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Unfortunate Fake

2 February 2014

It’s surely the worst possible outcome of Fake or Fortune, to find out you’ve spent a small fortune on a fake you’re not even allowed to keep. But that’s tonight’s episode in a nutshell. In 1992, Martin Lang purchased a Chagall nude for £100,000, a relatively low price at the time that reflected the fact that it wasn’t authenticated. Nonetheless, when the family called in experts to assess Nude 1909–10 for the BBC’s art programme Fake or Fortune, they were hopeful that it would be confirmed as an autograph piece. Chagall’s paintings today can fetch millions.

Instead the painting was declared a fake after scientific analysis proved that some of its pigments date from the 1930s. Disappointment enough, surely. But now the Chagall Committee, which is headed by the artist’s two granddaughters, has demanded that the work be seized and burnt in front of a magistrate – a bizarrely medieval reaction that is inexplicably provided for in French law.

Such an extreme response seems particularly closed-minded at the moment, when popular interest in fakes and forgeries is high, and the discussion around them increasingly nuanced. Fakes can be invaluable as tools for understanding forgers’ methods, and they surely have an interesting part to play in the wider social history of art and the market. A current exhibition at the Springfield Museums, ‘Intent to Deceive: Fakes and Forgeries in the Art World’, has gone to great lengths, at great expense, to protect its shady but fascinating exhibits.

Martin Lang’s fake Chagall could surely be marked as such, and kept by the family that bought it in good faith and does not wish to see it destroyed. To burn the work seems ill-humoured (imitation is a form of flattery, after all), insensitive, and self-defeating. In a way, the only party that stands to benefit at all from this most recent episode in the painting’s history is Fake or Fortune. It aired this evening at 6pm, surely the better off for its own spoilers.

Update: Speaking to AFP late on Tuesday, the Chagall Committee defended its decision to seize the work as a fake, and suggested that it could go to court if the owner refused to approve its destruction. (via Art History News)

Related Stories:

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)

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