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HOME > Short Stories > The Gentle Art of Faking > CHAPTER XVII FAKERS, FORGERS AND THE LAW
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   Faking and fakers—Views of art forgers—Too great a productiveness aids the exposure of fakers—The chink in the armour of silence and mystery—Collector’s view of the dangerous trade in counterfeited objects—Laws and tribunals—Grotesque cases in court—M. Chasles’ autographs—A collector who lacks a Rameses—The faker for gain and the one for fun—Some moral considerations on fabricators of modern antiques.

Moral considerations apart, the faker of objects for collections is far more interesting a personage than some of his duped victims. His artistic personality separates him from the commoner class, the peculiarity of his trade, while not redeeming the disreputableness of his conduct, confers upon him the poetical nimbus of art and mystery, just as an undefined feeling of heroism or chivalry may, to an imaginative mind, turn an old-fashioned brigand into a classical type of buccaneer.

These mute workers, who actually earn their money by false pretences, deluding and deceiving with callous energy in what a commercial mind might call “their line of business,” are not infrequently people of scruples and probity in all other respects, men to whom credit might be given with safety.

As we have stated before, the collector is partially responsible if excellent imitators sometimes turn into fakers. Ask the forger how it was that he became such, and nine times out of ten you will either hear that he was tired of seeing others make indecent profits out of his work, or that he was prompted by the consideration that there were fools ready to pay ten times the value of his work, provided he did not claim authorship,195 and would pretend his work was antique. Curiously enough, when questioned about the beginning of their fraudulent profession, some will speak of their transition from honesty to dishonesty with the reticence of a woman gone astray; others, perhaps the larger number, are boastful and inclined to glory in the success accorded to their fakes.

La Rochefoucauld has written in his Maximes that it is easier to deceive oneself than others. The vaunting class of fakers have somewhat reversed the terms of this saying, their common tenet being that it is easier to cheat others than to cheat oneself. This maxim, however, gives the faker undue confidence and a too prolific activity in creating sham masterpieces, and eventually contributes to the exposure of his fraud and the final ruin of what he considers, and what has proved to be, a most remunerative business. Many discoveries of falsified chefs-d’œuvre are due to over-productiveness of the faker. His self-confidence augmenting his activity to alarming proportions, it naturally increases the probability of discovery.

However, the faker is perforce a close-mouthed fellow, always on his guard and very rarely taken, as one might say, by surprise. Nevertheless he too possesses what might be called in fanciful metaphor the Achilles’ vulnerable spot where his silence may be attacked: it is his pride that must be tickled.

It was an aim of mine in the past to trace forgery in art to its origin. Not exactly as a hobby but in the belief that in these days it is important to know how works of art are imitated and faked, that it is part of modern connoisseurship in fact. To-day one must learn how to detect forgeries just as one must learn how to admire genuine art.

Forgery museums, intelligently organized, would be far more interesting—and more original—to-day than the various galleries of fine arts.

On more than one occasion after having traced the forger, the above system of flattering his vanity has extorted an unexpected confidence. To give an instance: some time ago196 the Italian market began to be infested by good imitations of bronze figures of the type of the Paduan school. An antiquary, from whom I have the story, traced the forger to Modena and called upon the fellow whom he held in suspicion. At first he had no clue, but finally, becoming friendly, he happened to surprise a confession from him under the following circumstances. It must be noted that a faker will talk freely on the subject of forgery, never presuming to be discovered and always as an outsider. Speaking of imitations, the antiquary expressed his surprise at the sure modelling and most convincing patina of some recent imitations he had seen. He explained that the imitation was really so good that he himself had been deceived by a small group representing a nymph and satyr. Circumstances alone had saved him at the last moment from being taken in and giving his opinion by attributing the bronze to Andrea Briosco. The piece to be sure was convincing enough to pass for one of the best works Briosco ever conceived. It was really worth the extravagant sums collectors are willing to pay for Briosco’s piece, called il Riccio, even though it was modern.

“Perhaps it was worth it,” remarked the artist with the characteristic rebellious accent peculiar to successful fakers.

This first burst of self-pride, properly nourished by the other with eulogies of the great artist who had modelled the group, drew forth the desired disclosure. When the antiquary remarked:

“That group ought to bring a big price. If collectors were not, generally speaking, so utterly deprived of true artistic sense, if they were not——”

“Such a pack of fools and snobs,” interrupted the artist.

The chink in the armour of silence was now discovered. Though without giving a hint as to his craft or the recipe of his wonderful patina, upon promise of silence with regard to his name, he proudly acknowledged authorship of the bronze group supposed to be of the school of Padua, and finally offered to show other pieces ready to enter the world197 of fakes, finished and ready to go and play the part of masterpieces of the Renaissance.

When the artist was asked how he managed to dispose of his faked goods, he averred that that part of the business belonged to the dealer. A specialist like himself, he said, had nothing to do with that side. The only compact he had made was with his own conscience, being perfectly aware that he was handsomely paid and that his agent realized three times as much.

According to him, even museums were buying spurious works of art, and labelling them with pompous attributions, knowing all the while that they were not authentic.

We quote this as a mere incident to show the view and supercilious attitude taken by the faker with regard to his art.

