• The counterfeit experience
April, 2012

The counterfeit experience

Copies like to copulate and make little forgeries

Humans are infatuated. Let’s just say that because it sounds good. And then let’s talk for a moment about an infatuation with continuity, not only of the body, but also of items and objects that have historical, commercial or personal value. The concept of the heirloom is one example, the need for such a thing to be archival and be available for posterity. What throws a monkey wrench in this noble aspiration, is this same human. Now it is not counter-productive per se, to have faculties such as self-awareness and foresight. However, this does enable the human to imagine himself perish, imagine his possessions become degraded and lost and ultimately develop a latent fear of the lack, of the absence of what he knows and holds dear. These harbingers of a life lived tend to provoke irrational fears in a human, because a mere notion of the lack of this evidence of a life, translates to a loss of identity, of an anchor to the world. Ironically, in the culture of today, the culture of the copy, this fear of the lack has not quite dissipated but actually increased; the need to have two or more of a kind sprouts itself into a tumescent ball of paranoia. The importance of the original possession, the original product, is consequently transposed to the copy; the necessity of the copy is given precedence as opposed to the importance of the original; the necessity of the copy’s existence in case the original is somehow compromised. If this were to occur, the copy would then become an ‘original copy’ and so on and so forth until the line of copulating copies engender mutations and error, mimicking a never-ending game of Chinese whisper. With all the replicas, duplicates, imitations, simulations, reproductions, forgeries, counterfeits, facsimiles, replacements, spares and substitutes that exist today, a fear of the lack is also intermingled with a lust for the new, for the improved copy of the archetype; the advantageous mutation. Which itself is only unique for a moment before it too is replicated. After all this then, what makes the original important in the public eye? It is because of where it has been. Where it has really been as opposed to where the copy pretends that it has been. The necessity of the copy is a manifestation of a need to protect the original, the unique. But the original is not protected in itself; it is its concept that is preserved in the copy, the evidence of its existence, just as we are all evidence of each other’s existence. Since the original is given its unique importance in that it requires and necessitates copies to be made, the emergence of the copy’s illicit guise of novelty is hardly a surprise. After all, the ability of the copy to look like the original gives it the impetus to masquerade as the original for profit.

The art market is one of the avenues where this profit is most lucrative. Indeed, the art forgery garners the most monetary value depending on its historical significance. A known copy is all well and good, it may sell for a substantial amount of money, but the original, or what is thought to be the original, is priceless. This is not because of what it is, but what it represents: history, the passing of time and more importantly, the artist’s name. The possession of that time and that name, is what is of value, not the ownership of a particularly beautiful painting. Although to acquire all would be quite an achievement. Consequently, if a forgery can be made, if the great masters can be imitated to a flawless degree, it puts one in a quandary. What makes the original better than the forgery if certain artists of today can render precisely like them, perhaps even better? What exactly did the old masters have that was so special? Aside from the fact that their hand was free from the constraint required in producing a replica, [read: creativity versus mimicry is then purely a matter of preference, for the mimic clearly has an alternative talent of his own for forgery] the original would simply differ from the forgery in that it actually aged through entire eras of history, instead of through an artificial ‘aging’ process. Unless of course, the forgery is nearly as old as the original, in which case it is only a matter of creativity over mimicry.

Encouragement of the talent for mimicry was probably most notable in the Mughal court, where traditional miniature painting derived most of its content through selective replication from existing miniatures, which was and is considered a standard learning process and was indeed a matter of pride, if done well; a pride that the Mughal emperor Jahangir undoubtedly felt for the painters in his court when he ordered them to create five replicas of a European miniature and then challenged Sir Thomas Roe to identify the original; Jahangir obviously had a playful view of imitation and was greatly pleased when Roe was unable to spot the original miniature.

Now if one were to look at a piece of art, unaware that it is in fact an impeccable forgery, it would not diminish the experience in any way; it would remain the same whether the work was an original or a flawless fake. It is the subsequent knowledge of it being a fake that makes one reject what they felt, to go back and determine the experience as being fraudulent as well, although real emotional responses can hardly be rendered counterfeit due to their stimuli. If one were to watch a beautiful sunset and experience the most wonderful sense of existing, only to find out that the sunset was simulated, the experience itself would still be valid. One cannot say, ‘What I felt was not real.’ It could be argued that discovering a fake is similar to finding out an old friend has been lying to you for years. This would be a decent argument, up to a point. However, one must make a distinction, for the artwork itself did not lie to you. All it did was make you feel something. If that feeling was based largely on whom one thought the work was by, then the experience one had of it, real as it were, would have been rather self-imposed; a placebo-ic reaction. Ultimately, perhaps what should be determined before a purchase is made, is whether you like the piece or the artist’s name.

We happen to have a public obsessed with uniqueness and originality, particularly that which emerges from the annals of time. Art of today would never sell for as much as the pieces that speak of a story, of a time and culture past. The infamous Hungarian art forger Elmyr de Hory, for example, realized this as he discovered that his own original work was not pulling in as much profit as was the business of forging older, established works of art. He lived on the Spanish island of Ibiza and sold his forgeries by mail order to many reputable art galleries and connoisseurs. De Hory however, was very sharp in that he did not copy pre-existing paintings by famous artists; he simply adopted their technique to create original yet cognizant compositions and was very skillful at it. This made his forgeries harder to identify since there was nothing to compare them against.  Nonetheless, his con was eventually discovered and investigations were launched with federal charges following suit. But De Hory was virtually untouchable since the Spanish court could not prove that he had produced any forgeries on their soil. However, once the Spanish government agreed to hand him over to the French authorities, where he would most definitely be indicted on charges of fraud, he ended up killing himself with an overdose of sleeping pills. The man left a legacy behind him, a story of fraud and forgery but a legacy nonetheless. The irony of the situation was that once he died, his paintings became a valuable asset, with forged De Hory paintings soon appearing on the market - copies of copies.

Incidentally, the fact that his own paintings could not find this or any market during his lifetime does imply a public inclination towards the historical and the infamous, be it original or fake -- as opposed to the contemporary original. These elements lend more to an art piece than does the piece itself.  Most times the original does not have a chance without a story, without history. And the wretched copy, well, it has no choice but to appropriate history, which it has done by virtue of simply being a copy.

More by Karen David
The counterfeit experience

The counterfeit experience

Copies like to copulate and make little forgeries

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