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Faking Fine Art

Provenance

In the world of pricey art galleries and top museums, the paper trail behind a painting is almost as important as the work itself. This documented history, a painting’s “provenance,” proves the work’s authenticity and can raise its value to staggering levels.

A new book tells the riveting true story of a con-man and a talented, struggling artist who teamed up to pull off what Scotland Yard called the “biggest art fraud of the 20th century.”

How did they do it? Why? And what did it mean for the world of art?

This hour, On Point: “Provenance.” A painter, a con-man, and a fraud for the ages.

You can join the conversation. Tell us what you think — here on this page, on Twitter, and on Facebook.

Guests:

Joining us from Albany, New York, is Laney Salisbury, co-author with Aly Sujo of the new book, “Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art.” 

You can read an excerpt from the book.  And on her website, Laney Salisbury offers photos of forged artworks painted by John Myatt.

And from Stoke, England, we’re joined by John Myatt. Profiled in “Provenance,” he painted over 200 forgeries that sold as the work of master artists. He served four months in prison for his role in the fraud, and now makes a living selling “legitimate fakes.”

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  • http://www.castagnastudio.com Castagna

    Those who purchase his “genuine fakes” are aggrandizing the fraud. Originality in art is of supreme importance. Typically one copies in order to develop a style while establishing technique. I would like to see some of his original pieces if he has any?
    To see the importance of originality in art see The Table of Aesthetics as follows.
    http://www.castagnastudio.com/blog/

  • Ann Marie Wolfe

    Regarding possible write-downs of home loans for people who are now “under water”:

    One point which I don’t hear very often is the fact that real-estate has never been an investment guaranteed to appreciate. I simply don’t understand why it would be considered appropriate for someone to have their loan adjusted because the value of the property has decreased.

    I’m not saying it’s inappropriate to adjust a loan if it will help someone avoid foreclosure, but why is a change in the value a direct path to a loan adjustment?

  • Ellen Williams

    The word is PROVENANCE NOT PROVIDENCE !!!!!!!!!!!!

  • http://Cwroelle.com CW Roelle

    This is all a good lesson in the value of buying works by and from living artists.

  • Cynthia Stow

    As a professionally trained painting conservator, I find it hard to believe that paintings done with house paint could be easily mistaken for oils, particularly aged oils. Many people apparently weren’t doing their homework!

  • http://www.richardsnotes.org Richard

    Jane, great show and you’re doing a wonderful job with your guests.

    This last piece on what makes art and the art world’s odd way of hyping and pumping up values is fascinating. Sort of like the stock market, the commodities market and the auction of something with “mystical” value on eBay.

    Great show, great topic, the con is interesting but the art value piece is the best part.

  • Robert Killoren

    How did he prepare the house paints?

  • Tom

    When it comes to the visual arts, it all comes down to economics. In music for example, we value the original sheet music, to be sure, but what we really like is the sound — which can be recorded and reproduced easily for mass consumption. And yet we still praise, say, Mozart as a genius composer. But in painting, we have this strange fascination with the “original” that manifests itself in grotesque price values. I can still see the genius of Picasso in a reproduction. And if it’s a really “good” reproduction, all the better.

  • Cesar Palma

    I succumbed to the beauty of a fake painting by a contemporary Chinese painter, and purchased it while in Shanghai. First I thought it was an original as the painter was there, but he later admitted he had copied it from the internet. I felt uneasy about buying it, but knew I would regret it if I walked away. I haggled it down to what I thought it was worth and walked away with it. As Lanie said, I can enjoy it on a daily basis without having gone bankrupt.

  • g

    This conversation reminds me of the opening chapter of Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Blink”, where the museum bought a fake statue thinking it was an original.

    How the art critics had an uneasy feeling about it, their gut feeling was that something was off, yet the tests confirmed that it was real, and the museum forked off a significant sum of money for it.

    Later, after more tests and more art critics and historians looked at the art work, they confirmed that it was a fake and that the original tests were inconclusive in determining statue’s originality.

