On the fourth floor of the Art Gallery, Suzanne Boorsch pulls a print from a black box.
Title: Laissez-Faire (Les Affaires)
Beneath a red sky, two men are fighting. One is faceless and the other has a fedora. Both wear grey slacks and have giant, rugged hands. To the left, a policeman turns his back to them; he is also wearing grey pants. The scene, with its swatches of color and bantering men, is comically straightforward: aimless rage and controlled passivity together on a single patch of watercolor cement.
The work does not speak for itself—or at least not entirely. Tucked under its matte is a note, written in orange marker on a torn sheet of notebook paper, and it is even more blunt and confrontational than the work itself.
“The title (Les Affaires), substituted in parentheses, is as phony as are the prints being sold by an unauthorized printmaker… original print, entitled ‘Laissez-Faire’, was authorized by me to be made by two competent printmakers. They went out of business and sold their screens to another printmaker who has been printing them horribly and selling them without any authorization from me whatsoever—not to mention, without any payments whatsoever.”
The Collected Prints of Ben Shawn, 1967.
The phony print is one of about thirty pieces of art fraud kept in the Prints, Drawings, and Photographs Collection at the Yale University Art Gallery. The pieces are stored together in two airtight solander boxes, separated from sunlight, water, and, of course, authentic artwork.
The set is varied. A few are obvious fakes, the words “Facsimile Reproduction” stamped in black scroll across the back. Others don’t declare their own disingenuousness so openly, and simply have “forgery shelf” written in pencil next to the work’s year and medium. Their subjects are equally diverse. One shows a grey charcoal ballerina sitting bent over with her head between her legs. She is oddly graceful, but you wonder if Rodin would have thought the same. Toward the bottom of one of the boxes is a large “Matisse” sketch of a woman with a floral blouse, and above it a simple painting that Suzanne, the Robert L. Solley Curator of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, finds entirely unappealing. “I don’t know who would want this, even if it were a real Whistler!” she says, laughing as she lifts up the glassine paper covering the print.
Yet within this collection, the grey and red print and the accompanying words of Ben Shawn stand out as a self-referential oddity, a work of forgery whose very subject matter is illegal behavior. In the print, after all, the policeman turns a blind eye to public disorderliness—a sarcastic allusion to the piece’s title, the principle that the government should not interfere with the action of individuals, especially in industrial affairs, trade, and, indeed, the forgery of art. In a field where quotidian processes of authentication are overshadowed by the mystery and sex appeal of a good art scandal, there is something strangely apt about a work that dares to be so blunt and matter-of-fact about the whole thing.
Shawn’s piece may be recent history, but documented art forgery dates back at least 400 years.
By the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the presence of art fraud, already pervasive throughout Germanic art, was spreading across the Europe. As Yale professor Christopher Wood writes in his book Forgery, Replica, Fiction, “an attitude of rational skepticism toward the truth claims of a document or a relic” developed extensively during the Medieval period. The idea of a fictional work, with a different claim to the truth than the original, had entered into the vernacular.
From there, the history of art forgery began its long and seductive path to the fetishization of fakes and frauds in the modern day: the Vinland Map, an object of topographical intrigue housed in the Beinecke library and known around the world, discovered in 1965; the work of Hans van Meegeren, the rivalrous Dutch painter whose Vermeer-esque works proliferated in Holland during the Second World War; the constant presence of Dali and Rodin forgeries throughout the twentieth century market. Finding their way into our notions of art and deception, many of these scandals have become household names.
Yet on a practical level, at the places where books and works of art are prized, these concerns are omnipresent. Institutions such as Beinecke Library and the Yale University Art Gallery function alongside this history, their diligence and common sense acting as continuous procedural safeguards against fraud.
Both institutions bring in massive numbers of acquisitions each year from a variety of sources. According to E.C. Schroeder, head of Technical Services at Beinecke Library, the facility acquires almost one thousand linear feet of manuscript material and 15,000 books on an annual basis, ranging from 15th century texts to books published yesterday. It might seem easy for a fake to shuffle in along with the fray.
