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HOME > Short Stories > The Gentle Art of Faking > CHAPTER XV IMITATORS AND FAKERS
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  The dealer’s silent partners—The important and interesting guild of restorers—The imitator an unwilling accomplice—On the shady side of silent activity—Again the faker—The patrician who supplies the pedigrees—The smuggler and his ways—The “black band”—Wise tactics.

We now enter the department of the curio dealer’s silent helpers, the manifold activities assembled under the broad if not indefinite name of restorer. A brief glimpse into this part of the trade will lead us to another artistic division, that of the imitator, and these two last classes of an unquestionable character will serve admirably to herald and usher into that deeper, darker stratum of the commerce in which the faker represents the principal character.

That the restorer should be called the curio dealer’s silent partner is quite correct as a true definition. The day one of these mute confidants should feel inclined to boast, he would find no mercy from the dealer and no gratitude from the duped or disappointed collector whose eyes he had opened by revealing the truth.

This was fully exemplified by a clever restorer of paintings, employed by an Italian antiquary at forty francs a day—no mean pay—on account of his unusual ability in the imitation and restoration of works by Botticelli more especially, as well as for other pastiches. Thinking to start a profitable business of his own as an art restorer and that his merits would be valued per se, he disclosed the secret of the made-up Botticellis to a rich collector and let out that he himself to all practical purposes had painted the gem of the gallery. He was promptly discharged by his employer and166 the collector to whom he had told the truth became his worst enemy.

The activity of the restorer is naturally multifarious, many-sided as is the trade in curios. His methods will be better explained when art faking is described. The procedure in imitating, restoring and faking is more or less identical, though in faking it is more synthetically perfect than when limited to restoring various articles of virtu. There are people who consider restoration a blessing, others the reverse, a regular curse; particularly in the case of works of art of no mean merit.

Without doubt the restoring of works of art has at times greatly contributed to their preservation, and more than one masterpiece has come down to us, thanks solely to some clever restorer who at the right time prevented its complete ruin. This is the good side of the profession, but as for its reverse, the art of restoring has, through the ignorance of workers, greatly damaged well-known works of art by the repainting or obliterating of different parts, often helping deception by embellishing bad art into deceitful good art. In this way the art of restoring has proved a bridge to fakery.

Restoration at its best and in the true artistic spirit never consents to falsify any part of the work. Lies, even in art, no matter how well they may be told, remain lies.

Artistically and ethically speaking the operations of the restorer should be confined to work intended to save a work of art from the ravages of time. These operations are many, most varied and not at all easy. They demand long practice, a deft hand, patience and skill as well. The process of restoration may mean, for instance, the transference of the layer of paint from a rotted panel to a new one or to canvas, the consolidation of a ceiling painting or other deteriorating forms, revarnishing and, to a certain extent, cleaning.

In sculpture orthodox restorations appear to be of a more limited character, being chiefly confined to collecting broken pieces and surface cleaning. Of course the repairing of limbs167 and missing parts has its importance if done with great artistic discrimination.

According to responsible art critics the restoration of paintings may consist of repainting the missing and obliterated parts and that of sculpture in the replacing of lost fragments only when decorative parts are concerned, important for the better comprehension of the whole but not expressing any marked characteristic of the artist.

When in the service of the antiquary, the art of restoring has no such scruples or limitations. As a matter of fact its limits then rest with such restrictions as the dealer’s conscience may impose, and it must be confessed that this is rather a narrow and at the same time very elastic boundary. The different views as to restoration are epitomized by the curious distinction made by connoisseurs and dealers, when judging between the two cleverest restorers of Italy. The upshot is: If you have a painting that needs repairing and you wish to restore it to its former state go to Cavenaghi, but if perchance you are interested to sell it go to—the other one.

Disproportion and overdoing in restoration turns this very legitimate art at times into sheer faking. A bust of a Roman emperor, for example, that may have been found headless and which the restorer completes into a Julius Cæsar by copying the head of the great Roman dictator from another statue, represents a form of faking. Yet, were our programme one of disclosing the names of saints and sinners instead of that of pointing out sins, we could designate more than one dealer of good repute who sincerely thinks, we may assume, that his form of daring and attractive restoration cannot be called faking.

