Forgery history, part 5/7
The art of plagiarism experienced spectacular development from the moment the art market took off at the end of the 1970s. Until then, it had been somewhat limited while Paris occupied the first place in the auction houses. Things gradually changed when Anglo-Saxon auction houses adopted modern methods of marketing to attract new customers. The economic expansion of the United States did the rest and allowed the emergence of new wealthy buyers eager to build collections.
The United States became the ideal ground for forgers when the odds for impressionist and modern painters began to climb briskly. Galleries started to flourish in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Dallas, or San Francisco to satisfy many amateurs. The trouble was that the experts of the painters sought were not Americans but, for the most part, French. Amateurs, who initially did not care to check the certificates that accompanied the works offered to them, did not often bother to surround themselves with the most basic precautions to ensure their validity. Others had purchased works certified by experts who had no authority over the artists who were supposed to have produced them.
Many small gallery owners did not hesitate to sell questionable works by issuing certificates of no value. In this context, Legros quickly understood the advantage he could take from selling hundreds of fakes in the United States.
However, it would be unfair to throw stones exclusively at the Americans because decades earlier, the famous Parisian collector Duret was the prey of many crooks at the end of his life. When he died, his heirs noted with amazement that his fine collection of impressionist and other paintings included many forgeries.
Having reached its full maturity, the art market faced two inevitable plagues, thefts and fakes that multiplied across the Western world. It didn't take long for smart kids based in Communist bloc countries to realize the value of fabricating fakes relating to sought-after artists in Europe and the United States. They set to work in the 1970s to produce early works of painters who had emigrated to the West, such as Chagall and Lissitsky, or supremacist or constructivist paintings by many famous Russian artists. Even before the Berlin Wall fall, there was lucrative traffic in fake Malevich, Gontcharova, Soutine, or Popova.
The marked increase in listed painters has led to a proliferation of fakes, as has the success of major clothing and fragrance brands which has resulted in a veritable counterfeit industry across the globe. Botero's success in Colombia generates a myriad of plagiarisms concerning his paintings and his sculptures. Other artists have been victims of plagiarism, which has flooded the American market. There is an incredible quantity of fake sculptures by Erté, Henry Moore, Rodin, Archipenko, or Matisse sold at unbeatable prices. The phenomenon has grown with the emergence of the Internet and sellers' success who are not lacking in ingenuity. Especially drawings or paintings by Picasso, Matisse, Popova, Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Botero, Dali, Renoir, Pissarro, Modigliani, Moore, Rodin, Gontcharova, Laurens, Childe Hassam, Corot, Monet, Franz Marc, August Macke, Tamara de Lempicka, and others. A real epidemic for the market already under severe strain by the global economic crisis.
Any request that has become based on a painter leads to the appearance of plagiarism. It was the case for Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Watteau and later Vlaminck, Derain, de Chirico, Foujita, Warhol, Basquiat, Pollock and now Combas and other contemporary artists. It is the price of success that also provokes the proliferation of simple copies. But from copying to forgery, there is only one step, and it can be easy to take when some individuals realize that it is legally less risky to sell plagiarism than counterfeit banknotes.
There is no typical forger profile, which is just as true for naive people because amateurs described as informed.
Copies made in the context of education or artistic training or works partially created by masters in their workshops and completed by their students cannot be considered fakes. Thus, many great painters had recourse to assistants to respond to an overflow of orders, which was the case in particular with Rubens and to a lesser extent with Rembrandt. And then, although this can lead to an expert error, any copy is in essence only a faithful reproduction of the work of a master. In contrast, a forgery requires creating a composition that is not the duplicate of another, intending to deceive an amateur or a specialist.
Out of there, we can decree that a forger is the one who creates a work by passing it off as that of the artist he has plagiarized and by reselling it at a substantial price but to make a forgery and earn money. But to do this, it is above all necessary to have talent, to know well the ancient techniques, the chemical components of the pigments used by the masters of yesterday and also to be able to create a composition faithful to the spirit exhaled by them and then to build a credible story about a painting suddenly "rediscovered".
To make a fake, it is necessary to have the talent to paint while knowing how to identify the artist's life and work who will be plagiarized to thwart the questions of an expert, which is not given to everybody.
However, unless they are formidable in business, counterfeiters do not always have all the assets in hand to carry out their dishonest business. Once they have executed a fake, they have to go in search of naive people to sell it but having for the most part an artist's soul, they find it difficult to put themselves in the shoes of a Legros.
To sell a fake, it is tnecessary to have a strong character to deceive amateurs. Most of the time, counterfeiters find themselves in an impasse and often get rid of their plagiarism at a low price in favor of the first client.
Some great people in this world did not hesitate to indulge in misconduct, such as Pope Clement VII who allowed himself to have a copy of the portrait of Leo X made by Raphael by offering it to Frederick II Gonzague all by making him believe that it was the original work. It should be remembered that the counterfeit traffic would not be what it is without the intervention of characters with a twisted mind who have the gift of scheming and who take advantage of people's naivete. It is was notably the case with PR, a very likable-looking character who gradually ended up leaving the path of honesty to devote himself to the art of swindling.
Presenting well and playing the role of an executive residing in a beautiful villa located in a rich suburb, married in addition to an attractive young woman very attentive with her children, this formidable character had devised a well-oiled ploy to attract the naive people.
Passing advertisements in newspapers and art magazines, he made his victims believe that he needed to sell part of his impressive collection to build a swimming pool or finance urgent work. To give them confidence, he sold them an authentic work at an attractive price while not failing to entice them in passing by showing them other canvases or quality works of art that he would perhaps sell when needed. To furnish his splendid home, he also did not hesitate to call on merchants from the capital to be entrusted with works that they had difficulty in selling in shops but by making believe that they belonged to him and that they had never appeared on the market,
PR did not fail to frequent merchants at the Hotel Drouot, where he did not hesitate to raise his finger from time to time to bid to the point of arousing the interest of auctioneers with which he had taken the habit to discuss before or after a sale while posing as an important person.
Once he was hooked up, a client would come back to see him and then acquire allegedly authentic works.
He made dozens of victims for more than ten years, but justice was rather slow to put his hand to the collar. In the meantime, the aigrefin even allowed himself to participate as a dealer in major antique fairs while continuing to receive other gogos in his villa. Generous, he offered champagne while his loving wife, a child in her arms, gently joined the conversation to put the visitor more in confidence. Caught up in justice, this specialist in the sale of fakes found himself in prison for five years in early July 2005 while his wife and accomplice was placed under house arrest.
Other crooked brokers are still in business around the world and can hope to have a bright future as long as there are amateurs excited by the idea of buying important works on the cheap. It suffices to remember that the false stones started to circulate from the moment the diamonds were coveted. The same goes for works of art.
© Adrian Darmon