Genuine Fakes: How Phony Things Teach Us About Real Stuff
Bloomsbury Sigma £16.99
Walking in Edinburgh during this year’s festival, I passed posters for concerts by Paul Simon, Leonard Cohen, George Michael, Prince and David Bowie. Strangely enough, only one of them is still alive.
Today’s ‘tribute’ artists might be described as genuine fakes. At one and the same time we know they are imitations but imagine them to be real. And some real artists who are over the hill – Debbie Harry, for instance, or Liam Gallagher – have become inferior tribute acts to their younger selves, pretending to be what they once were.
Historian Hugh Trevor-Roper fell for the obviously bogus Hitler diaries, deftly chronicled by Robert Harris in his book Selling Hitler
Lydia Pyne has had the bright idea of investigating the peculiar links between the authentic and the fake. Unfortunately, she has tended to restrict herself to areas – forged paintings and manuscripts, staged documentaries – that are fairly well-trodden. Nor does she find space for frauds like Anna Anderson, the false Grand Duchess Anastasia, or The Tichborne Claimant, who somehow managed to convince others, including family members, that they were grandees, back from the dead.
The world has a soft spot for the chutzpah of forgers, not least because we relish the sight of connoisseurs and collectors getting egg all over their faces. We also find ourselves reassured by the way in which even the brainiest person can be taken in: witness the jubilation among his fellow historians when Hugh Trevor-Roper fell for the obviously bogus Hitler diaries, deftly chronicled by Robert Harris in his book Selling Hitler.
As someone once said: the world wants to be deceived. In the spring of 1726, Dr Johann Beringer of Bavaria was delighted to acquire 2,000 fossils from the area around Mount Eibelstadt. He chronicled his extraordinary finds in a scholarly book, which would, he thought, change man’s view of the prehistoric world.
In fact, the fossils had all been knocked off by three of his assistants, who wanted to take their pompous employer down a peg or two. When he finally twigged that he had been conned, poor old Dr Beringer ended up scurrying around buying up copies of his own book, hoping to stop anyone reading it.
The story has a funny twist. In 1990, the British Museum was putting on an exhibition called Fake, and wanted to exhibit some of Beringer’s fake fossils. The curator asked someone at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History if they could borrow one or two, and he wrote back: ‘We have excellent casts of the originals. Would they be acceptable in an exhibition of fakes?’ The man from the British Museum replied: ‘If we may, we would like to borrow the original stones. This is strictly an exhibition of genuine fakes.’
I remember that exhibition well. It showed how even the most competent forger of Old Masters cannot see beyond his own period. A fake Vermeer that once fooled all the experts looks clearly bogus 50 years on. The forger may be able to pull the wool over the eyes of his contemporaries, but time will prove his undoing. In the same way, Seventies period TV dramas struck most of us as looking perfectly authentic when they were first broadcast, but, viewed today, they seem as bound up in their era as the Rubik’s Cube or the Space Hopper: Mr Darcy now looks more like a Bee Gee, and Miss Havisham could be manning the reception desk at Crossroads Motel.
In another chapter, Pyne tells the story of someone known only as the Spanish Forger, a Victorian whose fake ‘medieval’ art was snapped up by wealthy American collectors such as Pierpont Morgan. Yet now his frauds are all too clear. ‘It really is as if the Spanish Forger was illustrating the 19th century’s version of the Middle Ages,’ writes Pyne. One of the most obvious clues is that in a religious painting, the Spanish Forger can’t resist giving saints and nuns bountiful cleavages.
Much of our own contemporary art, being so free of skill, is easy to forge. Any art student with a couple of minutes to spare could knock you up a reasonable Tracey Emin or a Damien Hirst. In the unlikely event that these artists are still fashionable in 100 years’ time, the market will surely be saturated with fakes.
Fake Warhols already proliferate, not least those by Warhol himself, since he lent his name to thousands of Factory-made pieces he had virtually no hand in creating.
Small wonder, then, that the authentication board of the Andy Warhol Foundation has recently been disbanded, due to lawsuits – or, as Pyne calls them, ‘legal lawsuits’ – by disgruntled collectors, costing the Foundation anything up to £7 million a year.
Pyne sometimes comes close to analysing the thin dividing line between the fake and the authentic. Her overall argument is that there is more virtue in the fake than we like to acknowledge. In an interesting chapter on flavour, she tests the received wisdom that natural is good and artificial is bad. Much of it is in the mind: tests have shown that people immediately think food tastes better if they are told that it is free range.
IT’S A FACT
In 1274 BC, Pharaoh Ramses II ordered temple depictions of him defeating the Hittites in a battle that really ended in a draw.
It’s a shame she allows no room for wine fraud, as it seems as close as one can get to a victimless crime, or, at least, a crime in which the victims have only themselves to blame. The fascinating 2016 documentary Sour Grapes showed how a young Indonesian man mixed bottles of plonk in his kitchen, then forged grand labels and sold them at auction in New York for $35 million. Virtually none of those who bought them recognised anything wrong with the taste: he was finally found out because he dated one bottle to a year in which that particular wine had not been produced.
Pyne offers an amusing, and slightly revolting, history of the Jelly Belly Candy Company, which currently churns out 1,250,000 jelly beans an hour, or 300,000 lb a day, and enough each year – 13 billion – to wrap around the Earth five times, if you felt like it. The company now produces a line of jelly beans billed as Vomit, Earwax and Earthworm. At times like these, one can only hope that the flavouring is truly fake. All very well, but too often the author gets lost in a maze of extraneous detail, and loses focus. She also has the muddling habit of starting to tell one story, diverting into another, then going back to the first. Careless editing makes Genuine Fakes additionally awkward: ‘distain’ for ‘disdain’, ‘the 20th century’ referring to the 1800s, Samuel Johnson described as ‘renowned playwright’, when his one foray into playwrighting was a disaster, and the floppy word ‘thing’ cropping up all over the place, including in the title. Like many people these days, she can’t stop finding everything ‘ironic’. Another word she can’t leave alone is ‘plethora’.
The world has a soft spot for the chutzpah of forgers, not least because we relish the sight of connoisseurs and collectors getting egg all over their faces
Nevertheless, the book is full of diverting tales. I vaguely knew that the widely held belief that lemmings commit ritual suicide by throwing themselves off cliffs is a tall story, but I didn’t realise that it was originally perpetrated by Walt Disney, of all people, in a 1958 wildlife documentary. ‘The lemmings supposedly committing mass suicide by leaping into the ocean were actually thrown off a cliff by the Disney filmmakers,’ writes Pyne. Thank heavens they didn’t think of that idea before they filmed Snow White And The Seven Dwarfs.
The artificiality of the television documentary would really merit a book of its own. These days, we are happy to accept the weird convention of an old-fashioned presenter such as Michael Portillo knocking on a total stranger’s door and being ushered inside with a cheery exchange of greetings. Some viewers even go along with the newer, crasser contrivances of ‘staged reality’ shows like Made In Chelsea.
The more sophisticated the programme, the more subtle the fraud. Contemporary wildlife documentaries have been known to cut corners by splicing film made with tame or captive animals with film shot in the wild. In the BBC’s Frozen Planet, viewers thought they were seeing a polar bear giving birth in the Arctic; in fact, they were seeing another polar bear giving birth in a man-made den in a German wildlife park.
TV frauds are now commonplace, and not confined to the animal kingdom. For instance, has any MP ever donned a yellow hard hat and paid a cheery fact-finding visit to a factory or building site without a camera crew in tow?