Another rather questionable form of restoration is that of composing, say furniture or any other ornamental goods, from old bits or fragments taken from various rotten objects. There is no doubt that a tasteful artificer can do effective work by composing a table out of two or three broken ones, but nowadays such is the abuse of the method that we are only surprised that the trick is not more easily discovered.168 Some of these gross and hastily put together compositions of uneducated dealers must count upon clients not only ignorant, but utterly deprived of good taste. The faking qualities of this method are proved, for as soon as the buyer knows of the admixture he refuses to buy the object. Yet such trickery is generally admitted in the trade.

There is, perhaps, a justification for this method of restoring antiques when the character of the article is decorative, as in certain pieces of furniture, marble or stone work, such as chimney-pieces, ornamented doors and so forth. Yet even in such cases honesty would seem to claim that the buyer be warned as to the extent of the restoration.

Nevertheless the temptation to keep the secret must be great, considering how rarely such patchwork is discovered even by experts, and how easily it calls forth the praise and enthusiasm of art critics.

Another form of restoration of a most questionable character, as the decorative nature of the object cannot be claimed as an excuse, is that, by which a painting is transformed or embellished by repainting large missing portions more or less fantastically, or by supplying the artistic quality that is wanting. Such work is either done by totally repainting the missing parts, or by veiling and repainting here and there, so as to give the work the attractiveness of a masterpiece.

Naturally in the vast field covered by the questionable genius of this deceptive art, limits are set by the greater or lesser capacity of the restorer, just as the quality of the restoration determines whether he is to be called a professional repairer of paintings or a faker.

It is incredible what an amount of work is executed nowadays intended to give a coquettish character to a daub, or to enhance the value of a fairly good painting. Even many masterpieces sold in recent times have been to our knowledge decorated with fantastic backgrounds of castles and quaint landscapes, and mottoes and coats-of-arms have been added to portraits. A barrel of alcohol—spirit, it is known, dissolves169 fresh varnish and modern retouching—would accomplish wonders with famous masterpieces of recent acquisition and cause many a disillusionment to the curators of museums.

As regards the juggling of poor or deficient works of what is generally called a school, into a trompe-l’œil, making one believe it to be a painting by the master of the said school, should Italian export officials be inclined to make public what is intended to remain private, many an astonishing coup de théâtre would reveal the true nature of supposed masterpieces bought by unwary collectors as genuine chefs-d’œuvre.

A member of the board of exportation explained to the author, how it happens, that the officials are frequently led into the penetralia of the make-up of a pseudo-masterpiece. Sometimes the work is done so well that it would deceive the very officials and experts of the export bureau. In this case the antiquary, who has sold the painting and is desirous that it should reach its destination without hindrance from the export office, pays a visit to the inspector and shows him a photograph of the supposed masterpiece, as it appeared before its coquettish restoration. After this graphic proof the office has nothing more to say and permission to export is granted. The members of the Commission do not consider themselves to be responsible to collectors. But they do demand documents as guarantees, and two photos, one taken before restoration and one after, are generally exacted and kept in the office. One of the Commission showed us some of these photographs, two in number for each object, before and after the restoration. One could hardly believe the miracles accomplished in this line. Botticini easily becomes a Botticelli after a few caresses by a clever hand, and we know cases in which a mediocre work by Ridolfo Ghirlandaio has been turned into a Raphael. These photographs are exacted by the inspectors as a protection from any possible accusation from the central department located in Rome. When the Press gives an elaborate account of some170 American having captured a masterpiece, giving facts and details and the reproduction of the chef-d’œuvre, adding that it comes from Italy, when London art magazines go into ecstasies over some newly-acquired find, and wonder how the Italian Government came to allow such a magnificent “find” to slip through its fingers and cross the frontier, the Central Office in Rome naturally becomes alarmed and demands an explanation from the local office responsible for the exportation permit. As a convincing answer the two photographs are then sent to Rome, with the consequence that the case is dismissed. The various export offices, whose chief duty it is to impede the exodus of fine works of art, do not consider themselves under any obligation to prevent sham masterpieces from leaving Italy.

