Too Much of a Good Thing

The theoretical physicist who ignited the biggest firestorm in the history of the American photography market was simply trying to figure out if his vintage photos were genuine. By the time he learned the answer, two of the country's best-known photography scholars had come under a cloud of suspicion

Art forgery is a peculiar crime. Reliant on camouflage and deception, on the rhetoric of the believable lie, it is an act both audacious and self-effacing. For the imitation to succeed in fooling us, it must resemble one or more things that we have been led to believe are undoctored originals. Without something to mimic, the fake could not exist. And the forger of old masters' drawings, like the forger of twenty-dollar bills or U.S. passports, must be skilled enough to fool eyes that by now are practiced at uncovering deceit.

Like spies, forgers often go undetected for years. No one motive directs their actions. Some seek only money, preying on the hapless and uninformed. Others take pride in their skill, targeting museums in the hope of sneaking their manufactures into exhibition catalogues and mingling spurious creations with legitimate masterworks. Revenge against an indifferent or hypocritical art world may be involved. The Hungarian forger Elmyr de Hory confessed to feeling deep satisfaction at watching art dealers who had disdained the works he painted under his own name rush to buy those he painted under a more famous, if false, signature. Forgery can be both a crime against art and a private joke.

To copy a master's work was for centuries basic to a young artist's education. But imitation is not always flattery. Albrecht Dürer, the sixteenth-century German painter and printmaker, sued an Italian artist for copying his prints and signature without permission—the first recorded case of art forgery settled through the courts. Now, when a previously unknown Rembrandt turns up for sale, experts are called to verify the claim. Spectrographic tests can be run on pigment, ground, sizing, and canvas to date materials. The provenance of a work is checked. Anyone with access to a specialist's art library can pull down a volume that shows changes in Rembrandt's autograph over his lifetime. Two and a half centuries of classical-art scholarship have given curators an array of reliable tools with which to assess whether a sculpture is a Greek original, a Roman copy, or a latter-day forgery.

But in the fine-art photography market—smaller than the painting, sculpture, and drawing markets, and only about twenty-five years old—safeguards are fewer. Even though photographs have lately become glamorous and often expensive (a Man Ray sold privately in 1999 for upwards of a million dollars, and images by contemporary artists such as Cindy Sherman and Andreas Gursky have sold for $250,000 to $610,000 at contemporary-art auctions over the past several years), only a few books can be consulted to settle questions about materials and practices. It is still not possible, for example, to date with certainty a Mathew Brady photograph, whereas a drawing attributed to Titian can be subjected to a battery of widely accepted scientific tests.

Moreover, notions of what constitutes value in fine-art photography are notably subjective. When the photography market was born, in New York in the mid-1970s, the concept of "vintage" prints boosted its growth. These were the select few prints—or perhaps the only one—developed by the photographer immediately or soon after he made the negative, and often signed. Although the concept can be seen as little more than a marketing strategy to avert profligate reproduction, most collectors, dealers, curators, and auction houses came to agree that vintage prints should, if all else is equal, be deemed intrinsically more valuable than subsequent prints made from the same negative, whether by the photographer in later life or posthumously.

This hierarchy has a certain logic. Usually, vintage prints are rarer, and rarer is almost always better in the art market. Less logical is the romantic belief that these prints more truly reflect the intentions of a photographer. Even if an artist's darkroom technique or equipment improved in later life, as happened frequently, the first drafts supposedly bring viewers closer to the moment of creation.

This notion, however, raises a host of questions about what kind of creation a photograph really is. What constitutes the "original" in photography? Is it the negative template or the positive print? Does the value of an art photograph derive from the framing of the picture in the viewfinder, or from the magical blending and separation of tones in the darkroom? If someone makes a contemporary print from the original negative and then falsely sells that print as vintage, is this thing a "forgery"? Or should it be called something else—something less damning?

The question of forgery in photography has of late become more than an academic issue. Prices for vintage prints accelerated so wildly in the 1990s that one of these photographs might fetch a hundred times as much as a non-vintage print of the same image. It was perhaps only a matter of time before a canny soul took advantage of the discrepancy—and of the huge gaps in scholarly knowledge—to peddle newly created vintage prints for profit.

In fact, a market manipulation of this sort had already occurred. Appearing like an avatar of Walter Benjamin's "age of mechanical reproduction," a charlatan using the impish pseudonym Benjamin Walter—and operating in Paris, no less—made a killing by selling bogus vintage works by Man Ray to a number of clients. Apparently printed from Man Ray's original negatives, Walter's fakes were so luscious in tone that for years they fooled some of the smartest people in the field. The curator Maria Morris Hambourg, who heads the photographs department at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was prepared to make them the backbone of a Man Ray retrospective until she noticed an anachronistic stamp on the photographic paper—a clue that they were likely not vintage prints.

Presented by

Richard B. Woodward, an arts journalist and critic in New York, is a regular contributor to The New York Times.

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