“Separating Fact from Fiction: A Closer Look at the Controversial World of Famous Art Reproduction

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History of Fine Art / By Sibel Asia Meydan 

Good Artist Copy, Great Artists Steal

Is art reproduction forgery? I will start by clarifying the language: Forgery: wrongful or criminal deception intended to result in financial or personal gain, and copy or reproduction: The action or process of making a copy of something.

As we see, forgery is legally objectionable; its purpose is to deceive for financial gain. At the same time, artists have used reproductions for centuries as a study method and inspiration to learn a craft. One must distinguish between a tribute or an homage to the artist by copying his work, outright forging it, and passing it like an original one.

Original or Fake

When visiting a museum, I could not tell if the artwork displayed on the walls was original or fake. I learn from the experts in that field. When these institutions and class-A experts gives their stamps of approval to fake masterpieces is mind-blowing. I must ask myself, are forgers genius con artists, or are the forensic art experts, renowned galleries, museum curators, collectors, and dealers all fools? The FBI and Scotland Yard estimate that out of the 80 billion dollar art market, 25% is paid for fake masterpieces. With that amount of money and reputation at stake, no one will admit the actual amount. 

An oil on canvas copy of “The Birth of Venus” by the Italian artist Sandro Botticelli was probably executed in the mid-1480s. It depicts the goddess Venus arriving at the shore after her birth.
“The Birth of Venus” at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence (Photo credit ALBERTO PIZZOLI/Getty Images)

Artist Copying other artists.

Popes, kings, and merchants were collecting their works, and for the first time, the artist’s name was referred to their work. Michelangelo forged a Romaine sculpture, Sleeping Eros when he was strapped for money after he left the Medici family. Someone considering owning an antique Roman Eros for tens of thousands may hold a Michael Angelo forgery worth millions of dollars. Today’s counterfeiter can be the sought-after artist, isn’t it ironic?

Paris Art Mecca

Paris, France, in the early 20th century, was the Mecca of the art world; Vincent van Gogh and Edward Hopper copied paintings, Paris France in the early 20th century was the Mecca of the art revolution young enthusiasts created the club. They lived around Montmartre and the Sacre Coeur, where rent was cheaper. To make ends meet, they would sell copies of the mainstream artist to tourists. Art could be found everywhere: copy, reproduction, or forgery “Souvenir de Paris” (souvenir from Paris)

Famous Art Forger

Every artist cannot make forgeries. It takes skills, talent, and a cool head to pull it off. In the early 20th century, Paris, France, was the Mecca of the art world; famous high-quality reproductions were available at the street market for merely nothing. Reproductions were a quick way for any artist to make money. Rejected by the establishment, they seem to be on a crusade to prove themselves by making galleries, museums, and auction houses sell their fakes for a fortune.

Most renowned forger, like Elmyr de Hory, Wolfgang Beltracchi, and John Myatt, haveElmyr de HoryWolfgang Beltracchi, and John Myatt, among others have their name in the Forger Hall of Fame. There are two kinds of expert counterfeiters. The patchy forger takes different elements of a specific artist’s works, then uses similar painting, style, and brush strokes to create images and passes them as unknown, lost pieces of the artist, like Elmyr de Hory.

Wolfgang Beltracchi will go one step further. He will thoroughly research art catalogs in museum archives, national galleries, and libraries for letters or diaries records of works known to have been painted by an artist but never found or seen. Beltracchi would then create and age the never-seen painting, adding a well-rounded story of its “Provenance.” (History of the work) 

Les Demoiselles d Avignon, The Young Ladies of Avignon, originally titled The Brothel of Avignon by Pablo Picasso 1907, at the Museum of Modern Art MOMA.

When Art is a Business

When art becomes a business, we are not discussing creation and beauty but investment, trends, and tax deductions. The global world of art is an exclusive club allowing few artists in, thus keeping inventory low and demand high, like every business, for maximum profits. Are beautiful works of art less attractive because a famous artist does not create them? Or is that work less exceptional because it is reproduction? My answer is to say not.

Art Copy

Art copy is not a recent trend; the Greeks, Romans, and Egyptians did not ask who created the murals or the statues decorating their home or palaces. The exact figure could be reproduced several times. What mattered was the design. During the Renaissance, many painters took on apprentices and taught them to paint in their style, and then the master would sell these works as his own.

During the Renaissance, artists were recognized for their style, and art collecting became a real business; popes and kings’ merchants started to collect art; for the first time, the artist was referred to for their work and was sought after. Michelangelo forged Romaine’s statues when he was strapped for money after he left the Medici family. Today, someone considering owning an antique Roman statue for tens of thousands may own a Michael Angelo forgery worth millions of dollars. Today’s counterfeiter can be the sought-after artist, isn’t it ironic …

Fine Art for Everyone

Today, museum-style copies are sold openly under the classification of “reproductions.” They are sold for a couple of hundred to thousands of dollars; is it cheating? I don’t think so; it is taking art back from the elite to where it belongs: everyone.