F for Fading

Thieves, Forgers & Mad Mothers:
The Age of Disappearing Masterpieces

‘Do you think I should confess? To what? Committing masterpieces?’ says Elmyr de Hory on ‘F for Fake,’ Orson Welles’ meditation on the relevance of art in a world that seems no longer moved by it. A world where de Hory thrived as its biggest forger.
We thought about that this week, when experts said that the mother of a thief of a collection of masterpieces has likely burned the irreplaceable works to protect her son. And that Amazon ‘reviewers’ seem to care as much about art as they do about a banana slicer.
Suddenly, Picasso’s quote, about art being a lie that enables us to realize the truth, sheds as much insight about the artistic craft, as it does about our disturbingly self-deluded drive to constantly interfere and ‘improve’ reality, so the outcome serves us a little bit better.
Picasso’s Tete d´Arlequin, Monet’s Waterloo Bridge and Charing Cross Bridge, and Gauguin’s Femme Devant Une Fenetre Ouverte Dite la Fiancee are among the paintings now believed to be lost forever. They join a copious list of works of art that got stolen, destroyed, or simply misplaced by a long string of idiots.
Of course, there are reproductions of most of the known ones, but heaven knows how many others we never got to admire and count as some of our species’ greatest achievements. Chances are that, even if mankind were to start all over again, from the very beginning, it’s unlike that the ones lost would be recreated.
Perhaps it’s all the ugly by-product of pricing the inestimable, and an overinflated art market that allows them to either become toys of the super rich, or vulnerable to the security vagaries of decrepit museums. And then there is another world, the one de Hory ruled in his time.
A world that makes the FBI a curator. Caveat Emptor (Let the Buyers Beware), a current New York show of anonymous forgeries confiscated by the bureau, is a novelty and a triumph of sorts. The ‘Chagalls,’ ‘Rembrandts’ and even ‘Warhols’ were good enough to get closed to being auctioned at Christie’s and Sotheby’s. De Hory would be proud.

It’s quite possible that the thieves who broke into the small Rotterdam’s Kunsthal Museum in the Netherlands on Oct. 19, had neither been the masterminds of the heist, nor made aware of the true value of the paintings they were about to steal. It’s also possible that they considered themselves lucky.
When they left, some two minutes later, with the Picasso, the Gauguin, and the Monet, plus works by Lucian Freud and Meyer de Haan, and managed to elude a global manhunt effort for a few months, they probably high-fived each other, thought they did a helluva job, and money, lots of it, was on its way to their bank accounts.
Except that it wasn’t. Somehow, Radu Doragu was elected to hide the works, and lacking any better ideas, he took them home to his mom. Now, mothers can’t help it, of course. Realizing this was yet another one of his adorable Radu’s brightest ideas, she started panicking that he was going to be arrested. Again. And she couldn’t bear that. Again.
If there was no evidence, she figured, he’ll be home free in no time. So she burned the paintings in a stove, and when he did get arrested, she candidly confessed it to the police. She later recanted but the evidence seems to confirm her initial version. Surely they wouldn’t jail such an old, loving woman, would they? Or keep her dearest Radu in custody either. Right?
Now, the masterminds behind the whole unfortunate imbroglio are surely home free, of course. Since their buyers didn’t show up with the cash, they simply walked away. Possibly. The thieves be damned. There are certainly other masterpieces to be stolen, and eager, ignorant dopes willing to do the dirty work for them.

