Art forgeries: does it matter if you can’t spot an original?
Some argue that it is irrelevant who painted a picture, it’s the quality that counts. But, as a fascinating new exhibition sets out to explore fakery in art, Martin Gayford begs to differ.
By Martin Gayford
Published: 1:59PM BST 17 Jun 2010
A certain collector amassed a large array of paintings by Walter Sickert, or so the story goes. One day he decided to present what he owned to the artist himself. Sickert examined each before announcing that he was afraid not one of them was his own work. Then he added genially: “But none the worse for that!”
Does it matter whether works of art are really by the people or cultures that are supposed to have created them? It’s a good question, without a very clear answer. Later this month an exhibition at the National Gallery, Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries, will examine the whole question of mistaken identities in art – not just outright fakes but works that in various ways are not quite what they seem.
In the first category is a group portrait, bought by the National Gallery in 1923 as 15th-century Italian and displayed for a quarter of a century before the museum shamefacedly admitted it was a forgery. An example of the second, not a fake but not precisely genuine either, is a painting in the style of the 15th-century Italian master Perugino that turns out to be a copy executed by the 17th-century master Sassoferrato.
Some hold that such details do not matter at all. The important question, they argue, is how good a picture is – not who happened to wield the brush. I disagree. The identity of the person who made what we look at is a matter that deeply affects how we feel about it. Unfortunately, we can’t always be sure about that.