ARCA Founder Noah Charney reviews Aviva Briefel's book, "The Deceivers: Art Forgery and Identity in the Nineteenth Century" (Cornell University Press, 2006) in the Spring/Summer 2012 issue of The Journal of Art Crime.
Forgery fascinates. Whether a forged painting or Shakespeare play, our interest in fakes and forgeries is akin to our interest in magic. A fake is an illusion, created by a magician/forger who awes us with his (and almost all known forgers have been male) sleight of hand. There is also a Robin Hood element to many forgers. Because unlike art thieves, they tend to work alone or with one colleague, and are not linked to more sinister organized crime, we can admire them from a moral comfort zone. Their crimes are more like pranks in our mind, and they traditionally do not cause more damage than to the owners and the experts who might accidentally authenticate them. And so we can smile at these illusionists called forgers and, with relatively few exceptions, do so without guilt.
This concept of forger-as-magician-as-working-class-hero, showing up the elitist art world, has origins that date back to the 19th century. They likely began before, and the history of forgery (a book on which I am just finishing) dates back far longer. But the 19th century is when individual instances shifted to sociological phenomenon. That story is elegantly described in Aviva Briefel’s The Deceivers: Art Forgery and Identity in the Nineteenth Century.