The Value of Forgery

In the popular sitcom “Frasier,” the title character throws a cocktail party to exhibit a new painting he has bought, but is humiliated when the artist shows up and declares it a forgery. Frasier hurries to the art gallery to demand a refund, but the owner points to the signature on the painting as proof of its legitimacy. Frasier is appalled because he knows the painting, including the signature, is fake. He tells the gallery owner that the work is a forgery, and the owner laughs, “Well if it is, it’s a damn good one.” Frasier wants to litigate the matter but is advised against it because it is time-consuming and expensive, possibly costing more than the art itself. He comes to the realization that sometimes life is not fair. At the conclusion of the episode, Frasier’s brother takes justice into his own hands and throws a brick through the gallery’s window. So in the end, Frasier is stuck with his once beloved, but now worthless, painting, which he hangs in the bathroom. Why is Frasier so outraged? Before the work was revealed as a forgery he was proud to display the painting. But like many who have purchased forgeries, a once admired work becomes the source of shame, embarrassment, and failure. Many buyers of forged works experience the same frustration. However, the number of forgeries on the market has increased during the past few decades. The economics of supply and demand suggest there will be no end to the escalating commercial value for a limited number of exalted works of art. With commercial art market players responsible for assessing the value of art, market prices will continue to soar and art forgery will flourish. Michelangelo himself is well known for committing one of the first recorded instances of forgery. In 1496, Michelangelo sculpted a sleeping cupid and then buried it so that it would appear older. He was advised that the sculpture’s apparent age would increase its value and command a higher price. Apparently,  Michelangelo had a proclivity for copying other artists’ drawings; he is also known for keeping the originals and returning copies in their place. The buyers nowadays are rarely interested in the artwork as such, but much more in the signature and the certificate. That’s where the greedy game begins. It is a world of fools. What people are buying is obviously not the artwork. What they are buying is a signature and/or an “expert certificate”. With or without the signature and/or the “expert certificates” the artwork is the same, looks the same, presents the same. The fraud is not in the artwork, the fraud is in the fake signature and/or the “expert certificate”. I say to all those who are involved directly with the art market to look at it from that point, the point of those of us not directly involved in the art market, and maybe get another perspective. What you are really talking about is investment- and not the artists’ ability or the pictures merit. When you realise that- and strip out the art bit- you are down to reading the stocks and shares in a newspaper column, i.e.- how much can I make on the transaction? Nobody cares about what you lose on the shares- Most certainly a much greater “portion of the public” don’t, because investing is a game of hope and chance. Even the investors themselves know that. On the other hand, the rest of us have reason to be grateful to collectors. Many of the world’s most beautiful museums began as private collections. More fundamentally, without collectors the entire ecology of art as we know it would fail. Collectors are the consumers – like certain omnivorous marine creatures – who keep the whole system going. One charismatic collector can spark an art metropolis into life – as Charles Saatchi has done recently in the case of London. Even in the case of art created centuries ago, it is essential that somebody loves it enough to buy and cherish it – otherwise it will be forgotten and disappear.

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