Museum for Forgeries

If there was a museum for art forgeries, would you go to it? What would be the appeal of seeing such forgeries? The underhanded element of crime and mystery? The sheer historical interest?

Or, on the other hand, would you consider such art to be “second rate” and unimportant? Would you find forgeries to be uninteresting from a historical perspective, since the works of art are not deemed authentic and perhaps not as old as once supposed?

I’ve been thinking about all of the artistic forgeries that exist in the world. Many of them have been relegated to the storage of museums, since the authenticity for most of these works were questioned after the museum acquired the forged piece. Today I’ve been reading about the Minoan “Statuette of a Boy-God” at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), a supposedly forged work of art which Kenneth D. S. Lapatin discussed in his 2001 article, “Snake Goddesses, Fake Goddesses.”Although the SAM no longer displays the “Boy-God,” they still claim its historical provenance, as indicated on the museum website. (The museum is justified, for the most part. At this point, “Carbon-14 tests [on the SAM statue] were inconclusive because of contamination from earlier restorations. Even is contamination could be ruled out, however, science would not necessarily resolve the issue, for forgers are reported to have employed ancient materials.”1)

Wouldn’t it be nice to relieve the SAM of such a problematic and questionable statue? I think it would be fun to take these works of art out of storage and put them on display. Although I know that some temporary museum exhibitions have been dedicated to forgeries (earlier this year the National Gallery in London held the exhibition “Close Examination: Fakes, Mistakes and Discoveries” (see a related Telegraph article here)), I don’t know of a museum that boasts a permanent collection of forgeries.

Of course, if there was one museum dedicated to forgeries, what would that imply for the rest of the museum world? Would a museum of forgeries make other art museums seem more approachable? In other words, would a forgery museum undermine the cultural snobbery (and authoritative voice) associated with the art world? Or do you think that a museum of forgeries would perpetuate the incorrect voice of authority with the remaining “legit” museums, especially if the latter was no longer associated with forgeries (and by extension, mistakes)? Does anyone think that existing museums should embrace (and exhibit) the forgeries that are currently in storage – perhaps a museum for forgeries is unnecessary?

What forgeries would you be interested in seeing in a museum? I know that I’d like to see works by Han Van Meegeren, the infamous Vermeer forger.

1 Kenneth D. S. Lapatin, “Snake Goddess, Fake Goddess,” in Archaeology 54, no. 1 (January/February 2001): 36. Abstract of the article is available here.

  • H Niyazi says:

    Interesting post M! The Vermeer forger would be my choice too. The Peter Greenaway film A Zed and Two Noughts was obsessed with this point – there was a devious surgeon in the film with the same name who was also a Vermeer forger, who uses his patients to recreate Vermeer scenes in the film!

    H Niyazi

  • Undine says:

    I know of at least two collections of material about Edgar Allan Poe (in the University of Texas at Austin and the Lilly Library) that proudly include letters and drawings (supposedly by Poe) that are presented as acknowledged forgeries.

    In the 1920s and 30s, a very talented and prolific forger named Joseph Cosey turned out a large number of fake letters and documents related to various historical figures (including Poe.) Many of his forgeries are considered "works of art" in their own right, and some have sold for nearly as much as the genuine manuscripts!

  • B.E.L.T. says:

    I would totally go! There's something really interesting about forgeries. It's almost a type of art in and of itself.

  • Zsombor Jékely says:

    The van Meegeren paintings have been shown at an exhibition in Rotterdam earlier this year:


  • M says:

    Thanks for the comments everyone (especially those who have commented for the first time)!

    That Greenaway film sounds intriguing, H Niyazi. I'll have to look into it.

    Undine, I didn't know about those Poe forgeries. How interesting! If you're interested in literary forgeries, you might be interested in this article that was recently published in Smithsonian magazine. It discusses the history William-Henry Ireland, an Englishman in the 18th/19th centuries who forged writings by Shakespeare.

    B.E.L.T., thanks for the comment! If there ever is an exhibition of forgeries, you're coming with me!

    Zsombor, I didn't know about the recent Van Meegeren exhibition! Thanks for sharing.

  • heidenkind says:

    Interesting idea. I think a museum of forgeries would have a lot of donations from other museums on its hands! Do you think the primary purpose of the museum would be to teach, or would it be more like a curiosity cabinet-type of institution?

    What I think might be cool is if someone wrote a dissertation on forgeries. You might have to limit it to one artist or time period, but think of the possibilities with that!

  • e says:

    I would absolutely go to a museum on forgeries. I think it'd be a lot of fun. I'm sure the forgeries would have interesting back stories that'd be fun to learn about.

    I also think it'd a great idea for a museum to have just a special exhibition on forgeries. I'll bet that a temporary exhibit like that would really increase a museum's numbers.

    While not the same, at the Holocaust Museum we have an exhibit on a forgery.
    "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" was a huge (and very successful) book back during the war. It's about a supposed plot that Jews have to essentially take over the world. It added a lot of fuel to the fire in terms of anti-semitic actions (interesting fact: in the United States, Henry Ford paid to have hundreds of thousands of copies printed and distributed).
    Anyway, it was proven to be a forgery back then and was still very successful. Even today — years after the forgery was proven — it is wildy popular.

    Not the same thing — and obviously the Holocaust Museum is trying to prove a point with this particular forgery — but, I do think it shows there is a place for forgeries to be displayed in museums.

  • M says:

    Interesting question, heidenkind. I think it would be fun if the forgeries were used for instructional purposes (e.g. how forgeries are made, how forgeries are distributed, how to spot a forgery, how the "supply + demand" relationship in the art market allows for forgeries, etc.). However, I know that by default such a museum would also be a cabinet of curiosities to some degree – after all, I think people are simply curious to see what forgeries look like.

    And yeah, I think it would be really interesting if someone wrote their dissertation on a forgery. I wonder if it has been done before… 🙂

    e, I loved your example from the Holocaust Museum. That's really interesting! I think that you gave a great example of how forgeries can have historical significance. Even if they aren't "authentic" works of art (or literature), they still can affect history in various ways.

  • ixoj says:

    What if they exhibited the forgeries along with a sample or two of the original works? And I would definitely go see a forgery museum.

  • Caroline Blevingfuck says:

    I definitely agree with ixoj, I'd be most interested in seeing the forgeries next to real works by the artist in question.

    This is such a great idea, what a bummer that I can't go to this museum!

  • M says:

    Heidenkind just sent me this article that discusses a few museums which have had exhibitions or displays that focus on forgeries/fakes. It looks fun!

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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.