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The Art of the Con: Noteworthy art hoaxes

On the night of April 1, 1998, a reception was held in artist Jeff Koon’s Manhattan studio. Musician David Bowie (1947 – 2016) hosted the party to celebrate the launch of the first book from his art-publishing house, 21. The book was Nat Tate: An American Artist: 1928 – 1960 (1998) written by William Boyd.

The book itself was beautifully bound and featured images of both Tate’s few surviving drawings and rare photographs of him and his family. It told the story of the obscure artist’s tragically short life, recalling how Tate was orphaned at eight and adopted by a wealthy couple in Long Island.

He was once a talented member of the famous New York school alongside greats, such as Jackson Pollock (1912 – 1956) and Willem de Kooning (1904 – 1997), but committed suicide in 1960 by jumping off the Staten Island Ferry, his body never recovered. Tragically, only a small selection of his drawings remains as he burned 99 percent of his life’s work in his final days.

During the party, guests talked of the late artist and his work. Some recalled hearing of Tate previously and others pointed out which works they had seen before. Overall, the event made for a successful launch and a wonderful tribute to Nat Tate. The only problem was that Nat Tate never existed.

Some months prior, David Bowie and William Boyd came up with an idea for an experiment. They wanted to create a fictitious painter and see whom in the art world would believe the story and who would question it. Boyd collected anonymous photographs from yard sales and junk shops to represent Tate, his family, and the fictitious people he worked with. Alongside these, though, were pictures and mentions of real people to legitimize the story.

While the photos were convincing, the mastery came in the contribution of real biographers and art experts who joined the hoax to talk about Tate. They were quoted speaking of meetings with Tate, telling antidotes of his charming personality and unfortunate drinking habits. With such trustworthy accounts, it would be difficult for anyone to question the legitimacy of the book.

A little while back, Boyd published a fictional autobiography called The New Confessions (1987), which fooled readers into believing its subject, a filmmaker, was in fact a real person. ‘One of my main ideas was to write a fiction that blurred into the world of fact – the world of documentary, reportage, history – to such an extent that the reader would be confused: was this made up, or was it real?’ he stated.

By the time he wrote Nat Tate’s life story, Boyd was well-practiced in creating a convincingly real character. When the story broke shortly thereafter, it was published on the front page of The Independent and the front page of the Arts section in The New York Times. Boyd had radio interviews and appeared on BBC TV. There were three documentaries about Tate and the book was even translated into French and German.

This fame and celebration might seem questionable; it seems reasonable to expect outrage. Instead, people were fascinated with the story. This hoax became a piece of art itself, or perhaps, people realized that it always was. But, Boyd’s experiments bring up an interesting question: At what do we draw the line between an art experiment and an art fake?

In this case, something went right, but what? Was it the people who did the hoaxing? Was it the speed at which the real story broke? Maybe it was the nature of it that made it seem more playful than criminal? Or perhaps it was the quality of the work and its execution being that made its victims forgive its masterminds, and even embraces the deception?

The art world is vast and varied, so it is no wonder that art hoaxes and forgeries come in so many shapes and sizes. But, each of these deceptions comes with various levels of harm to different groups. It’s one thing to reproduce an artwork for personal gain, but to pass it off as a historical piece of art is both harmful to the unsuspecting people who come across it and the people tasked with authenticating it.

For example, a marble kouros (young man) statue that was almost sold to the Getty in 1983. It was aged to look old, but its features were a mix of different styles from various eras. Malcom Gladwell writes: “The young man’s slender proportions looked a lot like those of the Tinea kouros, which is in a museum in Munich, and his stylized, beaded hair was a lot like that of the kouros in the Metropolitan Museum in New York. His feet, meanwhile, were, if anything, modern.”

Even if a fake or forged artwork does not tamper with art history, passing it off as someone else’s creation is still immeasurably harmful. Dutch artist and art dealer Han van Meegeren (1889 – 1947) did exactly this by re-creating Johannes Vermeer’s (1632 – 75) paintings and passing them off as authentic pieces. He was caught when he was found selling his work to Nazis.

Van Meegeren came clean about his forgery but argued that it wasn’t a crime to cheat Nazis. Meanwhile, he had made a fortune selling his many forgeries to other collectors; in fact, he bought 52 houses and numerous other properties with the profits. In the end, however, he was found guilty of forgery, but was sentenced to only one year in prison.

He told a reporter: "Two years is the maximum punishment for such a thing. I know because I looked it up in our laws twelve years ago, before I started all this. But sir, I'm sure about one thing: if I die in jail they will just forget all about it. My paintings will become original Vermeers once more. I produced them not for money but for art's sake." He didn’t get to serve out his full sentence - just a month after his sentencing, he died of a heart attack at fifty-eight years old.

And while Han van Meegeren’s forgery conned unsuspecting collectors into purchasing fakes, some hoaxes do nothing more than embarrass the art community. One famous example of this is a collection of paintings done by a chimpanzee named Peter. His creations were passed off as the work of a fictitious French avant-garde artist, Pierre Brassau.

Onlookers admired the work, saying that “Brassau paints with powerful strokes, but also with clear determination” and “Pierre is an artist who performs with the delicacy of a ballet dancer.” After the hoax was reveled, collector Bertil Eklöt still decided to purchase one of the paintings, which featured strokes of dark paint on yellow canvas, for $90 (about $700 in 2018 money). There is even a photograph of Eklöt, leaving the exhibit in a bowler hat and coat, proudly carrying his Brassau.

When looking at these different hoaxes, one might notice that Boyd’s book has something in common with each of the listed crimes: he included lies from art experts to falsify history, the photographs of drawings passed off Boyd’s work as another’s, and it embarrassed the art world into valuing something that should be worthless. Somehow, Boyd managed to do something right by doing everything wrong.

In 1496, when Michelangelo was a young man, he sculpted a sleeping cupid and buried it in acidic earth to give it the appearance of age. The sculpture was sold, and when the collector learned of the forgery, he was so impressed with Michelangelo's work – he didn’t press charges. The forgery was still a masterpiece and the buyer knew it. It seems like all it takes, is for someone to appreciate the mastery of the statue, a painting, or a book, for it to become its own work of art.

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