Yet despite these numbers, Timothy Young, Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts says that during his twenty years at the Beinecke the scandals have been few. “For those who want to hear about exciting fraud, it’s a little boring,” Young says. “None are terrifically upsetting or embarrassing.”
The reason for this, he suggests, is that the process of verification is in many ways built into the system, starting with the source of the acquired material. “When we are making a purchase, we go through dealers who are truly experienced,” he explains. “If they make us an offer that’s too good to be believed, then we don’t believe it.”
When it comes to rare literature, Schroeder adds, due diligence is beneficial for both the bookseller and the library. “It’s the bookseller’s responsibility to make sure an item is real—that’s part of the service you’re paying for, and it would hurt their business to make a mistake.” Discussion about the provenance of an item, its physical properties, and the terms of sale are all negotiated before purchase. After acquisition, curators will carefully inspect new works, counting pages of books and cataloguing the contents of archives.
But, as with all good systems, this one, too, has had its share of complications.
Boorsch recalls one such time at the Gallery several years ago, when a 15th century print came on the market. “It was incredibly rare—maybe one of four or five impressions known in the whole world—and I thought if we could get it, the piece would be a wonderful acquisition.” Boorsch and a paper conservator from the Gallery took the train to New York to look at the print, and found the paper and watermark to be historically accurate. Yet Boorsch felt uneasy about the piece, and when she returned to work the next day she went through her own dusty drawers, only to find a photograph of an impression, known to be an original, archived in England. She noticed that this picture had the exact same nick on the top right corner of the page as the one at the auction house. This confirmed her unease: the “print,” which was clearly deliberate copy of an impression that was already accounted for, was only as “original” as the photo she held in her hand. “We were very close to buying it,” Boorsch says. “I had to go back and tell the dealer what I found.”
While the advancement of digital technologies has made the quality of facsimiles far more accurate and difficult to discern, curators often fall back on a much more old-fashioned tool for evaluating a work’s authenticity: instinct. “When you’ve been working with drawings or prints or photographs for a while, you tend to develop almost a sixth sense for when things are off-kilter,” says Young. “You work with these objects for twenty years, and you can look at a book and say it looks like a book from 1720. If it feels clean and shiny and pretty, how could it have survived 300 years?”
Alex Nemerov, anArt History professor, agrees. “For a connoisseur of art, a lot matters in the first moment of perception,” says Art History professor Alex Nemerov. “However one responds in that instant, whatever the gut reaction is, it’s bound to be right in some way.”
Yet even works that don’t pass Nemerov’s visceral test can have a place in the archives.
At the Beinecke, Schroeder says, dubious materials can sometimes fall into step with the mission of the library itself. “They become objects of scholarly inquiry,” he says. “As long as they add to the research value of that collection.”
In the 1960s and 70s, for example, little booklets of poems by Gertrude Stein and T.S. Eliot began to sell on the manuscript market. Curators started adding them to collections, assuming that they had overlooked these little “Butterfly Books.” As more and more of these pamphlets appeared, suspicions about their authenticity began to mount, and a novelist and Yale graduate named Frederic Prokosch soon admitted to having forged the booklets. Yet the admission didn’t render the pamphlets worthless. They had already achieved an archival value all their own. “We have a complete set of them,” says Young. “The objects have developed their own life independent of Stein or Eliot.”
Though the library errs on the side of keeping objects like the Butterfly Books that might add depth to future research, Young laments the possibility that forgeries outshine originals. “People are interested in fakes and forgeries but we have thousands of books that are amazing and unexplored, but there is real, deep scholarship to be done with true artifacts of our cultural and publishing history.”
Suzanne and I have moved on to the second of the boxes, and toward the end we find a tan piece of drawing paper with a coffee stain in the bottom right corner. In the center is a hand-drawn frame, and inside it, a picture of George Washington. The pencil strokes are faint and simplistic; this Washington appears to be a man of contours over all else. Written below the portrait is the title, “Pencil sketch of General Washington from life taken by Chas. Wilson Peale, 1777.”
And directly below that, in compact cursive at the bottom of the sketch: