where authenticity ends and fraud begins

Research Paper (undergraduate), 2013

19 Pages, Grade: 7.5



1. Art forgery: a controversial issue

2. Definition of ‘art forgery’ and its relation to the term ‘authenticity’

3. Original or fake? Art or fraud? An attempt to understand the phenomenon of art forgery
3.1 Three perspectives
3.1.1 The legal perspective
3.1.2 The art world's perspective
3.1.3 The economic perspective
3.2 Case studies
3.2.1 The art forger Han van Meegeren
3.2.2 The controversial working practices of Andy Warhol
3.2.3 The original copies of Susie Ray

4. Conclusion


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The research paper presents the different points of view which exist concerning art forgery and explains the reasons why these are diverging in such a way. At first, the paper asserts that art forgery has to be defined with the help of its contrary, which is the original and the term of ‘authenticity’. However, the definition of an authentic or an original artwork yielded no useful results. Every generation, every society has an own notion of authenticity and the term ended as a contestable one. Nevertheless, the paper defines art forgery as an illegal imitation of another artist's artwork and its selling with the name of the original artist. In the following, the legal, the art world's and the economic perspective reveal that art forgery causes many differing notions about it. Legally, copyright laws exist to grant authors exclusive reproduction rights and the only right on their property. Thus, art counterfeits are frauds whose originators have to be sentenced. The art world, however, is completely divided when it is about assessing an art forgery. A lot of people see it as mere pastiche and deny its aesthetic value, while others know to esteem the art forger's achievements and proficiencies. The economy, on the hand, sees art forgery as the creator of financial expenses and trouble within the market, but, on the other hand, it also accepts that art copying causes benefits and positive effects, too. Therefore, the economy's statement was to lower the restrictions of art forgery as this only leads to the loss of creative energy and art copying going underground. Finally, the case studies of Han van Meegeren, Andy Warhol and Susie Ray reveal the reasons for the controversies on art forgery: Some art counterfeits are legally clear cases, while others are highly contestable. There may be a legal way to forge works of art but do these copies have an authenticity or an ‘aura’? And all the time, the art world is embarrassed, annoyed and furious as the forgery had made a fool of it. In the end, art forgery is a question of interpretation; there is no clear answer how to assess it in its whole. It always depends on the sight of view one takes.

1. Art forgery: a controversial issue

According to the British daily The Guardian, German administrations got wise to an international art counterfeit ring and arrested two of the six members in the middle of 2013. Supposedly, the ring had forged about 400 artworks and sold them under the names of artists like Wassily Kandinsky, Natalia Goncharova and Kazimir Malevich in the value of several million pounds (Osborne, 2013). The example shows that art forgery still is a topical issue which attracts a lot of public attention. Art lovers were always willing to pay enormous prices for original artworks, turning art forgery into a highly lucrative business. The forgery specialist Vilena Kireyeva undermines her ambivalent feelings about the detection of another fake artwork: “I'm glad that we still have many talented artists (...). And on the other hand (...) I feel bad for the owner, who paid a lot of money thinking this was an original and a good investment.” (Kireyeva in Aden, 2013). But there is a good deal more about the controversy which comes along with a counterfeit work of art. Concerning the related issue, there are a lot of questions arising: Which motivations does an obviously talented artist have to become an art forger instead of doing legal artistic work? Why is the whole world of art ashamed and embarrassed when another fake artwork is discovered? And why does the artwork lose its value exactly in the moment when it turns out to be a fake? Additionally, the question emerges whether there are also positive ramifications of art forgeries.

This research paper mainly addresses the pertinent question how an art forgery is assessed by different kinds of groups and societal realms. It furthermore asks for the reasons why diverging opinions in such an extent occur. To figure that out the paper firstly defines what an art forgery exactly is and why the term ‘authenticity’ plays a pivotal role in here. These definitions make up the basis for the whole research paper. Afterwards, the paper scrutinizes the different kinds of perspectives of the legal, the art world's and the economic points of view on the phenomenon. Thus, the research paper is mainly based on the literature of authors working within the realms of the arts, economy and law. The realm of legacy was chosen to make up the legal restrictions to art forgery and to show a neutral perspective on it. Economy, however, was chosen because of the remarkable consequences caused by an art forgery's appearing on the market. Then again, the art world was selected as in here exist the most diverging and extremely subjective points of view on the topic. Of course, art forgeries are the art world's weak point and that is why perspectives in here can often clash. Finally, the case studies about Han van Meegeren, Andy Warhol and Susie Ray help to illustrate these perspectives and estimations. They show the reasons why an artists becomes a forger, why artists and their notions of forgery still cause legal trouble and why there is also a good thing about art copies. Ideas and notions concerning art forgery are used and juxtaposed to highlight and explain the controversial issue. In the end, a conclusion completes the investigations. The main purpose of the paper is to reveal how different points of view judge art forgery. It wants to give a comprehensive insight on the complex topic as the detection of another fake artwork is still leading to a worldwide outcry and to people arguing and debating about it. Hopefully, it will help the reader to form an own opinion about the topic.

