Copies and Forgeries: What Difference Does It Make?
Leo Segedin   |  2005 |   Print this essay


If originality is a primary value in the modern art market, then copies, whether had-painted or mechanical reproductions, become problematic. Copies would seem to be bad because they are not unique and the more there are of such objects, the less valuable they are. Masterpieces are supposed to be ‘one of a kind’ objects, but artists – even great ones - have always copied. They did it in order to learn; they did it for pleasure and they did it for clients who want copies of unavailable works. “Titian, Tintoretto, El Greco and Poussin were great copiers”. Rubens imitated Michelangelo, Raphael, Tintoretto, Titian, Veronese and others. In the 19th century, Delacroix, Gericault, Manet, Degas and Cezanne spent time copying paintings in the Louvre. Titian’s Bacchania was copied by Rubens, Van Dyck and Poussin. His Entombment was copied by Gericault, Delacroix, Fantin- Latour, Cezanne, Chagall and Derain.

Some artists have copied their own work. One of the greatest artists of the end of the 18th century, the French sculptor, Jean-Antoine Houdon, produced more than forty replicas of one bust of Voltaire, sixteen copies of his bust of John Paul Jones and thirty copies of his bust of Sophie Arnould and had plans to make as many as two hundred copies of a portrait of George Washington. In some cases, the copies, some in plaster and terra cotta, were superior to the originals. According to the art historian, F. Winkler, Van Eyck, the master of Flemalle, Durer , Holbein, Baldung Grien, Mabuse, and Terborch produced exact duplicates of some of their pictures. (Wind)

Sometimes, great artists made copies of the work of lesser artists. Rembrandt made a copy of Peter Lastman’s Suzanna and the Elders, perhaps improving on it, but Titian’s copy of Jacob Seisenegger’s full-size portrait of Emperor Charles V and his Ulm Mastif - made to get a job - may or may not be an improvement.

How original, and, therefore, how valuable, is a copy by a great artist of a work by another great artist? In 1525, Andrea del Sarto copied - to order - Raphael’s Leo X with Two Cardinals which was done in 1518-19. A contemporary, Giulio Romano, complimented the work by saying he couldn’t tell the difference. The art historian, John Shearman, writing in 1965, thought that del Sarto had made changes that were an improvement of the original painting. Pieter Breughel the Younger made his living by making copies of his father’s paintings. Perhaps 30 copies of the Peasant Dances are known. (Milwaukee Art Museum) For several hundred years, families and tribes of artists supported themselves by making copies of famous paintings and sculptures throughout Europe. By 1760, hundreds of copies made by the numerous followers of several 17th century masters were circulating throughout Europe, sometimes mistakenly classified as genuine. And of course students have always copied their master’s work.

Roman stonecutters made thousands of copies of Greek marble and bronze statues for cult purposes (different from original Greek cults) as well as decorations for private gardens, bathhouses and other public buildings when Greek originals became too expensive to import. (Praxeteles’ Knidos Aphrodite had more than 50 replicas, the Medici Venus-type had 33, and the Capitolium Venus-type had 101 surviving versions. P 97, Fn 20. Radnoti,). Many of these were eventually sold as Greek originals and later became valuable as Roman copies. There are also many Renaissance copies of antique marble statues.

Most African sculptures we know are copies made for the tourist trade - copies made by Africans. What is original African sculpture, - art made for rituals or tourists? And what is an original Inuit Eskimo sculpture carved by Indians from India if you can’t tell the difference? The Caryatids on the Erechtheum on the Acropolis in Athens are copies made out of concrete and the bronze horses on the façade of St. Marks in Venice are also copies. Even St Marks itself is a copy of another building (in Constantinople(?) There are also imitations of the caves at Altimira and Lascaux.

