The Mystery of Art (and Vice-Versa)
In 1985, when I turned in my third novel about the “skeleton detective,” Gideon Oliver, I concluded with regret that that particular series was just about played out. How many things, after all, can you say about bones? (I’m glad to report that I was premature; Gideon Oliver is alive and thriving, currently in the south of France working on his tenth adventure.) What I needed, I thought, was another protagonist, another voice, and—above all—another subject with enough substance to keep me involved through book after book, enough innate interest to appeal to readers, and enough credible possibilities for skullduggery to make it a plausible setting for foul play. Given those requirements, it wasn’t exactly rocket science to come up with art.
If ever a milieu was a natural for the murder mystery, it is the art world, the world of collectors and museums. It has everything a mystery-writer could dream of: objects worth millions, clever forgers, wacky eccentrics, pretentious stuffed shirts, slick wheeler-dealers, and more ingenious scams than anyone will ever know—all set in a burnished context of wealth, avarice, naked greed, and simmering envy.
Happily, there are also plenty of fascinating intellectual byways to take one’s characters down, and it’s these I’d like to consider for a while. In each of the books I’ve put him in,
Chris Norgren, a curator of Renaissance and Baroque art, has gotten himself deeply involved in a case of art forgery— which, knock on wood, he has always managed to solve. At the same time, he has yet to resolve satisfactorily, even for himself, the question of just what a forgery is.
It’s trickier than it seems at first glance. Say Peter Paul Rubens paints a picture and signs it; that’s an authentic work of art, right? On the other hand, if I carefully paint a picture in Rubens’ style and sign Rubens’ name to it, that’s just as obviously a forgery, right?1 Easy enough, but those are only the extremes, and there are lots of in-betweens. Rubens, like a lot of other Old Masters, had a studio full of apprentice painters whose shoulders he leaned over and whose pictures he corrected, sometimes extensively. So what would you call a picture in which the finishing touches on the important parts—the faces and hands—were largely applied by Rubens, but the rest—bodies, background, etc.—was painted by an unknown apprentice? Is it a Rubens? Say he painted a full ninety percent of it, does that make it a Rubens? What about eighty percent? Forty percent? Ten percent? What if, regardless of the percentage that he painted, he signed it with his own name, as he often did? Does that make it a Rubens?
What if he did paint most of it, but didn’t sign it, but some enterprising nineteenth-century or twentieth-century dealer, recognizing it for what it was, added a discreet little “PP Rubens” in the lower right corner just to give it a little oomph…and increase its selling price by a cool 10,000 percent, from $20,000 to $2,000,000?
These questions are important because there are hundreds, maybe thousands, of these things still floating around, every one of them a potential source of fraud and other assorted villainies. Of course, when you have students and apprentices like Van Dyck and Jordaens, which Rubens did, the level of art is likely to be pretty high, but that doesn’t change the potential for hanky-panky.
Well, actually it isn’t. There’s no law against doing that, or artificially aging the canvas, or even going so far as to put phony Flemish inscriptions in faded brown ink on the back, or even claiming to anyone who will listen that it is a genuine Rubens. Technically, it becomes a forgery only when I try to sell it as one.
The same applies to Rembrandt and his even more gigantic workshop—or factory, as it has been called. One of the tasks that Rembrandt would set out for his students was for them to make exact copies of his paintings. They would be richly praised by the master himself for making copies indistinguishable from his paintings. You may rest assured that there are plenty of these still around, a good many with Rembrandt’s signature having been applied, shall we say, posthumously. And one of his last—and best—apprentices, Aert de Gelder, continued working in Rembrandt’s style for fifty years after Rembrandt’s death, so just imagine how many Rembrandt-like paintings have been floating around for the last 350 years, practically begging for someone to scrawl a single word—“Rembrandt”—across the bottom.
And bear in mind, on paintings like these, scientific analysis is virtually useless—the wood panels or canvases are the same ones used by Rembrandt himself, the pigments are the same ones that were in use at the time, the techniques are the same. So how do you “prove” something like that is or isn’t by Rembrandt?
On top of all this, both Rubens and Rembrandt—and their workshop-factories—executed copies to order by the wagon-load. These factors, and a great many similar ones, make life hairy and full of risk in the art world, and make for terrific, twisty mystery plots.
Do you know the famous Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington? Chances are, you think you’ve seen the original in a museum in your part of the country, and you’re right— sort of. There’s one in the Met, one in the National Gallery… and approximately forty others out there, all the same, and all painted by Stuart in 1795. And the very next year he painted Washington from life again—the so-called “Athenaeum” version, the one on the dollar bill—and then made approximately seventy-five copies of that one on commission. Are they all “authentic,” or is the first one more “authentic” than the others?
