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CHAPTER XVIII THE FAKED ATMOSPHERE AND PUBLIC SALES
 The art of producing a faked atmosphere—Private sales of faked objects of art—Real and spurious noblemen as elements in creating the desired atmosphere for an antique—The various and endless possibilities in private dealing—Public sales—Auction sales—Various characters among frequenters of public sales—La Bande Noire—The trick of the sale catalogue as a proof of authenticity, etc.—The part played in public sales by Peter Funk and the transformations of this helpful personage.

In most cases the art forger is provided with an indispensable accessory in the person of a co-worker who helps to dispose of the artist’s questionable product advantageously. This may be done by one agent or by many, according to circumstances, but the spirit of the mission is always the same, to steep faking, namely, in another kind of fakery, no less illusive and delusive, the deception that serves to misguide judgment through false information about some particular object of art, or to create a misleading suggestion around the work of art offered for sale. The trick might be termed “producing a faked atmosphere,” in plain words the creation of a false atmosphere of genuineness is an additional fakery to the success of a faked object of art or curio, and it is a most multiform species of imposture and a very dangerous adjunct to the already deceptive trade. So multifarious is the deception practised that an attempt to classify it in its diversity would probably fail to illustrate in full the metamorphoses of this supplement to the art of faking.

As this support to faking is chiefly concerned with the sale of objects of art, our investigation can be broadly divided208 according to the kind of sale, private or public, the latter generally taking the form of an auction.

In private sales the limit is not so much set by the seller’s conscience as his inventive powers, and his more or less fertile imagination. His method relies mainly on the power of suggestion brought about by false information or, as we have said, by the silent misleading glamour of a pseudo-environment. The former works principally with the decoy of invented documents calculated to lend certain objects an appearance of historical worth, or wrongly to magnify their artistic importance. It is not always the documents that are fitted to the faked art, sometimes the case is reversed and the artist creates work to fit a genuine document. The same is done with signatures, more especially in painting and sculpture.

There are all kinds of specialists in the world of faking who can imitate artists’ signatures, marks and so forth, but, alas, it is not said that to a genuine signature our versatile and imaginative artist cannot supply a genial piece of fraud the only genuine part of which is represented by the signature. This is often performed by painting over works that have been defaced, either partially or completely, and yet by some chance still bear the artist’s signature in one corner—generally the least abused spot of a painting whether on canvas or panel. The same trick is carried out with equal facility in sculpture. To illustrate what at first sight would seem more complex than fitting a painting to a signature, it is sufficient to recall the false Clodion group, sold in perfectly good faith by M. Maillet du Boullay to Mme. Boiss, also a dealer, whose experience, like that of many others, had a noisy sequel in Court.

M. Maillet du Boullay had bought the clay group some years previously. The subject, a satyr with a nymph, was of the kind that the French call un peu leste. For five years Mme. Boiss found no buyer. It was after this long period of actual possession that she discovered the clay statuette to be not by Clodion but in all probability the work of a noted209 faker of Clodions, Lebroc, and that a small bit bearing the signature and date, both by the hand of Clodion, had been cleverly inserted at the side of the group. The line of the join had been concealed by colour and patina.

The purchase money, however, was not refunded as the Court accepted the theory advanced by M. Senard, acting for M. Boullay, that Mme. Boiss had after all enjoyed the possession of the group for five years and had perhaps put forward her claim because she had not been able to sell it on account of its objectionable character.

In the cases when the documents are the original ones and the work of art is not, the artist naturally creates his work in accordance with the indications given in the documents. The occurrence is not common, but it has nevertheless taken place. We have heard of a man ordering a portrait to be painted to fit a detailed description of one of his ancestors given in an old letter. The Florentine “Prioristi” and old diaries can well be used for the purposes of such suggestion. An old family chronicle recorded a marriage with some detail, sufficient at any rate to inspire an art counterfeiter to model a small bas-relief representing the scene. When the work was suitably coated with old patina, put into a sixteenth-century frame and an old worm-eaten board fastened to the back, the authentic document was carefully pasted on as proof of genuineness.

Possible combinations of this sort of scheme are endless and can be applied to almost every expression of curio-dealing.

What we have styled “faking the milieu,” in order to enhance the value of a genuine article or to give additional effect to a falsified one, trades upon the fact that a collector prefers to buy from a private house rather than a shop. This often appeals to him as convincing proof that the article is genuine, and it also appears to confer a higher value by comparison with the surroundings in a shop.

To humour this peculiar trait in the collector, environments have been faked as well as objects of art, and in the evil grand art we are illustrating they furnish to-day more210 often than not the proper dignity which aids highly profitable sales effected through private transaction.

