Even Michelangelo was guilty of forgery. As the story goes, the young artist buried a sleeping Cupid he carved from marble so that it would pass as a Greco-Roman antiquity. Upon learning of its true maker, the buyer, Cardinal Raffaello Riario, returned the piece to his dealer for a full refund. The unfortunate Cardinal, though a few hundred ducats wealthier, will forever be remembered in the annals of art history as aesthetically clueless, unable to recognize Michelangelo as the first modern sculptor to surpass the celebrated ancients he was trying to imitate.
Forgeries expose some of the art world’s most psychologically complex figures: the collector and the counterfeiter. What compels the prototypical collector to accumulate objects of beauty is usually a peculiar devotion to the power of singularity. The collector worships art’s power to move us, a power we imagine emanates from unique objects. Meanwhile, what motivates the counterfeiter is an undue confidence in the possibilities of replication. To deceive a viewer with a copy is to affirm that copy’s interchangeability with the original.
The emotional liaisons between people with these clashing viewpoints on art is the subject of two recent forgery novels, Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos and Martin Suter’s The Last Weynfeldt. These books join a growing list of contemporary fiction that uses great works of art to propel plots of mystery and intrigue, including Michael Frayn’s Headlong (1999) and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013). For the Swiss-born Suter and the Australian American Smith, both veteran creators of rarified cultural worlds, forgeries prove more interesting than originals.
The title character of Suter’s novel, Adrian Weynfeldt, is a collector and auctioneer embroiled in a forgery scheme. A billionaire bachelor in his mid-50s and the last surviving member of an elite Swiss family, he works as a specialist of 19th- and 20th-century art at a major auction house out of passion rather than necessity. Adrian is the kind of person whose judgment is reserved for the beautiful things that fill his workplace and museum-like home rather than for the people around him. His social world consists of a handful of aging, blue-blooded friends of the family and a circle of younger, charismatic types whose unfruitful creative pursuits he alone seems to support. In their midst, he carries out quiet philanthropic gestures so as to avoid seeming showy or condescending. If Adrian has a worldview (and he would surely be too self-conscious to voice any such thing), it might be that money is ugly but art depends on it.
Ever since Aestheticism’s mantra of art for art’s sake, capital-A Art has kept its distance from the taint of money, even though they have always been attached by what the critic Clement Greenberg once called “an umbilical cord of gold.” The canonization of an artistic masterpiece often goes hand in hand with its removal as a commodity from the market. In the hallowed halls of a national museum, artworks become sacred and exceptional. We want to believe that something as universally appreciated as a Michelangelo or as privately meaningful as a family heirloom is “priceless,” but the market is as blind to aesthetics as it is to sentimental value.
Adrian’s own neat compartmentalization of art and money is undone by the entrance of two seductive women into his life. The first is the penniless and emotionally damaged Lorena, sometime model and seasoned shoplifter, whom we encounter in the opening pages trying to fling herself from Adrian’s grand balcony the morning after their almost-consummated tryst. The other is a voluptuous nude painted in 1900 by the Swiss-French artist Félix Vallotton, owned by Adrian’s enterprising friend Klaus Baier (one of the aging, blue-blooded set), who asks him to sell it on his auction block. It is hardly a spoiler to say that the painting gets counterfeited for all the predictable reasons: Klaus can’t bear to part with the work, but he desperately needs the money. The scheme is simple: auction off the forgery and squirrel the original away in the upscale lakeside retirement villa funded by the sale. Yet the painting is not the book’s only double. The beguiling ginger-haired Lorena so closely resembles Adrian’s first love—the original redhead he cannot forgive himself for tragically losing—that the faces of the two women initially “fused … in his mind.”
Adrian, as one might expect, is an excellent judge of an artwork’s market value. He can’t be fooled by a fake, but the more pressing question is whether he would be audacious enough to sell one. The novel, though, isn’t really about the ethics of the contemporary art market, and Suter accordingly devotes relatively few words to the depths of Adrian’s conscience. Readers are privy instead to Adrian’s evolving infatuation with the reckless Lorena, who just happens to think that an impeccable forgery is as good as the real thing.