The imitator, a type to figure later as a help to the better understanding of the faker, occasionally becomes an involuntary or accidental accomplice in deception. His complete equipment, his excellent work, which but for his rectitude and scruples might turn him into a formidable faker, are frequently exploited by others, who, on coming into possession of some of his good imitations launch them upon the collector world, just as they might any species of faked works of art. Many of the noted bastard masterpieces in museums are the work of imitators that have been palmed off by tricky dealers without the consent or knowledge of the artist, and it has often been the latter who has helped in the discovery of the fraud.

There are also cases when simple plagiarism or chance similarity has been turned to advantage by shrewd people. The fact that Trouillebert’s painting greatly resembled Corot, was sufficient to give corrupt dealers the chance to pass off Trouillebert’s landscapes as works by the famous French master. This was done, of course, in spite of Trouillebert’s protests, who never thought of imitating Corot.

It is curious when some work of a clever imitator or genial faker falls in the course of time into the hands of the restorer to be repaired—there are circumstances in which modern171 paintings may need repair. Something still more extraordinary happened to a clever restorer and imitator living in Siena who received from England one of his own paintings—one of his first imitations of Lorenzetti—obviously damaged and entrusted to him for restoration.

There are other characters which will form the subject of a more particular study. These individuals belong to the shady side of the commerce and have no redeeming points whatever. They comprise fakers, forgers, smugglers, deceivers at large, and the whole clan included in the vague and broad term “the black band,” as some collectors call them.

The faker is the Deus ex machina in the most varied kinds of deception. Fakers are not only those who furnish spurious works of art and well-imitated articles of virtu, but also those who help in any form or manner to dispose of sham objects. Thus the parts played by masquerading aristocrats, lending their names and swearing to heirlooms, the debased patricians helping to build the reputation of an artistic product, are forms of faking, as well as others which aim at cheating or deflecting public opinion or a genuine appreciation—forms of faking that will be more clearly outlined when degenerate varieties of art sales are described.

One of the most clandestine helpers of art and curio-dealing and one who is in close contact with the dark side of the commerce is the smuggler, a genuine specialist not resembling other smugglers but with characteristics of his own worth notice.

Needless to say smuggling has no raison d’être in such countries as have no custom laws to regulate the export of artistic goods nor put duty upon their entrance within the precinct of the State. It is also obvious that the dual form of such legislation, laws to prevent exportation, and importation dues, has produced two corresponding kinds of smuggling, the one aiming to baffle prohibitive laws on exportation, and the other trying to undervalue artistic goods generally taxed ad valorem.

172 Italy being the classical country of art treasures which have been exploited for centuries, and the first to issue laws and penalties on the subject, it is naturally ahead in the cryptic art of smuggling. The high tariff of the United States, but recently abolished, and the incredible prices paid by the citizens for antiques and works of art in general, make it the country best adapted to illustrate the branch of smuggling which aims at avoiding Custom House dues.

When reading old and modern laws promulgated against illicit exportation of works of art, one cannot help wondering how such daring still exists, and how there should still be people willing to brave the severity of these laws. The Medicis, it is known, prescribed punishments in the second half of the sixteenth century; the Papal laws that followed were if anything even more Draconian, to say nothing of the iron laws of the former kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the severest of them all. Modern governments may not impose prison and galley so freely upon the culprit, but they are no less hard on the transgressor. Money fines are certainly exceedingly heavy, they amount at times to large fortunes.

The present laws on the export of art from Italy have a preventive character which the old regulations had not. Every owner of a work of art is himself eventually responsible, and is bound to bring it before the inspectors of the Export Office, who after close examination give or withhold permission to pass the frontier. When permission is granted there is a tax to be paid averaging between 5 per cent and 20 per cent ad valorem, according to the inspector’s estimate, and should the object leave the country after permission has been refused, the owner is held responsible and may be called before the tribunal to answer for his action and to pay damages.

An Italian adage runs: Fatta la legge trovato l’inganno, which in a free translation may be rendered: Make a law and the means of evasion are found.

This is somewhat the fate of the protective laws regarding art in Italy, the more stringent and circumspect they are173 the law-breaker apparently becomes correspondingly bolder and more astute.

The way in which Italian author............
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