MEREDITH HOAR - COLUMNIST
Professor Olds has decided to awards A's to students in
his classes who can who create a convincing copy of a piece of art held
within Bowdoin's own collection that was studied within the class. The
forgeries will then be mixed up with the real works and it will be the
classes' exams to determine who created each work of art.
Interesting move, huh?
Too bad it's all a lie.
Professor Clifton Olds of the Art History spoke on the topic
of "The Artist as Criminal: Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries" - beginning
the evening off with a "forgery" of his own like the one above - a made-up
story about art fraud good enough to fool the audience into believing
it. (Well, he fooled me anyway. That's why I thought I'd try to fool some
people on my own.)
February 13 marked the second semester reintroduction of
the Quinby House Tuesday Lecture Series. Professor Olds spoke to an audience
of about 15- 20 students on the subject of art forgery. The professor
admits a "grudging admiration for criminals…[they are] con men who take
advantage of other people's greed." It's easy to be awed by the lengths
that some forgers will go to to deceive everyone. In a series of stories
(which he swore were all true, after his initial forged tale), Professor
Olds gave examples of different modes by which forgers had worked.
The signature of the artist on a painting makes the work
more desirable and special. ers either fake a different signature on an
existing painting. Sometimes, already established artists will sign the
works of their students, so that the paintings will sell for more than
they would otherwise.
Another example was of an artist who had been popular early
in his career, and then faded away. This artist backdated a work he did
by about 30 years, so he could sell it for the price that a work from
his more popular period would command.
A mind-boggling example of a forger's attention to detail
was illustrated with what was thought to be an Albrecht Dürer print. The
thousands and thousands of tiny lines making up a picture with a lion
in the foreground of a room were all perfectly copied. A student noticed
that lion on the so-called print actually was missing a toenail from the
First, it was just thought that Dürer made a print, then
altered the stamp again before making the rest. However, they measured
the "print," only to discover it measured a few millimeters larger than
a real print would have - therefore the whole picture was a forged drawing.
Such staggering attention to tedious detail does make one almost admire
forgers, for such sheer dedication.
Some forgeries are really good - some even better, in the
opinion of art critics like Professor Olds, than works by the artist being
He showed the audience slides of two paintings - one a real
Vincent Van Gogh self-portrait, the other a forgery. The audience was
approximately evenly split over which of the two paintings we liked better.
However, when Professor Olds told us which painting was the
real Van Gogh, most people, including Olds, said that if they were going
to have of one the paintings, they would prefer the real Van Gogh to the
painting they had chosen as better. It is an interesting idea to think
about - are we really appreciating the art for itself, or because of previous
experiences with other ideas?
To get some idea of how difficult it can be to determine
if a work of art is a forgery or not, Professor Olds gave this example:
Henri Matisse once gave an art dealer 20 drawings. The dealer had them
for awhile, but was finally going to sell them. Matisse hadn't signed
them, so the dealer called him to have him do so. Matisse studied the
drawings, and declared that only 14 of the 20 were his work.
Though the dealer reminded him that he'd given them to him
altogether, Matisse could not be convinced. So he signed only the 14.
The dealer was disappointed, but there was really nothing he could do.
Later in the day, Matisse came back to the office and asked
to see the other six drawings again. He studied them, and then, without
a word, signed them.
If it was that difficult for Matisse to recognize his own
work, imagine the task that lies before art critics in determining if
work is genuine or not. Some estimates say that as much as 50 percent
of the work in minor museums is forged.
Renoir, in particular, has been forged a huge amount - some
estimates claim that 75 percent of "his" work around the world is by some
one else. If we enjoy the work, does it matter who did it? Or would we
prefer to see only real Renoirs? Either answer seems valid, and the answer
is sure to be contemplated by those who attended the lecture.
Stay tuned for more coverage of the Quinby House Tuesday
Night Lecture Series as it continues later in the semester.