But both of these victories are private. Unless the forgery is revealed as such then, for all intents and purposes, to the world at large, the work in question is authentic. It is only when the forger is caught and speaks out about his fraudulent oeuvre that the experts are shown to have erred, and the forger is praised publicly for his talent. Popular culture loves art forgers, seeing them as congenial, quirky pranksters more than criminals. To be fair, many are, and they are certainly less damnable than art thieves and antiquities looters, who have links to organized crime and even terrorism. Art forgers tend to work alone or in pairs (a forger and a front man who passes off the works as authentic through one of a series of confidence tricks, usually far more ingenious than Mr. Re’s superficial story about stumbling across 70 abstract expressionist masterpieces).
Without the connections to organized crime, art forgers rarely wreak havoc beyond their immediate victims (wealthy collectors or institutions), and their income does not fund the drug and arms trades, as can be the case with stolen and looted art. Their relative harmlessness, on the grand scale of criminal activity, and their undoubted ingenuity and occasional real talent, makes it easy for the general public to see them as admirable, Robin-Hood types, pulling the wool over the eyes of the wealthy elite (with the implication that the wealthy elite deserve to have their wool pulled by a working-class prankster).
Numerous forgers have gone on to achieve riches and fame after serving a minimal prison sentence. Wolfgang Beltracchi has best-selling memoirs and is a sought-after speaker. John Myatt has his own TV series on Sky Arts in which he teaches amateur painters how to forge, and George Clooney bought the film rights to his life story—he now sells “original fakes,” signed with his name but in the style of famous artists, for six figures. This type of crime, it seems, can pay.
With little disincentive, in terms of harsh sentences and public condemnation even if you are caught, and with a measure of personal revenge successful only if you are caught, it stands to reason that some forgers would not mind going public, while others, even if at a subconscious level, might actually wish to be found out. Many have intentionally come forward. Michelangelo allowed his biographer to tell the story of his teenage career as a forger of “ancient Roman” statues, which sold for much more than his originals would, before he had made a name for himself by sculpting his Pieta.
Ken Perenyi recently released a fine memoir, Caveat Emptor, that describes his decades-long career as a forger. Before his book came out, few had heard of him; suddenly he was profiled in The New York Times as perhaps America’s greatest forger. The Santa Clausian British forger, Tom Keating, coined the term “time bombs” and inserted them intentionally (such as the use of titanium white pigment in works purported to have been painted centuries before it was invented) for several reasons: to have something obvious to point to that experts missed (so as to show them up), to (unsuccessfully) protect himself against accusations of fraud (he assumed that such an obvious anachronism would shift the blame away from him and onto the authenticator for making such an error), and in order to be able to reveal himself as the artist, should he wish to do so.