When a work leaves the faker’s hands there are many ways in which to give birth to the false and illusive dignity designed to lend importance and an air of genuineness. One of the simplest methods is to provide the work with a respectable passport in the person of a patrician, real or faked, according to opportunities. This decoy is prepared, of course, to swear that the object has been in his family for centuries. When the mansion is really old and the family of ancient lineage, success is practically assured. How a man of noble birth can lend his name to such deception can only be explained by a form of degeneracy which, unfortunately, is not extremely rare in our times. It is known to be practised with both genuine works and with forgeries. In the former case it helps the command of an extravagant price, that would never be reached in a shop or through the hands of a dealer; in the latter, working through suggestion, it serves to dispel any lingering doubt from the buyer’s mind. When it appears difficult to bring off the deal, in the case of forgery, the object is taken to the country by preference and placed in some old villa or mansion with the connivance of a genuine nobleman, who will receive a secret visit from the purchaser—all acts in the antiquarian world, it must be remembered, savour of mystery and secrecy—and play the dignified part of a member of a time-honoured family who collected works of art in years past. A sham nobleman may also give himself out as Count So-and-so and safely act the part for a day or even a few hours. It must be borne in mind that this course of working by suggestion is very dangerous to the purchaser; by its silent and convincing method art antiquaries of skill and veteran connoisseurs have been deceived.

Another application of this deceptive scheme, that relies on a favourable environment to help fraud, is the sending of counterfeit objects to remote country places supposed to be unexplored. This also is based upon a psychological peculiarity of some collectors, who still hope and believe that there211 are yet unsearched regions in the world of antiques, oases that have escaped the ever-vigilant eye of the trader. As a matter of fact if anything like neglected corners exist where one may hope for a “find,” they are in large cities, such as Paris or London, particularly the latter, where even Italian antiquaries go at times to hunt for what it would be hopeless to seek in their own country.

Be it understood, the above two ways of disposing in private of pretended genuine antiquities are likely to be combined. The nobleman who charitably houses the masterpiece that the amateur is after, completes the stage-like effect of the hatched environment, with sham documents, etc.

Among public sales it is, as we have said, the auction sale that offers the greatest possibilities to those who falsify an “atmosphere” to put the client on the wrong track so profitable to the faker. As may readily be seen, a false environment and any tampering with the elements that go to the formation of a right opinion as regards an objet d’art, invariably lead not only to the acquisition of the wrong thing but to the payment of an exorbitant price for its worthlessness.

Much that is amusing and that would bring home this point could be written on public sales. Enough to fill a bulky volume could be culled from what has taken place at the atrium auctionarium to the modern Hotel Drouot or the historical sale-room still extant and busy in London.

Cicero tells us that one of the first auctions to be held in Rome was the sale of property that Sulla had seized from proscribed Romans. He also tells us with his usual rhetorical emphasis that all Pompey’s property was put up to auction and disposed of to the highest bidder by “the præco’s lacerating voice.” This great sale included a large portion of Mithradates’ treasure, the catalogue of which cost thirty days’ work to the Roman officials who took the objects in charge. “At this sale,” adds Cicero with redoubled emphasis, “Rome forgot her state of slavery and freely broke into tears.” It may be, but Mark Antony, to be sure, took212 advantage of this supposed public emotion and had all the valuable lots knocked down to himself at ridiculously low figures. Some of them, it is said, were never paid for at all by this audacious triumvir.

Another famous auction sale in Rome was that of Juba, king of Numidia, who left his treasure to Rome in the time of Tiberius. Caligula was his own auctioneer, and in this way disposed of furniture in his imperial palace that he considered out of fashion. His example was followed by Marcus Aurelius who sold in the public square dedicated to Trajan the jewels and other precious objects forming part of Hadrian’s private effects. In order to pay his troops, Pertinax put up to public auction all Commodus’ property, a most confused medley of imperial effects, an omnium gatherum ranging from the deceased emperor’s gorgeous robes to the gladitorial array he used in the circus, and from his court jester to his slaves. Perhaps the most remarkable part of the sale was Commodus’ original and interesting collection of coaches, an odd assemblage that should have been capable of stirring even Julius Cæsar’s blasé mind, who, it is said used to attend sales in quest of emotion. They afforded him a certain stimulation, for Suetonius speaks of him as rather a rash and unwise bidder. Caligula’s coaches were of all kinds and shapes, there were some for summer with complex contrivances to shelter from the sun and cool the air by means of ventilators, and some for winter devised in such a way as to give protection from cold winds. Others were fitted with a device that would now be called a speedometer, a contrivance for measuring the distance covered by the vehicle.

The mania for sales went so far with the Romans that at the death of Pertinax, the empire itself was put up to auction and knocked down to the highest bidder, Didius Julianus.

