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Recognizing the Many Faces of Art Forgeries

Art forgeries come in three general categories. One is the straight copy. The straight copy is just that — the forger copies exactly an existing artwork without making changes. The second is called a pastiche, which is French for "paste-up." With a pastiche, the faker pastes together a mishmash of details copied from several works to give the flavor of the original artist. For example, the faker could combine elements of several paintings in order to make one painting. The third is the truly creative "original" fake. With an original fake, someone creates a work of art in order to pass it off as the work of another artist. Of course, the faker tries to imitate in style and material that the other artist used.

What's faked the most? The list is varied:

  • PreColumbian pottery: This type of forgery is common because of the enormous demand for the pieces and increasing penalties for smuggling in South American countries.
  • Greek gold jewelry: Gold can't be dated, and fakes pass by even the experts — plus the money is good.
  • Ancient Egyptian blue faience (earthenware) animals and scarabs: Every tourist going to Egypt must have an example or two of this type of work.
  • Paintings by Francesco Guardi, the Venetian 18th-century genius of landscape: You may actually think that Guardi is still alive because so many of his views of Venice are emerging daily.
  • Salvador Dalí prints: These prints have exceptional public appeal and are, therefore, faked frequently. In one infamous case, the aging Dalí was induced to sign a thousand blank pieces of paper that, after his death, were filled with images taken from his repertory, but were definitely not by him.
  • Watercolors by the American 20th-century illustrator Maxfield Parrish: Due to his growing popularity, Parrish's watercolors are often faked.
  • Old master drawings of every period: This is where the big money can be earned.

So play the game relaxed, and you may never get stung. But take heart; every courageous collector buys a fake or two. And one thing is certain: It's far worse to brand a genuine work of art a fake than it is to collect one.

There is also a category called "near-fakes." These are works that are basically old, but only in part. They have been "restored" in a highly creative manner to make the work seem more attractive or in far better condition than it actually is. Some practitioners of near-fakery will take, say, a mediocre painting of the 17th century, scrape off the sky or parts of the foreground, and then paint in (seamlessly with the genuine portions, of course) a glorious cloudy — and better — sky and peasants happily working in the fields in order to increase the selling price.

You may be wondering, "If a fake has fooled so many, isn't it as good as the real thing?" Never! The famous art critic Walter Pach wrote about fakes and their artistic worth in the 1920s, and he's still right. Pach felt that works of art were like living entities, and fakes were like dead objects that might fool their owners temporarily but would never provide lasting pleasure.

One of the misconceptions floating around is that museums are loaded with fakes — some even hanging on the walls — and that the officials stonewall about the scandal. The truth is that a very few forgeries may be on display, but they are being intensely studied by the curators. The obvious phonies are preserved in storage so fledgling curators can learn the tricky nature of such works.

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