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The very real fakes

Why do forgeries offend us so? Perhaps because we’re not such original thinkers in the first place

india Updated: Jan 02, 2012 21:49 IST

The course of art, it seems, never quite runs smooth. In what is the latest controversy that has roiled the world of letters, Geir Ove Kvalheim — a Nor-wegian script-writer and actor who had successfully managed to convince experts that he possessed fragments of The Sun God, a previously unpublished Henrik Ibsen play — has been charged with forgery and is due to go on trial in April. Apart from the Ibsen play, Kvalheim had also passed off other documents, like a pocket almanac allegedly belonging to Nazi sympathiser Knut Hamsun, as originals. He reaped rich rewards: around eight documents were procured by Norway’s national library, at a cost of £75,000.

Forging, of course, is unlike any other street-smart con act. Those at the receiving end, and about to be duped, are connoisseurs, whose fame rests on their ability to sift the wheat from the chaff. Whether it is a painting or a literary work, only a detailed study of history, style and aesthetic mode and manners can help pass off a fake as authentic. Dutch painter Han Van Meegeren, probably the 20th century’s greatest forger, perfected that skill: in forging the Dutch master Vermeer (one of the fakes ended up with Nazi leader Hermann Goring), not only did he display artistic skill but also his cunning in choosing a painter whose oeuvre was somewhat nebulous and ill-defined at that point of time.

All of which brings us to the central question: why does forgery, as distinct from a mere copy, cause outrage at all? Is it because it hurts the vanity of the collector, whose existence is precariously dependent on his managing to recognise the real thing? Those who visited the exhibition of Rabindranath Tagore’s paintings at the Calcutta Art College earlier this year have now learnt that 20 of the 23 works displayed were fake. Was their visual and aesthetic experience diminished by the ethical consideration that someone had lied? It would imply that art in itself ceases to have any meaning, unless we know which is fair and which is foul.

First Published: Jan 02, 2012 21:46 IST