It is no coincidence that the commodity status of art figures so centrally in a courtship novel about a bourgeois gentleman and a destitute fallen woman. Though the action takes place in modern-day Zurich, Suter’s characters hark back to Valloton’s bohemia. The women of The Last Weynfeldt are as problematically tethered to money as the artistic masterpieces they resemble. Both Lorena and the painted nude are alternately priceless and exchangeable in the eyes of the men who will determine their fates. We first encounter the Valloton nude, a picture with a price tag, as if it were a person: “It is more the woman than the painting which had accompanied Klaus Baier his entire life.” She was the subject of Klaus’s adolescent “sexual fantasies” and her singular physique propelled his choice of spouse in each of his three marriages. Meanwhile, Lorena, the flesh and blood woman, is more often considered a mere commodity. In one scene, she scrutinizes her own image as the unnamed motorcycle babe in a magazine, the day after she gets fired for refusing to offer sexual favors to her boss. Adrian, meanwhile, treats her so often to couture dresses and Louis Roederer Cristal that it becomes clear to everyone but himself that he’s playing sugar daddy (a term, by the way, that dates back to Valloton’s lifetime).
The impeccable forgery amounts to the art world’s version of the high-class escort. The forged Valloton, Klaus Baier insists, is just “an identical execution of the same idea using the same technique in the same format.” The line neatly foreshadows how the ever-conciliatory Adrian awakens to the challenge of distinguishing harmless copy from malicious fraud, in paint as in flesh. With a combination of satire and sensationalism, Suter manages to cleverly intertwine the public world of art with the private world of love, though, in the end, it is hard to say whether women emerge as heroines or sacrificial victims.
The same could not be said of the women in Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos. Smith’s novel centers on a “forgery hanging in plain sight”—that is, over the unhappy marital bed of Marty de Groot, a middle-aged patent lawyer with a sizable inherited fortune. The picture in question is a melancholic winter landscape entitled On the Edge of a Wood, the only surviving work of Sara de Vos, the fictional first woman to enter the painter’s guild of St. Luke in the Dutch Golden Age. After three centuries in the de Groot family collection, it had gained “a small but cultish position” in the art world. The novel opens with an account of a charity dinner at the de Groots’ penthouse apartment in 1957, the night the original was furtively stolen. For some six months, a counterfeit, painstakingly painted by Ellie Shipley, an antisocial graduate student who moonlights as a restorer, hung undiscovered in its place.
Smith’s novel chronicles the lives of Marty and Ellie, who are brought together by the forgery, alongside that of de Vos herself, in alternating chapters that toggle between centuries and move across the globe, tracking the circulation of de Vos’s painting from its creation to the present day. The most riveting of these intersecting plot lines takes place in 1950s New York, the scene of the crime. After a private investigator discovers Ellie’s role in the caper, Marty decides to confront her by making himself into something of a counterfeit. As “Jake Alpert,” a patrician of Dutch ancestry like himself, only widowed rather than still married, he engages Ellie as an art consultant to help build his family collection. While Marty’s stated intention is to “flush her out,” his vengefulness is muddied from the start by his admiration for Ellie’s “meticulous fake.”
By the year 2000, we find Ellie, now a renowned art historian, curating an exhibition on women painters of the Dutch Golden Age, in her native Sydney. Her long- and hard-won reputation is at stake as she anxiously awaits the arrival of two On the Edge of a Wood paintings, the original and her fake. To make matters worse, an aged (and now actually widowed) Marty de Groot, the only person who can still criminalize her, is to hand-deliver one of the pictures, who knows which. Just as uncertain is whether Marty has traveled across the globe to settle old scores, or to express nagging regrets.
Holland in the 1630s rounds out the book’s trio of settings. In moody chapters that recall the light effects of Johannes Vermeer and Jacob von Ruisdeal, we read of de Vos (their imagined contemporary) struggling to maintain a livelihood under the dictates of the male-dominated guild system. Though Sara is far less complex a character than her modern double, Ellie, the Holland scenes do signal Smith’s ambition, in this latest of his art-world historical fictions, to write a feminist novel. As we learn in an author’s note, de Vos is a composite of several actual Dutch female masters whose paintings were forgotten over time or even falsely attributed to their more famous male colleagues. In rapid leaps across centuries, Smith manages to connect the plight of these female painters to that of feminist art historians who, like the fictional Ellie, trudged through the old boys’ clubs of the mid-20th-century ivory tower to play a major role in resuscitating the careers of women artists.