When Van Gogh made oil paintings from Millet’s drawings he said he “was not so much copying as translating from one language to another.” During the last half-century, this idea became a major, economically successful international style when Pop artists created original art by adopting the styles and subject matter of popular culture – comics, magazine advertising, billboards and photography. Some of these artists even translated reproductions of fine art painting into Pop styles. Art had finally become its own subject in that images were being made of images. Jasper Johns made paintings of flags and targets so that the image and what it represented were congruent. Andy Warhol made silkscreen copies of newspaper photographs. He also painted soup can labels and constructed Brillo Boxes. Lichtenstein made paintings of reproductions of Fine Art paintings as well as popular images in the style of comic strips. Rosenquist made paintings in the style of billboards. Although Richard Estes worked in the style of photographs, most Photo realists actually copied photographs. Robert Rauchenberg made a painting that included sweeping, spontaneous, ‘expressive’ brushstrokes and drips and then proceeded to copy this painting exactly, including the drips, among other things challenging the abstract expressionist idea of brushstroke and drip as being expressive.

The ultimate in copying and imitation as ‘original’ art was initiated by a movement called ‘Appropriationism’. As I mentioned in a previous paper, in the 1980’s, Mike Bidlo made a copy of Warhol’s Brillo Boxes which was originally a copy of Steve Garvey’s Brillo Box. He also exhibited 40 copies of Picasso paintings, called Not Picasso, and among others, he copied Picasso’s Mademoiselles d’Avignon and Portrait of Gertrude Stein. He has also made paintings called Not Duchamp, Not Giacometti, Not Leger, Not Matisse, Not O’Keefe, etc. When he made a painting called Not Lichtenstein, Lichtenstein, who also uses other artist’s paintings as subject matter, responded by copying Bidlo’s painting of his painting and called it Not Bidlo. Richard Pettibone made copies of Duchamp’s Bottle Rack and Bicycle Wheel, both of which were originally mass-produced objects. Some artists, like David Salle, merely ‘quote’ from the styles of several other artists in the same paintings. All of these artists signed their own names to these works.

Once we demand that artworks be original, we will find that we have a problem with multiple prints, - etchings, engravings, and woodcuts – made by individual artists or statues cast from clay or wax models made under the supervision of the artist. Are all such prints and statues equally original? Sculptures are cast from molds made by Rodin 100 years ago with his family’s legal permission and sold to collectors as original Rodins; prints are taken from plates made by Rembrandt 350 years ago. Bronze casts are made of Degas’ clay originals after he died. How original are they? How original are Holbein drawings etched and printed by Lutzelberger or Breughel drawings engraved by Jerome Cock or Pieter Perret?

The use of terms like original, creative and expressive has had many dire effects on our conception of art. Such terms are, or should be, descriptive. Like “rational” and “logical”, they are processes; they describe ways of working. They do not establish the value of the results of such processes. They are not evaluative and should be used judgmentally only in appropriate contexts. Their indiscriminate use has destroyed our sense of quality. Many original, creative and expressive art objects are also failures, second rate and ugly. Its emphasis in art schools at the expense of craft, knowledge of art, has resulted in the idea that anything goes.


Deliberate forgeries create a special problem for the modern art market. Next to prostitution, forgery is probably mankind’s oldest profession. Ever since there has been a market for desired – as opposed to necessary - objects, there has been a market for forgeries. Today, status-seeking, gullible people buy fake Rolex watches and Armani shirts; in the 6th century BC, Phoenicians bought fake Egyptian pottery supposedly from 2000 years before and rich, 2nd century Romans bought fake 4th century BC Greek statues as decorations for their gardens. While forgery has always accompanied (is a “by-product” of) art collecting, since the Renaissance, with the development of the aura surrounding the notion of artist-genius and especially since the 1880’s, with the influx into the art market of “squillionaire” American art collectors, the market for Fine Art forgeries has grown immensely. Although the purpose of such forgeries for the forger is obviously deception, whether for financial gain or personal gratification, the question is asked by many viewers, “If you can’t tell the difference, what difference does it make? What’s wrong with a fake?

