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HOME > Short Stories > The Gentle Art of Faking > CHAPTER XXV SUMMING UP
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With some show of reason Swift affirmed that all sublunary happiness consists in being well deceived.

We are perfectly aware that this book does not support Swift’s ethics of happiness, for while agreeing that the English satirist’s theory may hold good on a great many occasions, we claim an exception for collectors as a class. In the world of art, art lovers and collectors, to be well deceived means to be living in a fool’s paradise, a most costly dwelling which promises no eternal joy. On the contrary, the happiness derived from being well deceived in this case is generally not only of very short duration but inflicts smarting wounds to pride and pocket.

In the world at large there seems to exist a certain benevolence towards deluded ones, which makes it at times possible for the well deceived to be the only one of his entourage unaware that he has been duped. In the world of collectors such a thing is almost an impossibility for, to quote a well-known French art lover: “After pictures by Michelangelo and specimens of Medici ware, the rarest thing to find with collectors is kindliness.”

The same art lover assures us that in this peculiar world not only is kindliness (bienveillance) rare, but the opposite sentiment has been developed almost to the point of genius. Collectors, especially first-rate collectors who have finally emerged into fame through the complex resultant of a good eye, shrewdness and extreme skill in fencing with strong competitors, have a regular talent for flavouring bitter pills for deceived friends and comrades with troublesome innuendoes302 and smarting disclosures, for, as the above-quoted connoisseur declares, they have a way of praising with “praise that exasperates and with homicidal compliments,” and there is a type of collector who knows his repertory by heart, a man who is a “toreador raffiné—il massacre artistement.”

What the neophyte can do to avoid being “artistically” massacred, as the French connoisseur puts it semi-euphemistically, is difficult to say. Books and special treatises may explain the nature of the deceit, point out the dangers awaiting him and show how traps are laid and how they work, but to pretend to become a truly safe buyer on the security of knowledge gathered from books and manuals would be like attempting the ascent of some dangerous peak on the strength of wisdom drawn from works on Alpine climbing.

The rudiments of the art do not concern so much the knowledge of how to buy as of how not to buy, how to resist, namely, the first impulse, which in an inexperienced art lover proves to be one of the worst dangers. The slow, prudent method must be learnt of not listening to first impulses till the first impulses are supported by something better than the innate conceit of a beginner. We know, of course, that there may be occasions when even a beginner may have cause to regret not having listened to a first impulse, but such a thing is further from the general rule than the beginner claims, and in any case it pays in the long run to let a good chance slip rather than risk becoming the possessor of some expensive would-be chef-d’œuvre.

In addition, during the early stages in particular, a certain amount of scepticism must temper a too ready belief in what the dealer has to say or show, in support of his assertion. There will come a time when experience will help the collector to detect more easily than at first alluring, suggestive information, etc.

Naturally it is not all dealers who are on the watch to take advantage of the beginner. On the contrary, there are303 more honest dealers in the antique market than one would think, but the trouble is that the dishonest ones seem to be to the fore, to be ever there ready to confront the inexperienced novice, and their noisy deceits become far more known than good, honest dealing, causing perplexity in some collectors so that it may be they disbelieve the man who is telling the truth and give credence to the liar, who being a perfect master in the art of misrepresentation, seems to be honesty itself.

Here, too, the determination to be rather sceptical as to documents, letters, pedigrees and mercantile evidence may lead the beginner to miss some good opportunity, but the case is rare and such losses are as a rule amply covered in the summing up of the total cost of apprenticeship, through not having paid for experience the extravagant price usually demanded. In due time the art lover’s ability to discern between dealing and dealing will be sharpened, and he will be able to defend himself better.

This merely concerns dealing and experience in distinguishing the genuine from the fake. But even supposing perfection has been attained in this part, the fact does not necessarily imply qualification as a connoisseur, collector, expert or even simple lover of art. A collection may be composed of genuine articles and yet be a poor one, utterly devoid of artistic merit or even commercial value of importance. To have paid a high price is no guarantee of merit. There are, as a matter of fact, perfectly genuine paintings for which extravagant fancy prices have been paid, but which in the eyes of a true connoisseur are not worth the nail they hang on.

It is almost impossible to conceive that experience in distinguishing the genuine from the false should be acquired without the attainment of some artistic progress prompting discrimination between poor art and mediocre, and mediocre art and fine art, yet this artistic side is the most difficult to develop to that perfection and semi-intuition of the beautiful, so necessary to the real and first-rate connoisseur.

304 By what method this artistic side may be perfected in the collector is still more difficult to tell, for in this direction experience only counts to a certain extent. In fact as regards this artistic education of the connoisseur we are inclined to repeat with Taine, in his Philosophie de l’Art: “Precepts? Well, two might be given: first to be born with genius—that is your parents’ affair, not mine; second to work a good deal to bring it out, and that is not my business either.”

Here too, then, actual methods are out of the question. They are, perforce, of such a general character as to be no more use than telling a blind man to keep in the middle of the road because there are ditches on either side. It is, further, not uncommon for contrary systems to lead to equally happy results according to the person employing them. One antiquary when undecided as to the genuineness of a painting used to have a photograph of it taken, for, he said, he could easily detect the traits of forgery on seeing the work in black and white with all colours eliminated, or, to put it in his own words: The faked side sweats out. Another connoisseur held exactly the contrary theory, declaring that he could tell nothing from photos but needed the colours to help to detect the genuineness or fraud of the painting. Perhaps the former had an artistic temperament based chiefly upon the charm of form while the latter was what in art is termed a colourist.

In addition, at times another misleading cause may be added which comes under the form of intervening suggestion and may put even a highly gifted artistic temperament off the scent.

Perhaps an example will best illustrate this peculiar interference, which is not only of a circumstantial order, as we have seen in another part of this book, but may be the result of an unconscious parti pris.

Some years ago when Mr. Stanford White imported works of art and antiques for his millionaire patrons, a Mr. X., who owned a fine mansion on Fifth Avenue, very much admired an early fifteenth century single andiron that was among305 the imported goods. He wished, however, to have a pair. The suggestion that a modern copy should be made from the only remaining original at first disgusted him, for everyone knows how easily American collectors buy imitations for originals and how disgusted they are if the dealer honestly says that a certain work is an imitation. On being assured that the imitation should be perfect, the new piece was finally ordered and the antiquary arranged for an artistically exact copy of the ancient andiron to be made in Italy. However, possibly because not wishing to be suspected of concocting “modern antiques,” or for some other reason, the Italian firm sent a perfect copy of the original in a brand new condition, suggesting that a certain Italian artist living in New York should give it the proper patina as he was fully initiated in the cryptic art of making new objects look as old as might be desired. The art critic chosen to come and judge of the final result of the work was, as the artist knew, rather distrustful of Italians and their tricks, as he put it.

The Italian artist did the work as well as it could be done, and knowing that it was going to be judged side by side with the original, the hardest test that can be inflicted upon an imitation, he managed to cheat the art critic by being excessively frank and honest, taking advantage of his prejudice against Italians and a probable momentary mental attitude. The two pieces were shown in the artist’s atelier, the imitation being placed by the artist in the full light and the original in the most benevolent corner, far from the window in a half-shade. The first thought that passed through the art critic’s brain as he entered the studio was that the “tricky Italian” had put the imitation where the light was less strong and the shade more benevolently helpful.

“Very good,” he remarked, “but of course even when not in the full light an imitation is always an imitation.”

“But that is the original,” replied the artist, for to make his positive assertion the more definite the critic had been pointing to the wrong piece.

A stony silence followed.

306 The story ends here and we do not know whether the critic ever forgave the artist his honest trick. Knowing th............
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