Incidentally and from the same source came the information that some well-imitated octagonal tables that had fetched high prices in the antique furniture market as real Quattrocento work were made in Bologna, and that the old patina and blunt corners were acquired by real use, the tables being lent for a time to cheap restaurants and the shops of sausage-dealers. The bronze faker of Modena possessed one of these tables which showed a casual knife cut and the abuse of age. To make the piece more handsomely suggestive, upon the top of the table there had been roughly scratched with a nail a square of the geometrical lines of the old game of “Filetto.” One could easily work up one’s fancy before that perpetrated abuse and imagine crowds of lansquesnets or inveterate dice-throwers.

When asked why he did not put his signature to such excellent work as his, that it would certainly be valued on its own merits, he shook his head and repeated the refrain so often heard from successful fakers that the time of the old-fashioned intelligent and art-loving collectors had passed, that collecting was nowadays nothing but a fad, that the modern collector is only a pretender. In proof of his assertion he referred to the then recent incident.

“See what happened to Donatello’s puttino in London.”

198 For those who may have forgotten the incident, we will recall how a little bronze statue by Donatello was vainly offered for sale to the London dealers. This statue was missing from the baptistery of San Francesco of Siena. The statuette represented a puttino (boy) and, hardly a foot high, had been stolen from the church at Siena in the beginning of the nineteenth century. It mysteriously found its way to London, where it was in all probability buried and forgotten in some private collection for three-score years or more. When the forgotten statue suddenly emerged from its nook of oblivion it was offered for sale simply as an old bronze, but being taken for a modern imitation it fetched no decent price. A Bond Street specialist refused it at two thousand francs. The Donatello was finally bought for 12,000 francs by the Berlin Museum, this being about the fiftieth part of its present value.

It is curious to hear the various opinions entertained by collectors and art lovers concerning faking and its alarming and increasing success. An old collector who had, no doubt like so many of his colleagues, learned his lesson through being duped, unhesitatingly declared that faking is a grand art with a reason for existence as it seems to meet a real need of society, the need of being, as it were, deluded and cheated by elegance. Queer ethics answering to the Latin saying: Vulgus vult decipi, ergo decipiatur (The crowd likes to be deceived, let it be deceived!).

A former curator of the Victoria and Albert Museum used to pay due tribute to the art of good imitators and fakers, who had succeeded in deceiving the vigilant eye of the guardians of museums, by stating that imitations are really too good to be mistaken for antiques, much better, indeed, than some of the examples of the art they would falsify.

The really experienced collector is inclined to look upon faking as a huge joke to be played on greenhorns and the inexperienced, even although some of the silent torpedoes of faking do triumphantly succeed in hitting people who are iron-clad with knowledge.

199 Novices take two opposite views of the matter. One class is positively ashamed of having been “taken in,” and hides the fact by concealing the proof of his ignorance in a dark corner of the house; the other, viewing the deception in a more business-like way, has recourse to the courts with more or less happy results. The latter class is naturally inclined to favour the greatest possible severity of the law.

In some of the cases in which the tribunals are called upon to pass judgment, one is inclined to wonder whether in pronouncing a severe sentence on the culprit, the magistrates do not feel like laughing up their sleeve at the supine foolishness of the plaintiff.

The case of M. Chasles, a celebrated and highly esteemed mathematician and member of the Paris Institut, furnishes us with proof of how a man can be great in his own speciality, yet likely to be taken in under peculiar and rather astonishing circumstances.

Monsieur Chasles had apparently taken to autograph-hunting, one of the most dangerous pursuits a mere dilettante can dream of. His career at the beginning was perhaps that of any other neophyte, and except for the astonishing sequence, might belong to the trite record of daily happenings on the unsafe side of curio-hunting.

The celebrated mathematician had hardly gathered his first autographs when to his misfortune he met with a certain Vrain-Lucas, an imposter whose talent fitted to perfection the over-trusting mathematician.

But for the documentary evidence of the trial (quoted by Paul Eudel in his book, Le Truquage), it would be utterly incredible that anyone, particularly a learned man, could be gulled to such an extent. Yet on the 16th of February, 1869, Monsieur Chasles appeared before the Paris Court of Justice as a plaintiff, and the public discussion of the case—which ended in the condemnation of the defendant, Vrain-Lucas, to two years’ imprisonment and a fine of 500 francs with costs—clearly divulged how the eminent professor had been the victim of le sieur Vrain-Lucas, a semi-learned man200 of unquestionable talent and a stupendous and fertile power of invention. For the total sum of 140,000 francs he had sold to his client would-be authentic autographs and pretended indisputable original manuscripts—really the most extraordinary pieces a collector ever dreamt of!

Among other things there was included: a private letter of Alexander the Great addressed to Aristotle; a letter of Cleopatra to Julius Cæsar, informing the Roman Dictator that their son “Cesarion” was getting on very well; a missive of Lazarus to St. Peter; also a lengthy epistle addressed to Lazarus by Mary Magdalen. It should be added that the letters were written in French and in what might be styled an eighteenth-century jargon, that Alexander addressed Aristotle as Mon Ami and Cleopatra scribbled to Cæsar: Notre fils Cesarion va bien. Lazarus, no less a scholar in the Gallic idiom, and to whom, maybe, a miraculous resurrection had prompted a new personality, writes to St. Peter in the spirit of a rhetorician and a prig, speaking of Cicero’s oratory a............
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