The estimated $134 million now lost collection met the fate that works by Caravaggio, Van Gogh, Vermeer, van Eyck, Picasso and so many others are believed to have also met: first stolen, then missing for decades, now presumably destroyed. Or survived as billionaires’ toys, which is almost the same.
But to be fair, time and other factors also conspire to the preservation of great works of art, which after all, are material, perishable things. That they have less of a chance to survive and maybe speak to humans of the future, if we’ll be still around then, than, say, a McDonald’s styrofoam package is, well, we probably deserve it.
The Colossus of Rhodes, for instance, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, was destroyed in an earthquake, and there wasn’t even fracking then, for us to claim mea culpa. It survived in the accounts and words of other masterpieces, though. Unlike those felled by war and carnage, which we proudly consider our god-given right.
But perhaps what Welles was most concerned about then was the oblivious nature of modern man, to whom more than the serenity of a transfixing portrait of another reality, what’s at stake is the time spent admiring it. If it’s too long, we’re not that interested. And that was in the 1970s.
So the other day, when Amazon launched its new fine art marketplace, it became quickly established that its regular buyers were not having any of the awe and sense of wonder that’s supposedly due to a few centuries old work of art. And they would offer their personal, absolutely unqualified, opinion, no matter what.
Claude Monet may have been one of the greatest masters of Impressionism, but to a potential buyer, his work was, well, a bit faded, according to NYTimes’ Patricia Cohen. ‘I think I’m going to touch this up a bit with some water colors I have laying around,’ the reviewer said. ‘Make the colors pop more.’
In some ways, it’s even better than Claude or Pablo or Henri or even Orson are no longer with us to see this happening. It’d kill them all over again. Of course, this being Amazon, there was no question what was really a thing of beauty: the $2.74 Hutzler 571 banana slicer.

Names such as Hans van Meegeren, Alceo Dossena, Eric Hebborn, and Ken Perenyi, whose book Caveat Emptor names the FBI show, as well as de Hory, will never be household powerhouses. And yet they’re but a few of the forgers who made a comfortable living selling phony masterpieces during the 20th century and before.
Most were eventually caught, but not before earning critical praise for their craftsmanship. Going not too far back in history, though, it’s arguable that they would’ve gotten into trouble with the law. In fact, New York Review of Books’ Charles Hope argues that the very concept of attribution and authorship of art works ‘was rare even in the fourteenth century.’
Before that, only one (surprising) name had made the cut as a forger: Michelangelo, no doubt, for being a master himself. In his well-researched review of three recent books about art forgery, Hope marks the 19th century as the turning point for the issue to be considered a ‘significant phenomenon.’
By then, the art market as we know it was already populated with experts with not just a tad of personal financial interest judging the provenance of works of art. ‘Connoisseurship is not a disinterested pursuit of truth,’ as Hope puts it. Or as art prices skyrocketed, so did forgers and unscrupulous appraisers.

Except that, unlike many players in this market, including high roller investors and deep-pocket dilettantes, forgers do work for a living. And just like skillful musicians in a tribute band and talented celebrity impersonators, they fulfill a legitimate longing for the quite-not-so-original but yet evocative.
‘Everything must finally fall in war, or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash – the triumphs, the frauds, the treasures and the fakes,’ says Welles in his quasi-despairing soliloquy. ‘Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much,’ which could also serve as his acceptance of how things had turned out for him.
F for Fake was based on de Hory‘s biography, written in 1969 by, of all people, Clifford Irving, who knew a thing or two about deception himself. But while Irving’s public expiation and day of reckoning was still to come, the forger who sold thousands of fakes throughout his life chose suicide over humiliation, and overdosed in 1976.
In the era of narcissism as a badge of hollow originality, and the social network as a valid platform for backyards rhetoric, forgers are far from being the villains of the art market. Marchands, curators, museums, many a descendant of a painter, they all contribute to what became a playground for the very few.
Even some artists, unwittingly or not, have contributed to the parallel world of art forgers. Andy Warhol comes to mind, despite the fact that he shrewdly protected his brand, all the while pretending he didn’t care much about it, by making multiple mechanical copies of his works.
In this context, even a deranged mother, with a catastrophically misplaced sense of loyalty to kin, is just the latest entry in the billionaire sideshow. But her ‘baby’ can’t help being part of the nauseating parade of bottom feeders who literally come out of the woodwork to nibble in and often leave a trail of blood and destruction on their wake.
As for the killed masterpieces, they probably won’t be the last ones to serve as carrots for some donkey’s wild dreams of a quick buck and a place ahead of the pack, no offense to the animal here. Apparently, though, even those works that are still around are not entirely safe; just ask the discriminating Amazon reviewers.

3 thoughts on “F for Fading

  1. We live and learn. This is a fascinating post. Many thanks.


  2. Jorge says:

    Gostei do tema e da originalidade do artigo. Valeu!


  3. WordsFallFromMyEyes says:

    Oh Wesley, what a solid article!

    I never heard of this mum that burnt the works. UN BELIEVABLE!!! Unbelievable…

    The rest of the art is fascinating. Love the way you write, and reveal this world. Great stuff.


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