False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes, Thomas Hoving

Simon & Schuster, 1996, 366 pages, C$35.00 hc, ISBN 0-684-81134-0

For someone like me, technically trained in cold, hard matters of equations, algorithms and formal methods, the world of fine arts is as mysterious and incomprehensible as an alien mindset. You look at a picture, you like the picture or not. If you really like it and if it’s for sale, you buy it. Simple!

Not so simple. C.P. Snow would be proud. Art is not merely something that can be simply reduced to “liking/not liking”. Especially when older artwork is concerned, it becomes a question of cultural pride, personal self-aggrandizement, financial investments… And then troubles begin. When you buy a Roman sculpture to show off, it doesn’t matter if you like it: It does matter if it’s an authentic Roman sculpture, though. Who is to say if it wasn’t hacked out three years ago by some guy deep in Arkansas with a talent for reproducing “authentic” Roman sculptures?

False Impressions is a book about fake artwork. Well-respected “former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art” Thomas Hoving brings both erudition and wit to this fascinating subject.

Though the book is not without flaws, it does present the subject adequately. Hoving spends some time discussing the history of fakes, noting that even in Roman times, for instance, artists routinely faked Greek artwork. Medieval times are full of fakery, up to and including the shroud of Turin. The popularization of the art world has given rise to even more audacious fakery at the beginning of the century.

A lot of the narrative is simply Hoving’s autobiography as far as fakes are concerned. It’s a bit of a disappointment to find out that in many cases, a fake is never entirely conclusively proved as being a fake. It often happens that even the latest scientific methods are simply useless to distinguish fakes, especially if they are from roughly the same period.

Neither is the fake necessarily of lesser quality and/or artistic merit. Hoving insists that fakes are often of better quality than the original work of art. Generous souls can even consider them pastiche, especially if they’re not meant to represent a specific oeuvre, but a “lost piece” in the same tradition.

What is a fake, then? It all boils down to the very simple axiom that a fake is not what it’s purported to me. A Roman sculpture produced by our hypothetical Arkansas guy would be a fake if represented as being authentically roman. But it would be a work of art in its own right if represented as “American, 1999”—though probably decried as being an obvious Roman rip-off…

Any book that can have me thinking about this kind of stuff gets points for audacity. On the other hand, False Impressions is not exactly a great book and part of the problem lies in the medium. Text-heavy books are not a good way of discussing art. Art is made to be seen, to be touched, to be felt in person. A study of fakes almost requires us to be able to compare original with fake, or at least see what we’re talking about. No such luck here: False Impressions does contain photographs, but they’re on a black-and-white insert late in the book that feels a lot like if each one was painstakingly inserted after much arguing. This would have been terrific material for a TV documentary, even a four-part miniseries. But as such, False Impressions is a tease in its text format.

Compounding the problem is that Hoving might know his subject like few others, but his writing style often veers into irrelevant minutiae. Everything he writes isn’t exactly essential. Where was the editor?

Still, I have to admire a book that can make me ask questions about artwork and fakery. False Impressions, despite significant flaws, is an eye opener and a mildly diverting trip into a hitherto unsuspected shady underworld. Not exactly recommended to everyone, but worth picking up if you’re really intrigued by the subject.

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