‘The objects in these rooms, if genuine, would have a collective value of over £4 million. Many have been displayed in prestigious museums. Today they are kept in police storage.’ So began this exhibition of fakes and forgeries ‘conceived and organized’ by the Art & Antiques Unit of London’s Metropolitan Police Service.
The exhibits were divided into case studies of recent successes by a ‘team of Special Constable volunteers recruited from the art world’ who, on the public’s behalf, patrol London’s art community to tackle the insidious problem of art crime. Mostly a question of intent, a fake – as defined here – is an altered, extant object ‘tampered with for the purposes of fraud’; a forgery is an imitation of an existing object or the creation of an item pertaining ‘to be something other than it actually is’. Both are distinct from a copy or misattribution: the former is produced with no intention to defraud; the latter is a genuine mistake made when bestowing provenance. At the V&A these explanatory texts were well illustrated with accompanying examples of confiscated artifacts. One example was a forged work on paper by David Hockney to which the (real) artist has added a signed clarification: ‘This is not my work. New York, 1981’.
Reversing the typical photography bans, used by museums to enforce copyright and to limit the damaging effects of flash, a nonchalant wall text stated: ‘Photography and filming of the display is entirely at your own risk. The art and antiquities on display are all fakes and forgeries.’ With this theatrical addition, viewers were left in no doubt that these works should be considered worthless having little artistic, cultural or financial merit.
The skills of the most successful fraudsters often reach beyond an accomplished manufacturing process to the meticulous conjuring of a convincing provenance. To this end, some forgers show an admirably acute awareness of the sophisticated role played by an intriguing back-story in accruing cultural capital. Shaun Greenhalgh, whose garden shed-based workshop was reconstructed as part of the exhibition, replete with the tools of his trade, was found to have made several reliquaries including one purporting to contain ‘a piece of wood from the cross on which Jesus was crucified’. Another, displayed here, was claimed to have a provenance dating from the 17th-century Battle Abbey Estate and to contain ‘a piece of the shirt worn by Charles I at his execution’.
The endorsement by a major London institution of an exhibition organized by the city’s police service often made for uncomfortable viewing; rather than being a survey of the means, methods and motivations of the fraudster, ‘Fakes and Forgeries’ seemed to have deterrence at its heart. One questionable message was that such tampering with our cultural heritage is morally abhorrent: ‘When a fake provenance is created its damage is twofold. Firstly, it helps a fake art work weave its way into history. Secondly, archives and written history are distorted.’ Although there is much to sympathize with when considering the damage caused by a ‘reassembling’ of the archives, this bald statement should be challenged: fakes and forgeries constitute an important part of the debate on how we might attribute ‘value’ to works of fine art and can not merely be dismissed as crassly rewriting some notion of a ‘genuine’ historical record. The ways in which the financial and cultural worth of a once-admired painting might disappear overnight if its provenance is questioned or, obversely, a particularly skilled forger might begin to acquire high prices for his works even though they are acknowledged as fakes – as in the infamous case of British forger John Myatt, one of whose Giacomettis was on display – surely communicates something to us of the layered complexity and ever-shifting nature of art’s value.