BULL STREET - The art of the Con

The Getty

Highly talented artists have been copying and/or forging the great masters for hundreds of years and we are only now finding out that paintings that have been authenticated as being the real Mc Coy are now being decertified. Even one of the greatest artists that ever lived, Michelangelo forged an antique cupid in marble for one great industrialists of his day, Lorenzo de Medici who paid him handsomely for the stature.

Possibly the most sophisticated art museum in the world, The Louvre Museum in Paris was suckered into purchasing the gold “Tiara of Saitaphernes” a work that was supposedly created in 300 BC. They paid the enormous sum of 200,000 gold francs and put the work on display with enormous fanfare. Living in Paris at that time was Israel Ruchomovsky, a Russian who had wended his way west and who became employed by certain Paris art dealers that dealt in forgeries. When they discovered how good Ruchomovsky was a creating astounding looking art objects, they had him create the “Tiara” and then convince the Louvre that it was the really thing. It took the Louvre several decades before they recovered from this embarrassment.

However, not to long after the Ruchomovsky affair, the Louvre along with the Victoria and Albert Museum in London were once again taken for a ride by a phony artwork. It seems that Giovanni Bastianini who practiced his sculpturing trade in Italy had built up an amazing reputation for being able to copy the styles of Verrochio and Donatello with amazing accuracy. Bastianini was somewhat of a dupe in that he would make copies of the works of these and other Italian legends to order. He made no pretense that they were not copies. However, a group of clever underworld characters that knew something about art started commissioning him to create works for them in the style of the masters. They then took the works and sold them on the Continent as the real thing. Bastianini who was supposedly unaware of what had occurred was never the same again.

Many of the great art museums of the world have been in existence for a long period of time. Usually they are helped in their acquisition of art by serious donations from extremely wealthy folks who like the publicity and the donations. Often individuals that have assembled substantial art collections during their lifetimes bequeath great works to their favorite art museums upon their death. Probably the largest single donation to art world in terms of real dollars was the creation of the J. P. Getty Museum in Malibu, California. While alive, Getty had been a penny pincher, rumored to have had a pay phone installed in his London mansion so that guests would not think of his house as a place to either loiter or do business. However, by being careful with your money while alive, you are also able to benefit charitable causes more greatly upon your death.

Getty was somewhat of a loner and a megalomaniac who would certainly have been happy owning everything in the world. He also wanted posterity to remember exactly who he was and thus, the J.P. Getty Museum. The funds that the museum had to work with at inception were astronomical by any yardstick that had previously existed. Moreover, a very knowledgeable art director was brought in to the art museum to start spending it. He was out to make a mark for the Getty as quickly as possible and bought a statue known as “Kouros” as the  centerpiece of its collection.  This work was said to be of the Archaic period in Greece and in spite of latter questions, is still a most amazing work. However, critics started the chant that the museum had been taken and that the work is a modern forgery. With their reputation at stake, the Getty held fast and even created panels to resolve the question. However, as yet, in spite of the colloquium that was held, nothing definitive has yet been determined. The work remains questionable and probably is just a wonderful forgery. The reputation of the Getty has been scarred but the jury is still out. Whether a forgery or not, the statue today would probably not bring a fraction of what it was purchased for other than as an interesting case study. 

Before we are too quick to criticize the Getty let’s take a look at the statement made by Thomas Hoving, the previous director of New York’s immense Metropolitan Museum of Art who stated: “today it’s almost impossible to tell what’s genuinely ancient Greek and what’s Roman fakery”[91]   While people were copying coinage 600-years earlier, the Romans had a love affair with Greek artwork and wealthy citizens attempted to accumulate literally their own private museums containing as much of the stuff as they could lay their hands on.

“Greek statues were more and more in demand during the first Century BC and Roman merchants often experienced difficulties in supplying their customers. However, some of them found it more convenient to set up workshops in the city of Rom where they produced copies with the help of talented local artists. Such imitative enabled them to reduce import costs greatly and to avoid the risk of losing some of their treasured cargoes in sea accidents. Moreover, they contributed to promote a local industry, which eventually freed itself from Greek influence. There is however, no need to say that many of these copies were eventually sold as genuine Greek works by some unscrupulous merchants who took advantage of the growing demand[92], which lasted until 300 AD. Undoubtedly many of these replicas were not meant to be sold as mere copies as long as the emergence of a specific Roman form of art was not in full gear.”

How embarrassing it must be when a painting that Christie’s or Sotheby’s has sold at auction, with their good housekeeping certificate clearly affixed on it suddenly turns out to be a fake and some poor soul has spent millions believing the auction folks. Now, they find that some guy that probably was a better artist than the Old Master himself was making a living in the 18th century copying the stuff to perfection. Moreover, the ticking bomb is the fact that even though many great artists put their own names on paintings that were actually done be their students were don’t know which or how many. All of these guys had students that worked for free including the total donation of their efforts by these youngsters. That bomb is still ticking.



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