At my house there is an unhealthy obsession with forgeries, all kinds of forgeries. I can trace this back to our interest in Han van Meegeren, the famous Vermeer forger. Although there had been much written about van Meegeren, it was in 2008 when two books came out and a long series of articles by Errol Morris appeared in The New York Times that our interest intensified. Concurrent with Morris’s story was a photo quiz where they’d show you an original Vermeer and a van Meegeren and ask you to pick the one you prefer, then an art historian told you why the Vermeer was better. (Sadly, I can’t find the link to this.) Without exception, I picked van Meegeren. This tells me a couple of things. First, I’d better brush up on my art history. Second, maybe I don’t really like Vermeer. Lastly, perhaps I have bad taste. But I still have this question, why are we so interested in forgeries?
Often books and articles about forgeries center on the idea of money, being ripped off, and the dollars lost. Simply put, money is just a signifier of value—a way to apply something tangible (money) to the intangibility of genius and beauty (art). The excellent book, The Billionaire’s Vinegar by Benjamin Wallace, tells the story of Hardy Rodenstock and a case of “lost” bottles of wine that purportedly belonged to Thomas Jefferson. He fooled everyone. Wine critics. Auction houses. Everyone. One of these “lost Jefferson bottles” sold for $156,000. Why was that? Because this specific wine was just thing to serve with Saturday night’s porterhouse? No, because the purchaser wanted to be close to something grander than himself. In this case Thomas Jefferson. He was filthy rich and wanted to own a piece of history. He wanted to open that bottle and consume Jefferson in a transubstantitive way. And who can blame him?
Back in episode 164 of Bad at Sports, Joanna McKenzie and I reviewed Lee Israel’s memoir Can You Ever Forgive Me?. Israel was a well-respected biographer before booze and a series of bad decisions turned her into a forger of letters. While it was amusing to read about her escapades and how great she was at forging the words Dorothy Parker and Lillian Hellman, I found it upsetting to discover that her forgeries had made it into academic studies and are cited in authoritative texts. At that point it no longer seemed funny, like she’d pulled one over on snotty memorabilia collectors, she’d pulled one over on researchers and those with an honest desire to know more. She pulled one over on us.
There have been quite a few dust-ups in the last decade when people got so upset at authors who were later discovered to have inflated their memoirs. Remember James Frey’s Million Little Pieces? Augusten Burroughs’ Running with Scissors? Even more recently the This American Life retraction of Mike Daisey’s episode on Foxconn? These events spawned surprisingly smart public discussion on the nature of authenticity and the meaning of truth. Birthed from the whole imbroglio was a new word, “truthiness.” I mean we already had “verisimilitude,” but somehow truthiness was just so much more truthful.
There’s a line in Orson Welles’ film about art forger Elmyr de Hory, F is for Fake (1973), where de Hory says “if you hang them in a museum, in the collection, and they hang long enough, then they become real.” Once we move beyond the financial ramifications of fraud, who is hurt by a forged painting, a counterfeit bottle of wine, a couple fabricated letters, or a memoir made a little more exciting? Perhaps de Hory hit the nail on the head, that the fraudulent will eventually become real. Maybe what is so fascinating and so frightening is that a good forger is a good liar. A good forger can fool even the most educated people in their field. And if we can’t trust what we read, or what we drink, or what we see in the museum, then who can we trust?