I am probably always thinking about fakes and grifters, but just lately thinking about art forgery (see also this). Of course this is part of my ongoing thoughts about Patricia Highsmith’s Ripliad (so many thoughts), but just in general my obsessions with con artists and fakes.
In Ripley Under Ground, Highsmith has her alter ego muse on the superiority of forgers to artists, concluding ‘An artist does things naturally, without effort. Some power guides his hand. A forger struggles, and if he succeeds, it is a genuine achievement.’ Never mind that as an artist herself she knew just how much effort the work requires. I am fascinated with the concept that the forger works ‘harder’ or somehow ‘better’ than the artist because seemingly divine inspiration.
Ripley namechecks Han van Meegeren, one of the most notorious forgers of the 20th century. He forged Vermeers—you know, Girl with the Pearl Earring? Yeah, but he was smart enough not to try to forge classic Vermeer. He went for the missing period between the painter’s earlier, funnier period and the moody classics like The Art of Painting, inventing a bunch of religious-themed paintings that suggest the transition to the later secular works with a suggestion of the effort whilst he was still working up to genius.
He got others to buy in and then there was the weight of excitement and possibility—not to mention the war and rapaciously greedy Nazis. Oh and he might have been a collaborator and he might have enriched himself buying up property from the Jews sent off to the camps. At his trial he decided to keep the focus on the forger angle instead of the collaborationist one, even whipping off a quick Vermeer for the jury (I dunno, maybe he had Hedy Lamarr in mind that day). Yeah, he was convicted but managed to drop dead before he could serve any time.
See this doco on Van Meegeren if you’re interested in seeing more.
Consider also watching Orson Welles’ fun F is for Fake.