Perhaps you know John Singleton Copley’s huge painting of a seafaring disaster, called Watson and the Shark, a thrilling and beautiful scene showing a man being rescued from the sea with a monstrous shark trying to get at him. You may have seen it at the National Gallery in Washington—or at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The National Gallery one came first—commissioned by the fortunate Mr. Watson himself, but the Boston one—an exact replica—was painted in the same year, 1778. Is one the “original” and therefore far more desirable and worth much more money? Or are they both equally original? If you say the second is a copy and only the first is an original, then what would you say if the first had been accidentally burnt up in a fire in Copley’s studio before he sent it off, so he sat down and did another—now the only one. Is it still just a copy, or is it the original? Might you feel differently about it, depending on whether you were trying to sell it or trying to buy it?
And what do you do with a Michelangelo that is an exact copy of a painting by an earlier, lesser artist, and was even artificially aged by the young Michelangelo to make it look more like the real thing? Is it a fake? A fake what? A real what?
For that matter, getting down to the basics now, just what exactly is wrong with a fake? That is, if somebody named John Jones paints a picture completely in the manner of Henri Matisse—not a copy of a Matisse, but a picture in Matisse’s style—with such competence and flair that it is every bit as beautiful as a fine Matisse, and in fact totally indistinguishable from a genuine Matisse (except, possibly, with the aid of electron microscopy, spectroscopic analysis, and so on), why should we value it any less than a real Matisse? A case in point is Rembrandt’s Man with a Golden Helmet, one of the world’s most revered and beloved works of art—until a decade or so ago when along came a nasty new technique called neutron photography, which smugly managed to prove that it hadn’t been painted by Rembrandt at all, but by some unknown—talented but unknown—contemporary. At which point the art world went into one of its periodic blue funks and the offending painting was hustled off to the basement of its Berlin Museum in disgrace.
Well, why? Had a beautiful object ceased to exist? No, it was still right there. Was it any less beautiful than before? Of course not, it was the same painting. Did discrediting it mean it was any less masterfully painted? Not at all. Did it make people love the picture itself any less than before?
You better believe it.
Why, exactly? That’s the question, and I don’t know any completely satisfactory answer. Art philosophers and art historians have been arguing happily, or at least vigorously, about it for centuries. But what I do know is that questions, ambiguities, and disagreements like these make for wonderful plots, motives, and red herrings around which to weave the nasty business of murder, thievery, and the other elements that are at the heart of a mystery novel.
There are other aspects too. Recently, I’ve gotten more and more interested in the ethics of cultural property, primarily the question of: Who Owns Art? This is a much more current issue than the old controversies about whether or not England should give the Elgin marbles back to Greece or if the Benin bronzes in American museums should be returned to Africa. Say, for example, that your parents lived in Poland, or France, or somewhere else in occupied Europe during the Second World War and that their prize possession was a small Turner watercolor, bought years before for the equivalent of $1,000. The painting was then confiscated by the Nazis to go into Hitler’s or Goering’s collection, but disappeared from sight at the war’s end. You and your family have done what you can to hunt for it, but to no avail.
Now you open up the New York Times and see a photograph of it on the front page of the Arts section. It has just sold at Christie’s for $1,200,000. You get on the phone immediately. You explain that it was originally stolen from your family and that it is your property. Let’s say that you even have the papers to prove it beyond a doubt (which is hardly ever the case in a situation like this). What happens? Does the person who bought it have to turn it over to you because it’s stolen property? Why should he? He’s not a Nazi, he didn’t steal anything. He paid his own good money for it (just as your family did originally), buying it from a legitimate auction house, which bought it from a legitimate collector, who bought it from a legitimate dealer, who bought it from…etc., etc., back through the mists of time to 1945 and beyond. And if he does turn it over to you, what about that million-plus dollars that he’s out? Will Christie’s give it back to him? If so, will the collector who sold it through the auction house reimburse Christie’s for the loss? Why should she? Why should any of them? They all bought the painting on good faith. And what do the courts have to say about this? They haven’t worked it out either, although American courts in general have leaned in favor of the original owner in such cases, while European courts tend to favor the good- faith purchaser. Either way, somebody is going to wind up feeling extremely unhappy and ill-used—with considerable justification. As you can see, there are wonderfully complex legal and moral issues involved—more than enough to kill for. Sometimes it seems to me that Chris spends half his time arguing and thinking about this kind of thing, and if I’m going to be frank, I have to admit it’s the half that I have the most fun with. Happily, I don’t expect to run out of material any time soon.