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Comment Features

Forum: Is it ever justifiable to burn a fake?

4 March 2014

In Apollos current March issue, Aaron Rosen asks whether it’s ever justifiable to burn a fake.

‘If the system can’t be guaranteed, 100 per cent error-free, then we shouldn’t have the system.’ While Illinois Governor Pat Quinn made these comments about the death penalty, there is a lesson here for the art world. It is reckless to mete out irrevocable penalties based on subjective judgements, however certain they may seem at the time.

Recently, British collector Martin Lang submitted a nude he believed to have been painted by Marc Chagall in 1909–10 to BBC1’s Fake or Fortune to be evaluated by a panel of experts. Bought in 1992 for £100,000, the work was deemed a forgery based on pigment samples and stylistic factors.

Rather than simply living out its years in art-historical ignominy, however, the painting has now been slated for destruction at the recommendation of the Chagall Committee in Paris. French law allows for the confiscation and burning of counterfeit works at the behest of the artist’s estate. At the time of writing, Lang’s suggestion that the committee return the painting to him, even with a mark of Cain, has been rejected.

The case against Lang’s painting is quite convincing. But let’s play devil’s advocate for a moment and see if we can’t cast a flicker of reasonable doubt. First, attributions, even by experts, always involve conjecture. How many times have we witnessed the discovery of unknown works elevated to the status of national treasures, or long-hailed originals denounced as copies?

There is also the spectre of bias. Was the estate influenced by a desire to protect the value of existing works, to send a message to dealers, or to preserve its sole authenticating authority? Perhaps the painting’s case would have been stronger had it come from a prestigious, powerful national collection with a battalion of experts to back it.

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Or we might look to Chagall’s own history. During his life the artist himself undermined the market for his works by copying some of his favourite paintings after selling them to collectors or losing them during travel. Even when he did not recapitulate entire compositions, he notoriously cannibalised his own imagery, especially his ubiquitous goats and fiddlers. Picasso once witheringly demonstrated the artist’s predictability by finishing a ceramic that Chagall had begun to glaze, declaring ‘Voilà, un Chagall.’ Even if the pigments are dated to mid-century, could this still be a copy by Chagall’s hand?

These explanations are entirely hypothetical. But my point is this: it is extremely difficult to be utterly certain that any work, this one included, is a fake. Are we willing to see a work destroyed if even a sliver of doubt exists? Moreover, would such a sentence be wise even if we could make an irrefutable case?

Philosophically, it’s tendentious to hinge the aesthetic value of a work to its authenticity. Does a painting’s pigment suddenly turn rancid, or its forms transmogrify, the moment its attribution changes? Ethically, Lang can make a good claim to a painting he bought in earnest if he does not attempt to pass it off as original.

Besides, it may do more good to fraud prevention to preserve it. Destroying works willingly proffered for examination will only discourage future owners and dealers from seeking such evaluations in the first place. Meanwhile, making the painting available to scholars, curators and other experts could yield useful lessons for detecting future forgeries.

Beyond these philosophical and art-historical concerns, symbolism alone should stay the committee’s hand. There is something decidedly eerie about incinerating a work attributed to Chagall, an artist whose creations were branded racially impure by the Nazis, and shown in the infamous ‘Degenerate Art’ exhibition of 1937. Fearing for the fate of his works, Chagall shipped as many as he could out of the country when he fled France in 1941.

If the Chagall committee insists on carrying out this macabre auto-da-fé let’s at least hope they do it creatively. Willem de Kooning once donated one of his drawings to Robert Rauschenberg to erase in an act of careful, meditative obliteration. And Gustav Metzger’s ‘auto-destructive’ performances have demonstrated the potentially creative, prophetic power of demolition. If this work must be destroyed it should be executed at the hands of an artist. If it cannot be declared a work of art as it stands, it should at least be given the chance to become one.

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Peter Crack and Katy Barrett have argued recently that works of art that can’t boast a clean provenance are still valuable for the stories they tell.

Play Your Cards Right: ‘Caravaggio’s The Cardsharps at the Museum of the Order of St John (Peter Crack)

Fixed Price: valuing fake or damaged art (Katy Barrett)