Slipping and Sliding

Blind Optimism, Greed and the Effect of Fakes on Our Cultural Understanding

1On the back cover of The Art Forger’s Handbook, Eric Hebborn proclaims


No drawing can lie of itself, it is only the opinion of the expert which can deceive. (Hebborn)

3Well certainly, but like many forgers Hebborn was dedicated to ensuring the experts have ample material with which to work.

4The debate about authenticity rolls into the debate about originality rolls into the debate about excellence, slipping between the verifiable and the subjective, shadowed by the expert assessing, categorising, and delivering verdicts. Yet the proclamation ‘This is authentic’ is not straightforward. It is impossible to prove that the statement ‘This is a painting by Sir Arthur Streeton’ is true. It is always possible (though not probable) that the work in question is an excellent copy, manufactured with materials identical to those employed by Streeton, with brushstrokes reflecting Streeton’s manipulation of paint, applied in the kind of sequence Streeton used and with a provenance crafted to simulate perfectly an acceptable provenance for a work by Streeton. Much easier to prove that a work is not by a particular artist; one very obvious anomaly will suffice (Sloggett 298).

5But an anomaly requires a context, the body of material against which to assess the new find. John Drew’s manipulation of the art market was successful not because of the quality of the pictures he paid John Myatt to produce (after all they were painted with household emulsion paint often extended with K-Y Jelly). His success lay in his ability to alter the identities of these works by penetrating the archives of the Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum and manufacturing an archival history that virtually copied the history of works by his target artists, Nicholson, Giocometti, Chagall, Epstein, Dubeffet, and de Stals. While the paintings mimicked works by these artists, without a provenance (an identity and identity trail) they were nothing more than approximate copies, many which were initially rejected by the dealers and auction houses (Landesman 38). Identity requires history and context: for something to be deemed ‘real’, both need to be verifiable. The plight of stateless refugees lies in their inability to verify their history (who am I?) and their context (I exist here because…).

6Drew’s ability to deliver a history is only one way in which works can slip identities (or in the case of Drew’s works – can be pushed). Drew’s intention and his ability to profit by the deception denoted fraud. But authentication is more often sought to support not fraud but optimism.


‘Can you please look at this painting which hung in my grandfather’s lounge room for over 50 years? It was given to him by the artist. I remember it as a small boy, and my father also remembers it when he was a child. But I can’t sell it because someone said it didn’t look right. Can you tell if it is by the artist?’

8Such a problem needs to be approached on two fronts. Firstly, how strong is the evidence that this work is by the artist and secondly, what is the hypothesis of best fit for this work?

9The classic authentication process examines a picture and, against a framework of knowns (usually based on securely provenanced works) looks for points of identification between the proffered work and provenanced works. From these points of identification a theory of best fit is developed. For example, a painting with the inscription ‘Arthur Streeton/1896’ is analysed for its pigment content in order to test the proposition that this is a work by Arthur Streeton from 1896. Pigment analysis indicates that titanium white (a pigment not available commercially until 1920) is found in the clouds. So the proposition must be modified: either this is a work by Streeton that has been heavily reworked after 1920, or this is not a work by Streeton, or this is a work by Streeton but the date is wrong. The authentication process will define and redefine each proposition until there is one that best fits the evidence at hand. Fluorescing the date to establish whether it is a recent addition would be part of this process. Examining other whites in the painting to check if the clouds had been added later would be another. Checking the veracity of the provenance would also be critical. We may decide that this is not an 1896 work by Streeton based on the evidence of the pigment. But what if an art historian discovers a small pigment manufacturer in Box Hill whose records show they produced titanium dioxide as a pigment in 1890? The new evidence may affect the conclusion. But more likely we would want to verify such evidence before we altered our conclusion.

10Between the extremes of Drew’s manufactured identities and the optimism of a third generation is the strengthened work, combining identity shift and hope. Dali pulled a reverse strengthening when he signed 20,000 blank sheets of paper for lithographs that had not yet been executed (Hebborn 79), but more usually it is the inscription not the image that is missing. Of course a signature is good, but signature works may not have, and do not need signatures. A signature may be a picture of a certain place (Heidelberg) at a certain time of day (moonrise); optimism will soon join the dots, producing a David Davies Moonrise. Often an inscription helps; a nondescript clean-shaven Victorian gentleman can become a bearded founding father, an anonymous nag the first winner of the Melbourne Cup. And if the buyer is not convinced, then a signature may win the day. Unlike Drew’s fabricated histories these changes in identity are confined to transformations of the object itself and then, by association, to its context.

11Art fraud is an endearing topic, partly because it challenges the subjective nature of expertise. When van Meegeren manufactured his most successful ‘Vermeer’ The Supper at Emmaus (1937) he explored the theories of experts, and then set about producing a work that copied not an existing Vermeer, but the critic’s theory of what an as-yet-undiscovered Vermeer would look like. Hannema, van Schendel and finally Bredius subscribed to the theory that Vermeer’s trip to Italy resulted in Caravaggio’s influence on the artist (Dutton 25). Van Meegeren obligingly produced such a work. So does it matter? Is an identical work as good a work? Is a sublime copyist of great artists a great artist? (Not that van Meegeren was either.)

12Authentication is a process of assessing claims about identity. It involves reputation, ownership, relationships and truth. When an artist executes a copy it is homage to the skill of the master. When Miss Malvina Manton produced a scene of dead poultry in 1874, she was copying the most popular painting in the fledgling collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Schendel’s The Poultry Vendor (Inglis 63), and joined a league of copyists including Henry Gritten and Nicholas Chevalier who sought permission to copy the Gallery’s paintings. When John O’Loughlin copied works by Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri and passed them off as original the impact on the artist was less benign (Gotting). Sid Nolan refused to identify problematic paintings attributed to his oeuvre claiming that to acknowledge such paintings would cast doubt on his entire oeuvre. Bob Dickerson assiduously tracks down and ‘outs’ problematic paintings from his oeuvre, claiming that not to do so would leave the thin edge of the wedge firmly embedded for future opportunists. Both are concerned with their identity.

13Creation is a fraught business, simply because the act of creation is the act of giving an identity. Whether we create a child, a musical score, a painting or a t-shirt brand, the newly created entity is located within a lineage and context that means more than the single individual creation. This is why identity theft is such a major crime. If someone steals an identity they also steal the collateral developed around that identity, the ability to deal in credit, to drive a car, to travel overseas, to purchase a house. Identity is a valuable commodity; for an artist it is their tool of trade.

14There is no doubt that the public celebrates the fake. Perhaps it is a celebration of the power of the object over the critic or the theoretician. But it is an extraordinarily costly celebration. Despite the earlier assertion that it is possible to make the perfect copy, very few even approximate the vibrancy and intelligence of an original. Most, if accepted, would seriously dilute the strength of the artist’s oeuvre. Forging Aboriginal art is even more disgraceful. In a society where cultural transmission has traditionally been based on complex relationships of dance, song, painting and objects to customary rights, laws and obligations, art fraud impacts on the very fabric of society.

15There will always be works that slip identities, and many are not pulled back. False works do damage; they dull our perceptions, dilute our ability to understand an artist’s contribution to society, and are usually no more than blunt instruments used for financial gain.