Tom Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, says that fully 40% of the 50,000 objects that he examined during his 15 years as director “were either phonies or so hypocritically restored or so misattributed that they were just the same as forgeries”. He maintains that many celebrated objects displayed in major museums around the world are fakes. For example, he considers the popular relief on a Greek sarcophagus in the Boston Museum of Fine Art and the Getty’s 6th Century BC marble Kouros to be bogus. For many decades, three statues of Etruscan warriors were on exhibit at the Metropolitan until it was discovered that were made in 1918 by the brothers Riccardi and Alfredo Fioravanti. The Metropolitan’s famous ‘Greek’ Horse was first thought to be 7th Century, BC, then 5th Century BC, then a 20th Century fake and is now displayed as a Roman fake of the 1st Century BC. Possibly even Van Gogh’s, Sunflowers, bought by the Japanese Yasuda Marine and Fire Insurance Company for over 40 million dollars in 1987, is a forgery.

Although the works of many famous 19th and 20th century forgers have been exposed (for example, Elmyr de Hory, Davis Stein, John Drew, Aleco Dossena and Eric Hebborn), thousands of “unrecognized or undisclosed” forged Monets, Renoirs, Matisses, Picassos, Giacomettis, Modiglianis, Rodins, Derains, Vlamincks, Dufys and others are still in private and public collections around the world. Anywhere between 15 and 40% of the objects in art museums are estimated to be forgeries. According to the records of the New York Customs office, between 1909 and 1951, a total of 9,428 works by Rembrandt were imported into the country. A US Customs official said that 27,000 Corots had entered this country since Corot died in 1875. A Corot expert commented that this figure was short by 10,000. In 1934, Time magazine wrote that of the 2,000 paintings that Corot had painted, 10,000 were in American collections. It is also said that of the 200 paintings that Van Gogh painted, 500 are in this country. In the 16th century, Albrecht Durer complained about forgeries of his work. In 1511, on the title page of his series of woodcuts prints, Life of the Virgin, he inscribed, “Be cursed, plunderers and imitators of the work and talent of others. Beware of laying your audacious hand on this artwork!” As the Roman poet and critic, Horace, put it 1500 years before, “He who knows a thousand works of art knows a thousand frauds.”

The fact that experience leads to greater visual discrimination does not mean that art experts, whether professional artists, curators and critics or discriminating connoisseurs will necessarily see the same thing or agree in their judgments. In so far as experienced, knowledgeable people come from different backgrounds, they are likely to make different assumptions about what is significant in works of art. Because they may have come from different times and places and subject to the taste of their milieu, because they may have studied different works of art from different historical periods with different professors and learned different study techniques, it is not surprising that their perceptions are not the same. People who disagree do not just respond differently to the same features; they literally see and interpreted them differently. Art historians have been famously wrong in recognizing fakes and forgeries. According to Mark Jones, in the introduction to a book on an exhibition of fakes at the British Museum, experts make mistakes, not simply “because knowledge and experience can never be complete, but because perception itself is determined by the structure of expectations that underpin it.” What do these experts think they are looking at? What are they looking for? In fact, what are their motives for looking?

Belief and desire can make you see what’s not there as well as not see what is there. The famous Dutch art historian, Abraham Bredius, became infamous after announcing his discovery of a major, historically significant painting by Jan Vermeer, but which was really by the forger, Hans Van Meegeren. At the time, 1937, Bredius was an old man and half blind. He had spent a good part of his life trying to discover unknown Vermeer paintings from the early period of Vermeer’s life and this ‘discovery’ would be the high point of his career. Here is Bredius on seeing Van Meegeren’s, Christ at Emmaus, with Vermeer’s forged signature:

It is a wonderful moment in the life of a lover of art when he finds himself suddenly confronted with a hitherto unknown painting of a great master, untouched, on the original canvas, and without any restoration, just as it left the painter’s studio! And what a picture! … . The subject is Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus and the colors are magnificent – and characteristic: Christ in a splendid blue; the disciple on the left, whose face is barely visible, in a fine grey; the other disciple on the left in yellow – the yellow of the famous Vermeer at Dresden, but subdued so that it remains in perfect harmony with the other colors. The servant is clad in dark brown and dark grey; her expression is wonderful. Expression, indeed, is the most marvelous quality of this unique picture. Outstanding is the head of Christ, serene and sad, as he thinks of all the suffering which He, the Son of God, had to pass through in His life on earth, yet full of goodness…