Smith’s social agenda saves the book’s many uncanny doublings, like the twin charity events taking place in both 1637 and 1957, from reading as gimmicky. It also allows class and gender to color the ethics of forgery in complex ways. Ellie, an Australian transplant with working-class roots, serves as a pawn in a larger criminal scheme, so readers are liable to see Marty’s deceptive acts as far more nefarious on account of his privileged position. The Ellie and Marty of the 1950s inhabit the gendered roles assumed by de Vos and her male patrons centuries earlier. So when Marty compares Ellie’s “electric green eyes” to embezzled diamonds “smuggled into the colonies,” he seems to be channeling his ancestor’s financial stake in the Dutch maritime empire, which just so happened to directly fund the acquisition of On the Edge of a Wood.
Forgeries expose some of the art world’s most psychologically complex figures: the collector and the counterfeiter.
It is fitting that this
novel about the monetary conditions of art should center on the Dutch Golden
Age, when for the first time in Western history artists were beholden more to
the open market than to individual patrons. Seventeenth-century Netherlanders
across the social spectrum invested in pictures with an enthusiasm rivaled only
by their love for tulips. For the Dutch, art was a currency. Rembrandt, for
instance, was known to repay his monetary debts with written promises to
deliver artworks in progress, and these promissory notes were in turn traded
and speculated upon by eager speculators in his art. Fittingly, Smith fills his Holland chapters with plenty of references to credits, debts,
and business negotiations around pictures.
Money falls into the background in the 20th-century chapters of the book. These modern scenes allude to expensive things—a sleek Citroën and lavish vacations—but they seem inserted merely to create a contrast between Marty’s daily extravagances on the Upper East Side and Ellie’s make-do existence in the seedy part of Brooklyn. In fact, monetary gain motivates neither Ellie nor Marty. For Ellie, the forgery, which gives her unparalleled access to an important artwork, is an opportunity to breathe life into her stalled graduate research. She even refuses to spend her “restorer’s fee.” It also becomes clear that Marty’s pursuit of Ellie has nothing to do with getting back the original painting. In fact, the superstitious Marty is pretty sure that the heist lifted a family curse, since every one of the painting’s previous owners had succumbed to early deaths. What made the crime so “personal,” he reflects, was “sleeping under the fake for months.” The “something priceless” that Ellie stole from him might not be the painting after all, but his own dignity. And restoring that, it turns out, would prove far more agonizing than recovering a stolen picture.
In both The Last Weynfeldt and The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, forgery—an act done in recognition of a painting’s monetary value—evokes its opposite: the intimate, almost magical role that works of art play in people’s emotional and erotic lives. Novels about psychically and sexually burdened paintings have a rich literary pedigree; The Picture of Dorian Gray, with its portrait come to life, is only the most familiar. The emphasis on forgery pushes these two recent novels away from Wilde’s occultism to the more contemporary realm of global capitalism, allowing their authors to indulge in suspenseful play between psychosexual drama and market materialism. Both novels are about aging, childless men whose preference for tailored suits and antique cars make them decidedly old-fashioned. In crafting such characters as the end of their respective familial lines, Smith and Suter also seem to mourn the passing of the collector type whose often neurotic worship of art granted it emotional power.
As the prices of art have skyrocketed in recent history, collecting has become an increasingly investment-driven undertaking. Billions of dollars’ worth of artworks sold today are not destined for display in private homes or galleries, but for storage in high-tech warehouses where they await tax-exempt resale. (Four such warehouses are in Suter’s home country of Switzerland.) These so-called “freeports” were originally created to house commodities in transit, but increasingly they have been exploited by a new brand of collector who desires no physical or psychological connection to the artworks he or she owns. Our present may be the age of forgery, Smith and Suter seem to suggest, not because art crime is on the rise, but because the collector’s and the counterfeiter’s philosophies of art have never been so aligned.