As a literary forger of sorts, I enjoy reading about forgeries and forgers’ lives. There is a tendency in such books to repeat stereotypes – the forger as the injured and overlooked, the forger as the masterful yet unoriginal technician etc. What is refreshing about Keats’ book is the way that it avoids the usual moralising that shores up consensus so that he can get to deeper understandings raised by specific forgeries.
There isn’t a strong argument that builds through the book to justify the title. It’s more like a set of mini-biographies that explore what are usually unexplored positive aspects to forgeries.
The book starts with a story from the renaissance, as recounted by Vasari, which illustrates something surprising about forgery. The concept has different meanings at different times and in different places. During the renaissance, an undetectable copy of a master work showed equal skill, and placed the copyist alongside the master. By the 20th century, the skill to a forgery had become irrelevant: criminalisation had seen to that.
Beneath our current orthodoxy, argues Keats, is an anxiety that means ‘No authentic modern masterpiece is as provocative as a great forgery. Forgers are the foremost artists of our age.’ What a forgery shows at any given time in any given place is what’s valued and why. Forgery is even revealing about the things that it ignores. Keats elaborates on these notions in his introduction. He works through examples of forgery throughout the ages. From each it’s possible to see how different copies are used for different reasons. Holy relics, for example, had since the middle ages been subdivided and distributed to keep up with the demand to venerate them. Within this, forged relics appeared, yet their worth was something they earned. So long as they could perform miracles, they remained (or became) genuine.
There’s also good attention given to the 20th century. The story of Elmyr de Hory is particularly colourful. He not only forged modern masters, but also made a forgery of himself by presenting himself as a collector selling the works. His biography was written by Clifford Irving, who went on to be a forger himself: Irving attempting to fake the dictated biography of billionaire recluse, Howard Hughes. There was, incidentally, a book about that forgery too – Hoax – and I shall post about it in good time.
Keats also recounts the life of Tom Keating, who towards the end of his life, was offered a TV series on Channel 4 in the UK. It was something that hooked me as a teenager who’d taken to oil painting. Luckily, someone has uploaded it!
What Keats’ book achieves is to explain why forgeries are an integral part of any cultural system. They lurk within markets. They fool experts. Yet these uncertainties offer a challenge to what we value and why. It’s simply a cop-out to avoid this challenge by targeting the character of forgers and dividing the world into a comforting binary between a good real and its bad copy.