    I don’t know what the museum did with the statue, but they should display it, and outline their findings and points about what makes an art work original, fake, etc. I think it would be educational and interesting.

  • Putney Swope

    This proves how bankrupt modernism is. That a forger can use house paint and get away with this.

  • paul privitera

    There is confusion here between “Art” and “Craft”. Copies of original works of art are not artworks at all. They are craft and are produced by craftsman not artists. Art requires exploration in the uncharted territory of original ideas. Standing in front of a work of art you share the original surface inhabited by the artist during an original act of profound insight and exploration. The canvas is not unlike the hallowed ground of a memorial, such as the WTC, the place where the event occurred is sacred. A facsimile will not contain the aura that inhabits the space in which culturally significant events occurred.
    That is not to say the facsimile isn’t pretty and nice to look at… It’s just not art.

  • michael Pina

    HI jane I am a painter. I am about to make a copy of a Sargent painting at the MFA. It is an antique practice to copy masterworks. Most young masters as students copied works of great elder masters as a means of gaining knowledge and confidence. Today the practice has waned in the U.S., but still popular in Europe. The MFA Boston still allows artists to paint a copy from the original in its gallerys. Their is a list of rules and regulations about distance, setup, times, blocking walkways, etc. (the worst being no bathroom breaks! ie you cannot leave your setup for any reason). The two ways the museum tries to protect their collection from forgery are to 1; stamp the reverse of the canvas with permanent ink and 2; require at least a 10% increase or reduction in the original size of the work. It is exciting to be part of a long tradition in painting. The only distraction is the public, trying to ask questions or making comments. Headphones go a long way to keep you focused.
    Mike Pina

  • Laurie

    Apparently there is a market for “legitimate fake” artworks; undoubtedly the elitist, snobbish, overpriced nature of the marketing of originals in our modern economies is to blame. As an artist myself, I find I have quite a bit of sympathy for another artist who was struggling to make a living (although Mr. Myatt ended up being led a bit astray). And if it is the inaccessibility of high-priced art which causes there to be a demand for “legitimate fakes”, is it really so wrong for “forgers” to fulfill this need in the art market? For a long time I have felt annoyed, even angry, at the snobbery perpetuated by the art establishment—by galleries, art dealers, art critics, even historians—which tends to not only hide original artworks away in the homes of wealthy collectors, and make it hard even for museums to afford to buy art, but to shut out all but the luckiest of artists from acknowledgement of their existence, while the artist is actually still alive! (John Myatt joked that death can be an artist’s best career move!). Artists, I guess, have had similar struggles for centuries. Is it too much to hope that someday there might, possibly, be a society of human beings who genuinely value the creative spirit in all artists? I suppose that would require a significant change in the consciousness of most humans, away from the rather artificial, superficial attractions to exclusivity, wealth and the outward trappings of momentary, popular acclaim and “success”, and toward a genuine love of beauty, meaning, knowledge, wisdom, compassion, and even humor—the very qualities which are often expressed or reflected in the finest works of art, whether by famous artists or little-known living ones. I have always liked the idea of prints and reproductions, whether of fine art, illustration, or other types of art, so that not only the appearance, but more importantly, the CONTENT and IDEAS of artworks can be communicated to, and afforded by, everyone. And it would be best if most original works were in museums or other public spaces, to be enjoyed by all. I wish John Myatt the very best and hope that he can begin the exciting adventure of painting his very own ideas as soon as possible!

  • mr. independent

    Have any of the people commenting here looked at this guys work? It’s pretty mediocre. Some of the forgeries are pretty bad. The Braques in particular do not even look good on line. How did these people pass this stuff off as the real thing?

  • Emily

    Copying is part of studying,as Michael Pina posted. I have been copying all the Chinese and Japanese bird paintings I could locate–and learned so much. Eventually you absorb all the lessons and make your own style. If you look at most of the masters you can see how similar many works are–and yet how incredibly different. After a while you also begin to realize when they made errors–you copy the errors, think that makes no sense, and leave out. It’s a wonderful way to develop your own style.

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