After Christ at Emmaus was accepted as authentic, Van Meegeren was able to pass off several more of his paintings as Vermeers even though they looked less and less like his work. Although little is known of the first 10 years of Vermeer’s life, there is no evidence that he ever used such heavy-lidded eyes, elongated foreheads, long hollowed cheeks or congested, confused compositions as appears progressively in Van Meegeren’s forgeries. Compared to Vermeer, Van Meegeren’s colors lack luminosity; his shadows are repetitive (“raccoon-like”) and his textures are unnaturally smooth. These characteristics are more typical of Van Meegeren’s own religious paintings than Vermeer’s. Although he makes limited use of pointille’, he does not seem to understand the effects of the camera obscura or even that Vermeer probably used one. In fact, if you are knowledgeable of Van Meegeren’s milieu, you can detect traces of a 20th century Symbolist style in his 17th century forgeries. There are even those who can see, not only resemblances to Van Meegeren’s own face, but also to Greta Garbo’s in his paintings. Although some of Bredius’ contemporaries recognized Van Meegeren’s work as forgeries, today almost everyone can see what Bredius and others could not see in 1937 and the years following.

Forgeries are wrong because they falsify perception. Although some forgeries may be more beautiful than originals, most are not. Van Meegeren’s forgeries are bad, not only because they are not what they claim to be; they are bad because they are poorly painted works into which good qualities are projected and whose bad qualities are imperceptible to those who believe that they are the works of Vermeer. Forgeries are also wrong because they falsify history. The characteristics of a forgery accrue to the original artist. Van Meegeren’s forgeries were assumed to have filled the gap in our knowledge of Vermeer’s unknown early history. When other forgeries by Van Meegeren were placed on the market, they were compared with Van Meegeren’s, Christ at Emmaus then at the Boymans Museum, to determine their authenticity, and, of course, the characteristics of the forgery became accepted as part of Vermeer’s style. Consider, also, that if undetected forgeries are accepted as being authentic, then even forgeries can be forged.

It may not matter if a painting is intended only to hang on a wall as decoration, but when we say that it does make a difference whether the work is an original or a fake, we are not merely talking about taste or aesthetics. Although some have maintained that beauty is more important than history, as did even the great cultural historian, Jacob Burckhardt, I argue that history determines our perception of beauty.

As I have tried to show, what we know and assume about a work of art can’t help but affect our perception of it and, therefore, our appreciation and judgment. Works of art don’t exist in a vacuum, although we might get that idea when we see them, torn out of their original historical and functional context, hanging next to each other on a museum wall. They have a history; they originally served social functions in temples, churches, chapels, palaces or private homes and knowledge of that history determines our understanding of what is significant about them. If we know that a work is the product of a particular artist, knowledge of that person’s history, his culture, and his motives and goals, that knowledge will affect how we see his work. If we see his paintings in relation to his other work or the work of his contemporaries, followers and predecessors, we will see where he got his ideas and whom he might have influenced. Seeing an artist’s work in this context will certainly affect our notions of his originality and uniqueness. If we know that a painting is from the hand of Vermeer, we will see it in terms of what we know about the art of 17th century Netherlands; if we know that the work was by a forger working in 1936, we will be able to detect in it 20th century traces which were unnoticed before. Van Meegeren’s paintings are not copies; they are original paintings from the ‘hand’ of Van Meegeren in the assumed style of Vermeer. Only their signatures are forged. Even if the Van Meegerens and the Vermeers superficially look alike, they are different objects because they have different histories. Although works of art perform different functions in museums today, and although we can’t resurrect their original milieu, we cannot or should not ignore the knowledge of what those objects are and were.

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