The Art of the Fake in Fiction and Non-Fiction

A couple of recent books, one a memoir and the other a novel, illustrate our fascination with the arcane world of art forgery. Perhaps, in this Internet age, when so much can be cut and pasted, recycled, refurbished and refitted, and so little seems to be truly original, the subject of how to produce a master forgery that will fool all the experts seems particularly relevant.

The recent news story sensationally announcing the discovery of a fragment of ancient Coptic papyrus referring to "Jesus' wife" is a case in point. It didn't take more than a few days for Vatican experts to denounce the discovery as a fake. Whether it is or not, I do not pretend to know. How can one know what is true and what is fake?

The fact is, we crave authenticity -- in our presidents, our actors, our reality stars who are not real. And we're never quite sure when we've found it.

In Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger (Pegasus 2012) we learn how Ken Perenyi turned himself from a New Jersey teenage druggie into one of the most accomplished and successful forgers in history.

In a readable but somehow elusive memoir, we learn of Perenyi's astonishing career and many of the secrets of his trade -- but we learn little to nothing of Perenyi himself. It's interesting the way he manages to reveal so much and so little at the same time.

Unlike Han van Meegeren, possibly the world's most famous art forger who created fake Vermeers and sold them for vast sums, Perenyi was usually content to paint "new" by second-rank British and American artists of the 18th and 19th centuries and sell them for a few thousand dollars apiece.

He managed to educate himself on the exact techniques of producing cracks in the paint on different surfaces, on the correct varnish, the right canvas, the antique picture frames of which he became a connoisseur, even the tiny fly droppings that accumulate on the surface of old works of art. All this knowledge he generously shares with us.

Perenyi began by specializing in nautical scenes, still lifes, American portraits and then branched out into English sporting scenes of jockeys and hounds. His biggest score was a painting auctioned for more than $700,000 by an American artist called Martin Johnson Heade of passionflowers.

All this detail is quite interesting -- but Perenyi remains an enigma. He tells us he develops a love of good food, fine wine, expensive clothes and becomes a kind of quasi English gentleman with an establishment in Bath and another in London.

But his personal life remains opaque. We're not sure about his sexuality, his loves and hatreds and what he ultimately believes. And the large cast of characters we meet in the book also for the most part remain two-dimensional. The women all seem to be slim and lovely; the men are various shapes and sizes but without much personality. People close to him occasionally die -- but not much regret is expressed.

Perenyi also seems to have been extraordinarily loose-lipped. It seems that many of the dealers he sold to knew or at least strongly suspected he was a faker -- and didn't care.

The Art Forger by B.A. Shapiro (Algonquin 2012) keys off the 1990 heist of 13 priceless works of art from Boston's Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. It also plays quite effectively with the theme of what is real and what is fake and how one tells the difference between them. But, curiously, as in the Perenyi memoir, there is an empty core to this book where the genuine feeling and emotions driving the characters ought to have been.

Claire Roth, the protagonist, is a highly talented young artist who has been blackballed by the art establishment because of her role in a scandal. She was the lover of a much older and more famous artist, Isaac Cullion, who had sunk into a depression and was unable to complete a prestigious commission for the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In despair, Claire picks up his brush and paints a masterpiece for him, signing it with his name. The deception comes to life in a messy way, claiming Isaac's life and Claire's reputation. That is just one of several fakes in the book.

Since then, Claire has been eking out a living painting copies of Impressionists while creating her own series of works based on the windows of Boston. One day, private gallery owner Aiden Markel shows up with a proposition. He has gotten hold of a Degas masterpiece, "After the Bath" -- one of the 13 paintings stolen from the Gardner. He wants Claire to paint an exact copy, a forgery, which he will sell. He will then return the original to the Museum. In exchange, he will mount a one-woman show of Claire's own works in his gallery. (In an author's note, Shapiro tells us she invented this painting, skillfully mixing fact and fiction in much the same way as her characters do.)

But there's a catch. After examining the supposed Degas in detail, Claire suspects that it too is a forgery. One of the three women depicted doesn't seem quite right in her pose and the brushstrokes circle in the wrong direction.

So we have a forgery of a forgery. We also, in flashbacks, meet Isabella herself during her stay in Paris and even Monsieur Degas. These are highly effective little scenes in which the personality of the great collector springs to life. We learn the secret behind the painting, even as Claire is trying the discover it.

All this is ingeniously and skillfully plotted, and this book too is stuffed full of technical information about the "art" of forging and stories of some of the great forgers in history. In fact, between the two of them, Shapiro and Perenyi supply quite a comprehensive "how to" guide for aspiring forgers of the future.

The problem with this novel lies with the modern-day characters. Claire and Markel have one of the most anemic love affairs in recent fiction, depicted almost like a watercolor instead of a strong and vibrant oil painting. I had a feeling reading this novel that was eerily similar to its heroine's response to the fake Degas. It comes close to being really good but one of the figures in the foreground wasn't quite right.

Both of these books refer often to the granddaddy of forgers, Han van Meegeren. Here I can recommend without reserve The Man Who Made Vermeers by Jonathan Lopez (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008).

I thought this book would tell the story of an amiable rogue who fooled the art establishment and even top Nazi Hermann Goering by faking Vermeers. It turned out to be much more than that. It's the tale of a creepy fascist with a specific political agenda who used his fakes to advance a form of art that glorified the Nazi view of the world.

Han van had some talent, as shown by the illustrations of some of his portraits reproduced in this book, but his conservative bent and limited imagination meant he was never destined for greatness.

Instead, he began painting fake Vermeers. His early efforts were genre interior scenes similar to those of the master himself. But then he hit another vein entirely, manufacturing a new and entirely false chapter of the artist's career during which Vermeer allegedly devoted himself to painting somber Biblical scenes.

You look at the reproductions of these pictures and you wonder how they fooled anyone at all. They are dull, lifeless, full of lugubrious piety of the worst kind, the very antithesis of the glowing work of Vermeer. Yet these crude daubings took in most of the Dutch art establishment of the time. Once he had established the first fake of this kind, it became progressively easier to continue fooling everyone -- since each subsequent painting was clearly the work of the same artist.

The author explains how some of the coded and subliminal messages in these images appealed to something in the air during the 1930s when Nazi ideology loomed large in Europe. He unveils the depth of van Meegeren's Nazi sympathies and decodes his messages

Van Meegeren fooled art experts, he fooled Goering and he fooled his interrogators after the war. He fooled the world press, he fooled the judge and jury during his trial and he fooled the Dutch public. He died unexpectedly without ever paying for his actions. But to Lopez, he will not fool posterity.