Although not so complex as the modern houses of public sale, the Roman atrium auctionarium was not simplicity itself. The original auction sales of the Romans consisted of the disposal of war spoils to the highest bidder, in the open air on the battlefield or in a square of some conquered city.213 In order to indicate the spot where the sale was to take place a lance was driven into the ground. The name of sub hasta was therefore given to these rudimentary auction sales, which is the etymology of the Italian word asta, still used for auctions. The tabulæ auctionariæ, giving daily notice of the number and description of objects offered for sale, were in some way the forerunners of the modern catalogue, just as the præco must be considered as the ancestor of the auctioneer or, maybe, the crieur. There were also amanuenses who wrote down prices and purchaser’s name as each lot was sold.

Martial tells of a curious incident at an auction in which a girl slave was offered for sale. When the bidding failed to elicit a higher offer, Gellianus, the celebrated auctioneer, ended his eulogy of the beauty of the human merchandize by giving the young slave a couple of kisses. “What happened?” says Martial in conclusion. “A buyer who had just made a bid of 600 sesterces on the girl, immediately withdrew his offer.” Times are changed. It is no longer a question of selling slaves in our modern atrium auctionarium, but the auction room itself has nevertheless remained about the same, a great place of interest, an assemblage of types such as old Tongilius, Licinius and Paullus who, revived and modernized, gather in our sale-rooms, elbowing the crowds of bidders, among whom are shrewd, clever buyers, true, impassioned collectors, cool and self-possessed customers.

The auction room is no less freakish than in olden times. There may be, in fact, reason in the refusal to bid for young slaves that the buyer considers defiled by the kisses of the auctioneer, even if he were a Gellianus, the man à la mode; but we can find none, for instance, in what happened some years ago at the celebrated Castellani sale in Rome. On account of Castellani’s high reputation among collectors and the fine things offered, this sale gathered to Rome a cosmopolitan crowd of connoisseurs. While a fine Cafaggiolo vase was under the hammer, the employé who was exhibiting it to the public dropped it and it broke to pieces. At the moment214 of the accident the object had just been sold to the last bidder, who naturally enough, immediately declared his offer cancelled, as he had made a bid on a sound vase and not a heap of debris. The auctioneer then proposed to put the fragments of the vase up to auction and a fresh start was made. Strange to say the second bidding reached a higher figure than the vase had fetched when offered to the public intact and in all its faultless beauty. But for the consideration that the second sale may have tempted some who regretted that they had let slip the chance to bid on the fine Cafaggiolo, one would be inclined to deduce that in the world of curios an object acquires more worth the more it is damaged.

It is true that while a broken china vase is practically worthless, a piece of faience does not lose value by being broken and put together again, if it does not actually rise in value, as in the case of the Castellani Cafaggiolo.

Though to an outsider, the auction room may doubtlessly appear very simple in mechanism, it is rather a complex affair; its atmosphere has engendered any amount of side speculation. This is the more marked in such sale-rooms as have, by reason of the importance of the sales held in them, in a way fertilized, as it were, every kind of speculation. Rochefort, whose passion for bric-à-brac took him to the Hotel Drouot almost daily, has a good deal to say on this subject. In his amusing book on auction sales in the celebrated Parisian sale-room—a book, by the way, which is now almost out of print—the witty Frenchman deals at length with the odd characters and silent speculations that have, all unnoticed and unmolested, grafted themselves upon the popular institution of the Rue Drouot and other auction sale rooms.

As for the types of frequenters, they are of all kinds and the most nondescript character. First comes the collector in all his most interesting and amusing personifications. Rochefort divides the amateurs hanging about auction rooms into three distinct classes, which he subdivides into genres and sous-genres, to use the writer’s own terms.

215 According to Rochefort’s classification, the first class consists, broadly speaking, of persons who pay more for an object than it is worth; the second is composed of collectors who generally buy a thing for what it is worth; the third and last comprises those who pay less for a thing than it is worth. Rochefort aptly observes that the three divisions resemble the classes of a school, the students passing from the lowest to each of the more advanced classes.

The collectors of the first group, all freshmen without exception, are separated by Rochefort into sincere art lovers and mere poseurs. Speaking of the sincerity of collectors and premising that sincerity does not always imply an intelligent knowledge of art, Rochefort wittily remarks: “There are people who with the greatest self-confidence buy a daub for a Titian.”

“Suffice it to say,” adds the writer, “that at the sale of M. Patureau’s collection, a Virgin of the Flemish school, possibly a Eckhout or Govært Flinck, was sold for a Murillo at the price of 45,500 francs.” In this foolish acquisition insincerity is out of the question, poseurs, snobs and the like rarely carry their foppishly garbed insincerity to the length of paying such high prices for mere parade.

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