Our winter reading of novels, memoirs and trade papers loosely coalesced recently around the themes of fakes, forgeries, thefts and high-stakes collecting. Although those are not exactly pleasant topics for antiques dealers to ponder, it is wise to be cognizant of them. So our musings this month meander from one reading source to another to present the reflections they inspired.
The Unwelcome Reality of Fakes
Any antiques dealer who has been in the business for more than a few days has encountered fakes, forgeries, or reproductions that are passed off as being old. You learn quickly how to discern such things and what to be suspicious of (if it is too good to be true…), especially after being burned by finding out that something you’ve purchased with hard-earned money turns out to be worthless in the antiques trade. A dealer colleague used to quip about lessons learned from buying a fake: “It is cheaper than a college education.” But paying dearly for credit hours in the school of hard knocks is not a winning business strategy. Thankfully, once you develop a field of specialization in the antiques trade, you don’t often get fooled.
In our field we are more likely to run into contemporary items that were made as reproductions, than to encounter fakes or forgeries that are purposely made to deceive. For instance, root burl and birch bark clad furniture pieces made in China for the decorative market (“Chinarondack”) turn up at flea markets, antiques fairs, auctions and galleries where they are being marketed as antiques, usually with the non-specialist who owns or represents them being none the wiser about their origin or age.
Thankfully, reproductions that compete with the antiques we sell are usually so off-kilter in their design and materials (e.g., the chunk-a-lunk “canoe paddles” sold as wall décor in home furnishing catalogs) that they are easy to discern as new. But just a few weeks ago, a dealer whom we respect as a specialist in 19th century formal furniture offered us a great-at-first-glance trade sign advertising a variety of boats for rent. He doesn’t deal much in signs, but thought of us when he saw this one. Close examination revealed that it was at most 10-20 years old, not 100 years old as he was led to believe. It was a reproduction of Victorian-era signage, probably manufactured by a decorative retail company. We had actually seen another sign of the same design once before in the booth of a nautical dealer at an antiques show, and then later in the home of a collector who had purchased it from that dealer. On both encounters we looked it over carefully, so when the design surfaced again recently our past experience helped us steer clear of it.
But in the fine art market where paintings can sell for millions of dollars, forgery is a high crime that requires more than a trained naked eye to detect. A recent novel, The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro (Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2013) explores that fascinating world.
The author crafts a fictional, fast-paced tale around a factual incident – the 1990 heist of 13 valuable works of art from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. She weaves together three time and character strands within the novel – the present day life and fateful encounters of a struggling artist named Claire who is painting legitimate reproductions for a living, a tragic love relationship in the recent past of this artist, and the imagined distant past life of Isabella Stewart Gardner in which her encounters with Degas in France are communicated via letters written to her niece between 1890-98.
Shapiro had plenty of source material for the details of art forgery that she builds her plot upon. Both the art techniques and the marketing strategies of infamous real-life forgers such as the American immigrant Ely Sakhai (b. 1952) and the Dutch citizen Han van Meegeren (1889-1947) are described in the book. As Claire, the main character and narrator of the novel, forges a (fictional) Degas stolen from the Gardner Museum, she relies particularly on the intricate processes that van Meegeren used when forging Old Master paintings, such as one that he sold to the Nazis during WWII as an authentic Vermeer. And like van Meegeren, who had to paint in front of a panel of experts to exonerate himself from the crime of treasonous dealings with the Nazis, Claire, too, is forced to show her painting techniques to experts, not once but twice – to gain the acclaim due to her in one case, and to prove her innocence in another.