There’s an old line from a distant movie where a character comments on the fact that Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting in his life. I think his brother Theo may have bought a couple, though, out of pity.
The character in this film observes that Van Gogh’s art wasn’t so bad as to warrant no sales then, and it isn’t so great to warrant the multimillion-dollar price tags his paintings command now.
When it comes to art prices, the sky seems to be the limit. When it comes to art forgery, the potential for profit is likewise astronomical.
Prince Charles, the heir apparent of the throne of Great Britain, just found that out the hard way.
It appears that in one of his stately homes, there are Picassos, Monets, and Dalis that, when totaled, were valued at well over $100 million. The only problem is, they have been discovered to be fake, the handiwork of a renowned art forger.
The details of the story read like the beginnings of a blockbuster novel that would be turned into a blockbuster movie, if there were some femme fatales and a couple of grisly murders to go along with the art forgery. In the end, only paint, no blood, was spilled.
The art forger was described as a former altar boy from New York. Why the article talking about the fooling of the prince had to mention the fact that the forger was a former altar boy is, I guess, some clumsy attempt to either establish his once innocent state or explain the natural progression from church acolyte to international criminal mastermind.
I’ve known a few former altar boys who could have pulled that off.
And the fake art that the prince showed off so proudly in his home was the result of dishonest work the forger had created years before. In the interim, he had been caught by authorities and apparently mended his ways. The faux Picassos, Monets, and Dalis were remnants of the forger’s less than pristine past.
More than a hundred-million dollars worth of fraud is nothing to sneeze at, and the blow to the prince’s ego and to the reputation of those art critics who originally certified these works of art notwithstanding, this scandal points an accusatory finger at all mavens of high-end culture, and suggests when it comes to recognition and appreciation of real art, it truly is a matter of art over science.
The forger, who is now a “former” forger and works as an art expert, explained how he used real science, in this case chemistry, in the form of coffee and a certain kind of varnish to age his forgeries hundreds of years in a matter of days. The patina this concoction gave the paintings had all the right shades and cracks that experts expect to see in older works of art.
This story made me think of a documentary from 2016 called “Sour Grapes.” In that film, we learn about a young man from a poor family in Indonesia who came to America for the “American dream” of wealth and fame. For a time, he had both, as he became a sought-after wine expert who told his wealthy clients that he could secure large supplies of extremely expensive wines for their private wine cellars. He produced bottles of said wine for tasting and all the experts agreed, these wines were the genuine article, and the money began to flow.
When the police finally broke into the young man’s Culver City apartment, they found dozens of empty wine bottles and hundreds of wine labels representing some of the most sought-after wines in the world. They also found the young man’s handwritten formulas of how to turn cheap table wine from the grocery store into thousands of dollars by use of household items like tea and charcoal.
We may (at least I do) get a chuckle out of watching people who are full of themselves getting taken down a peg or two, but it would be unwise for any of us to dwell there. Just a couple of weeks ago, we heard the parable of the Pharisee up front in the Temple for all to see, and hear, proclaiming his righteousness, while the lowly tax collector stayed in the back and made a simple sinner’s prayer.
In a lot of ways, these art and wine forgery stories resemble that. It’s all about what we truly value and what is real versus what is fake.