by Roderick Conway Morris

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Showing their slips

By Roderick Conway Morris
LONDON 24 March 1990
British Museum
Clytie, 1st century AD, recut in the 18th century



On entering the gallery one is confronted with a bizarre 'Etruscan' terracotta sarcophagus. Even allowing that the Etruscans might simply have had extraordinary taste, it is difficult to conceive how, despite its mass of anomalous and anachronistic features, this riotous grotesque could have remained a prize exhibit at the British Museum from 1871 until 1935, when it was finally declared 'phonus bolonus' and carted off to the lumber room.

But then this unusual exhibition, 'Fake? The Art of Deception', at the same museum, which runs the full gamut from bogus Greek coins and samurai swords to photographs of fairies at the bottom of the garden and imitation bottles of Johnnie Walker Black Label, tells us as much about wishful thinking as it does about mendacity. And as both the exhibition and Mark Jones's lively and thought-provoking catalogue amply illustrate, when it comes to fakes, experts and laymen have been falling flat on their faces since the dawn of time.

Faking has a long if not exactly venerable history. In the second millennium BC, Babylonian priests were manufacturing ancient decrees to bump up their temples revenues from the king. In eighth-century BC Egypt, the city of Memphis was asserting its precedence over Heliopolis with the aid of brand-new 'antique' inscriptions, drafted in a suitably olde-worlde literary style. And if one intruded on the pious hush of a mediaeval scriptorium, one would, it seems, quite likely find the brothers forging a royal writ with a view to acquiring some juicy vineyard here or a fat meadow there.

These faker-scholars achieved true greatness in the person of Annius, the 15th-century Italian Dominican who counterfeited and buried a series of inscriptions calculated to glorify his hometown of Viterbo, and when they were discovered and unearthed, wrote learned commentaries on them. Annius thus became not only the father of modern epigraphy but also, by laying down sound 'rules of historical evidence' (drawn from a spurious antique text of his own concoction, but none the worse for that), introduced more rigorous procedures for the study of history. And so down the centuries the will to create fakes and the passion for unmasking them have acted as a spur to scholarly endeavour.

Fakes provide a fascinating barometer of taste: both the Victorian public and art world, with their weakness for the sentimental, often unwittingly showed a marked preference for fake Renaissance artefacts over authentic examples. The predilections of the Age of Enlightenment are vividly illuminated by the transformation of 'Clytie': originally a Roman bust of a demurely clad, rather matronly young girl. This marble was subtly eroticised and partly undressed when re-cut by an 18th-century sculptor's hand.

For the most part fakers respond to the laws of supply and demand. The fragments of the True Cross would have filled a sizeable timber yard, and most popular mediaeval saints were apparently as multi-limbed as centipedes and many-headed as the Hydra. Yet our era is scarcely in a position to mock. The Dutch forger Van Meegeren's 'Vermeers', now to our eyes as palpable frauds as ever were framed, were eagerly embraced by the pre-war critical establishment - even declared better than the genuine article. The hoax only came to light after Van Meegeren, having sold a picture to Goering during the Occupation, cleared himself of collaborating by confessing to the lesser crime of forgery.

Attitudes to fakes have varied from age to age. The 16th-century artist Vasari frankly admired the ability successfully to fake antiquities, whereas when in 1980 two enterprising inmates of Fetherstone Prison used their ceramics class to produce 'Bernard Leach' pottery and sold it (in spite of its poor quality) to major London auction houses, they soon found themselves in the dock again.

Yet the case of the Florentine faker Giovanni Bastianini shows that even into modern times exceptional ability has transcended moral disapprobation. Having started his career as a copyist of Renaissance sculpture, in the 1860s Bastianini became more ambitious. It was only when a bust for which he received 700 francs was sold to the Louvre for 13,600, and the middleman not only refused to share the spoils but outraged Bastianini's amour-propre by denying that he was capable of carving such a masterpiece, that the Florentine decided to blow the whistle on his own work.

Reactions to the revelation were touchingly magnanimous: the painter Giovanni Costa, who had paid the equivalent of 10,000 francs for a bust of Savonarola, declared his pleasure that there was a living artist of such talent, and in 1869 the V&A publicly confirmed that a first-class fake can be a joy forever, by paying £84 for Bastianini's 'Lucrezia Donati', a sum comparable to what they would have had to pay for an authentic Renaissance sculpture.

The exhibition justifiably holds up the 19th and early 20th centuries as 'the Great Age of Fakes'. It is ironic that generally speaking we no longer have the skills to counterfeit fine art convincingly - though some modern art would no doubt be laughably easy to reproduce. One can only admire the BM and other collections for displaying this impressive compendium of past gaffes and errors.

Added spice is provided by exhibits - such as the 'Vinland Map' and the baffling archeological finds from Gozel in the Auvergne - deliberately chosen because their authenticity has so far been impossible to prove or disprove. This final section, 'The Limits of Expertise', demonstrates that even the most up-to-date scientific methods of detecting deception still leave many mysteries unsolved.

First published: The Spectator

© Roderick Conway Morris 1975-2023