2. Definition of ‘art forgery’ and its relation to the term ‘authenticity’

Firstly, a fake was not always a fake: Pastoureau (1992) claims that the idea of forgeries and falsifications has “different meanings for different societies (...) at different times” (In Jones, p.7). For example when Michelangelo1, according to Frey (1999), reproduced a statue of Ghirlandaio2, no one regarded it as a counterfeit or a beguilement. Instead, it was seen as a kind of victory: Michelangelo was able to sculpt as good as Ghirlandaio himself which helped him to become one of the most popular artists ever (pp.5-6). Hence, in former times, artists used original artworks as models to exercise and to improve their skills up to those of their masters. How could that perception of fakes change over time in such a way? Alfred Lessing (1983) elucidates that “the term forgery can be defined only in reference to a contrasting phenomenon which must somehow include the notion of genuineness and authenticity” (In Dutton, p.58). Therefore, the definition of an art forgery directly leads to the definition of its opposites originality and authenticity. According to Bucklow (2009), was the idea of authenticity firstly mentioned on the european continent about 350 ago (In Hermens & Fiske, p.252). Thus, when in former times Michelangelo's copy of Ghirlandaio's statue was admired and cherished, people afterwards attributed a lower value to the imitation because its meaning had changed with the advent of the concept of authenticity. People tended to solely marvel the original artwork while its reproduction lost its value as it they saw it as a mere pastiche. The arts philosopher Denis Dutton (2003) distinguishes two kinds of authenticity: Firstly, the“nominal authenticity, defined (...) as the correct identification of the origins, authorship, or provenance of an object, ensuring (...) that an object of aesthetic experience is properly named” and secondly the “expressive authenticity ” which has to do “with an object's character as a true expression of an individual's or a society's values and beliefs” (p.2). Yet, some paintings are too old to find out about their creators (Lydiate in Robertson & Chong, 2008, p.142) and it seems impossible to ascertain their historical backgrounds and their authenticity. Furthermore, an artist's original intention can never be for sure and people helped themselves with the introduction of the criterion of the so-called ‘aura’, an artwork's charisma which should guarantee an artwork's authenticity (Van de Wetering in Gordon in Hermens & Fiske, 2009, p.260). Nevertheless, the ‘aura’ is still a subjective assessment about a work of art; it does not seem to be a generally accepted valuation method. Nowadays, the more knowledge and skills are developed in the realm of art forgery, the more difficult it is to detect those. Methods are invented which try to find out about an artworks provenance and its authenticity with the help of modern technology instead of subjective expertise (Smith, Horton, Watling, & Scoullar, 2005, p.402) like one is the ‘aura’.

Nevertheless, in Austin's (2003) sense, ‘authenticity’ is a “dimension word (…) whose meaning remains uncertain until we know what dimension its referent is being talked about” (In Dutton, p.2). Thus, what is ‘authenticity’, depends on its circumstances, there is not just one proper definition for it. This idea is supported by the fact that artists like Dalí or Magritte tried to blur the borders between original and fake, they negated these terms, therefore negated their meanings, importance (Frey, 1999, p.5) and also their authenticity. Obviously, the debate about authenticity, the ‘aura’ and originality is a contestable one and people are still arguing about it. I admit that the concept of authenticity and its definition is very controversial and the opinions vary extremely. Anyway, what do people in the simple way mean when talking about an art forgery nowadays? Denis Dutton (2003) defines art forgery as an artwork“whose history of production is misrepresented by someone (…) to an audience (…), normally for financial gain. A forging artist paints or sculpts a work in the style of a famous artist in order to market the result as having been created by the famous artist” (p.2).

For the purpose of the research paper I adopt the definition of art forgery by Dutton from 2003 and I furthermore declare the term authenticity as a dimension word as interpreted by Austin.

3. Original or fake? Art or fraud? An attempt to understand the phenomenon of art forgery

Ever since people started to forge artworks, a large dispute has been going on about the phenomenon and its assessment. This chapter's aim is to reveal how legislation, the art world and economy judge art forgeries. In addition, several case studies show the reasons why the phenomenon is such a controversial issue.

3.1 Three perspectives

When a work of art turns out to be a forgery, there are plenty of people affected by that incidence: creators, buyers, art critics, museum managers and so on and so forth. Some of these are even on a risk of losing their job or being imprisoned. However, not only problems arise within the world of art; economy and legislation do also care about art forgery and its impacts within their scopes. This chapter shows their diverging opinions.

3.1.1 The legal perspective

Firstly, Frey (1999) identifies two situations of art forgery from the judicial point of view: The first one is that a person buys an artwork from a trustworthy dealer or auction house, assuming that it is an original. If the artwork is detected to be a forgery, the buyer can usually return the artwork. However, if the dealer sold the artwork with the knowledge of its falsity, the selling would be illegal. The second situation appears when an artist creates an artwork with the help of another artist's idea but without referring to him or recompensing him. Further, if someone buys an artwork with unreasonable expectations3, the selling will turn out to be a legal act because the principle of ‘Caveat emptor’4 rules. Besides, it is likely that an artist created a work of art in times of a special artistic movement or in a way which seems to be copied, but in the end a particular working style can not be prohibited and the creation of the artwork is legal (Frey, 1999, p.4).


1 Michelangelo Buonarroti was a famous italian sculptor and painter in the late 15th and early 16th century(Michelangelo Biography, n.d.).

2 Domenico Ghirlandaio was a fresco wall painter who taught Michelangelo in painting and sculpting(Michelangelo Biography, n.d.).

3 As an example, Frey (1999) refers to a buyer who purchases an artwork of the famous artist Rembrandt for a cheap price and at a county fair (p.4).

4 ‘Caveat emptor’ is latin for “let the buyer beware. (…) The basic premise that the buyer buys at his/her own risk and therefore should examine and test a product himself/herself for obvious defects and imperfections” (Caveat Emptor, Hill & Hill, 2005).

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Art Forgery. Where authenticity ends and fraud begins
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Anna-Theresa Lienhardt (Author), 2013, Art Forgery. Where authenticity ends and fraud begins, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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