The Art Of Counterfeiting

Ana B. Remos

Investigations on the sale of counterfeit artworks are more common than we can imagine. There are ample reports about fakes being sold for millions of dollars by art galleries, and even by renowned auction houses.A large number of works exhibited in major museums and galleries in the world are mere imitations; and this, at times, is discovered many years after the initial acquisition, and sometimes never.The largest forum for the sale of counterfeit works is the Internet. The figures on the fakes trade comprise between 10 and 15% of the art market, a high and considerable percentage.However, this fact should not be considered so unusual: many “masters” started being just that: counterfeiters. For example, Michelangelo, an artist of unquestionable genius, copied works by other artists. This should not surprise us, if we consider that one of the first academic exercises is, in essence, learning through imitation, copying the works of the great masters.All that is acceptable and justified, but the problem starts when these imitations come to the art market as authentic. We should then, in addition, talk about criminal activity and million-dollar scams.

                           Museum of Counterfeit Art. Vienna.

In 2005 a museum, which presents itself as the only museum of counterfeit art, opened its doors in Vienna. In their own words: “the Museum of Counterfeit Art, almost opposite the Hundertwasserhaus, is unique in Europe. This ‘criminal’ Museum of art is full of fake paintings, not only from world famous counterfeiters such as Han van Meegeren, Eric Hebborn, Tom Keating, Elmyr de Hory, David Stein, Konrad Kujau, Edgar Mrugalla, Lothar Malskat and Tony Treto, but also of the so-called ‘identical fake’ art of Schiele, Klimt, Rembrandt, Matisse, Chagall and more…”

In the presentation of their collection they clarify several facts, basically conceptual, regarding the legality of the issue. We should bear in mind that “a copy is not a forgery”. However, this further clarification is quite misleading: “a copy of an already existing work, with the wrong reference, is the original”. It leaves the door open to many possibilities.

We are also warned about legal matters, but those warnings appear to be not so much for collectors, but to protect counterfeiters or traders of fake artworks, although this is not clearly specified. Here are some examples:

Legal warning: The reproduction of a piece by a new author is not illegal. “It only becomes illegal when the product is sold as original. The price set by the artist can be considered as a scale for the price that must be paid. Betrayal is not dependent on the price that is paid, but the intention to buy the painting. If it was purchased based on misinformation from the seller, it is considered illegal. The falsification of certificates of authentication is also illegal.”

Charming advice! Please keep this in mind if you are planning to become a professional counterfeiter because it comes from an authorized institution on the subject: what does a good counterfeiter need? In first place, we recommend Hebborn´s Manual of a Counterfeiter, where every step is explained in detail. And then, of course, a visit to the Museum of the Art of Counterfeiting in Vienna. With all the information available, the future looks bright for prospective counterfeiters.

It is a pity that the museum’s website doesn’t have a detailed listing of counterfeit titles/artists, or images of the works included in its catalog, which add to 75 pieces. On the other hand, there are images of the galleries of “the only” museum of forged art in Europe. The collection contains false paintings and sketches from universal geniuses of art such as Rafael, Van Gogh, Monet, Rembrandt, Schiele and Klimt.

The museum also has a space dedicated to providing information about the artists considered “masters of falsification”. There is, for example, the story of Dutch artist, Han van Meegeren, “considered by many the most brilliant art forger of the last century”.

After World War II, Van Meegeren was prosecuted for collaborating with the Nazis: he had sold a fake Vermeer to Hermann Göring, founder of the Gestapo and later commander of the Nazi Air Force. Today his works reach prices between 29,000 and 39,000 dollars at auction in London.

The Museum of Fake Art in Vienna also includes the history of another counterfeiter: Tony Tetro. “Tetro‘s works were regularly approved as legitimate works by museums, galleries and auction houses worldwide. In 1989, Tetro was convicted of art forgery in a trial in Los Angeles. He was released from prison in 1994, and is currently producing master copies for an exclusive list of elite clients from his studio in California”. Apparently, his masterpiece is the falsification of Bouquet Sur la Ville by Marc Chagall (1887-1985).

                          1. CHAGALL. Bouquet Sur La Ville, Original2. Fake Chagall by Tony Treto.

Is the Vienna Museum “the only museum of fake art”, as they claim? Certainly not. There are at least two other museums worth mentioning that openly exhibit counterfeit art: the Museum of Counterfeiting in Paris and the Museum of the Falsifications of Bangkok.

The Museum of Counterfeiting in Paris, interestingly, is located in a street named Faisanderie (“pheasant” in French, and also: scoundrel, rogue, one who enjoys deceit), in a protected historic building. Founded in 1951, the museum belongs to the Manufacturers Union for the International Protection of Industrial and Artistic Property.

Its catalog includes all kinds of products: more than 350 pieces. The oldest piece dates from the year 200 BC: plugs to seal the wine jugs that were traded between Italy and Gaul.

The museum has rooms devoted to crimes against copyright law, and in many cases explains the counterfeiting techniques used. Trivia: in one of the rooms you learn that every year more than 40 million fake Swiss watches are produced; approximately twice the number of authentic Swiss watches made annually.

In Bangkok, Thailand, the Museum of Falsifications exhibits more than 3,500 counterfeit objects. It opened to the public more than two decades ago, and their catalog contains items of little value, basically commercial objects: clothing, perfumes, instruments, utensils and tools. Its objective is to raise awareness about the importance of preserving the rights of intellectual property.

Remember that there is also art in counterfeiting. However, we don’t recommend it as an investment niche.

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