Forgery and Fiction

VELÁSQUEZ’ ROKEBY VENUS SUFFERED VANDALISM IN 1914, when suffragette Mary Richardson took a meat cleaver to it in London’s National Gallery. (In a 1952 interview she conceded that she “didn’t like the way men visitors gaped at it all day long.”) Known also as The Toilet of Venus or La Venus del espejo, painted between 1647 and 1651, it is the only surviving Velásquez nude.

Velazquez, "The Rokeby Venus"
This pearl of great price is the motive force behind Michael Gruber’s tour de force of psychological suspense and up-market fraud, The Forgery of Venus.  I had not heard of it until a painter friend gave it to me some days back. Since then, I have had a hard time putting it down. You can Google reviews of it but my favorite one is here, by a snarky, prolific blog critic who calls herself Friend Mouse. She gives a good synopsis of the plot without giving anything away. But what is best about it is this:
In addition to being thrilling and paranoiac, The Forgery of Venus is smart, providing nearly an art history elective’s worth of insight into Velazquez and his contemporaries. While knowledge of art history is not at all necessary to enjoy the story, it would certainly add to the experience; I ended up marking a number of pages so that I could later go online and see the art the characters had been discussing. The reader is also treated to a seminar on how to forge an Old Master, reminiscent of What’s Bred in the Bone by the under-appreciated Robertson Davies. Gruber is not as witty as Davies but still entertains while educating – an accomplishment not easily attained.

Friend Mouse is not the only one who marked pages. I found myself doing the same thing. Gruber slips into his prose stealable quotes—e.g. from Duchamp, La Rochefoucauld—and, in the main, has an appropriately jaundiced  irreverent view of the art world. He majored in art as an undergrad and his wife is a painter. So he comes to his subject with a lively interest in and empathy for the workings of the milieu he writes about. Add to that a sense of sense of moral ambiguity and you find yourself rooting for Chaz Wilmot, forger.

Next time you see a painting identified as “the school of So-and-So,” keep in mind that this is the demure museum phrasing useful for labeling a forgery. When the work was once thought to be by So-and-So himself, it worth great sums of money. Once forgery is discovered, it can only be sold for much less than the purchase price. But there is an alternative to admitting forgery. It is more cheerful, more pleasing all around, for an institution to leave the piece on its walls attributed to “the school of.” That has the right scholarly ring. It leaves the trusting museum-user with the thought that the anonymous creator of this work was a student of So-and-So, not just a scamster plying his trade a few centuries later.

It is impressive work, forgery. Flake white, for instance, cannot be bought from New York Central Supply or the Dick Blick catalogue. No, a true professional has to make his own from lead that dates from the period being counterfeited. This, to avoid detection by modern forensic techniques that analyze the ratio of various isotopes in the lead in order to date when the lead was smelted. The novel illustrates this is not as difficult as laymen think. European museums are full of old bullets and churches are roofed with old lead.

Then there is attention to the age and condition of stretchers, brushes and supports. The chemistry of grounds, sizing and of pigments is crucial. Great ingenuity applies to the forging of provenance and the theatrics of the “discovery” of a lost, never-before seen work by a priceless master.

When I first read of the mysterious death-by-blunt-object of the flamboyant, unindicted Eric Hebborn, I took for granted it was a revenge killing by someone who had been defrauded. Now, after reading The Forgery of Venus, I am not so sure. There is no statute of limitations on art forgery, it seems. More precisely, until all witnesses are deceased, the authenticity of the forgery is always at risk:
With one careless word an object worth many tens, hundreds, of millions becomes a mere pastiche and worth nothing, and then the buyers look to get their money back. They go to the dealer . . . he talks, and then the cord that holds it all together unravels.
There follows either prison or a worse fate. Hebborn knew which prizes paintings and drawings—especially drawings—in important collections were faked in his own studio. And if he had ever made good on his threat to dump the entirety of his forgeries on the Old Master market, he would have wreaked havoc with prices. He put a target on his own back with the very threat that kept dealers from prosecuting him in the first place.

One delicious aspect to The Forgery of Venus is its thorough-going respect for craft and for the creation of beauty. Beauty “does not save us, but it is better . . . for there to be beauty than not.” And forgers really know how to paint. Quite possibly, forgers—like literate monks in medieval monasteries—will be the ones who conserve knowledge of the great craft traditions (especially in drawing). That can’t be left to garden variety MFA grads.

© 2010 Maureen Mullarkey