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A Final Word

A Final Word

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Published by Paul Henrickson

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Published by: Paul Henrickson on Nov 24, 2007
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial


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A FINAL WORDEric Hebborn, author of “Drawn To Trouble” , (“The Confessionsof a Master Forger”) is cynically astute observer, recordsaccurately, I believe, “Pictures which are unsaleable are badbusiness; and by some sort of warped logic become bad art, sodealers have it “improved”…should painting becomeunsaleable because it represented an ugly woman, the uglywoman should become a beautiful girl. If it represented asaleable (sic?) young man contemplating an unsaleable skull,the offending skull was turned into a brimming glass of wine, or some other object with commercially viable associations. A catin the foreground guaranteed the sale of the dullest landscape.Dogs and horses enliven an otherwise unsaleable pasture.Balloons floated into otherwise commercially deficient skies atonce became immensely important, (i.e. expensive) documentsin the history of aviation. Popular signatures came, unpopular signatures went: this is a sentimental response, not asympathetic one born out of an aesthetic notion.”The other side of the coin is that the customer for this sort of work doesn’t know what he should be looking for. I am remindedof a social gathering at the home of a socially prominent womanin Minneapolis, honoring two retirees of the faculty of theuniversity’s art department. The hostess over-flowing with self-importance and a heightened estimate of her social behavior was showing a group of faculty around the large house andpointing out items in her collection. She beamed when she cameto a work by one of the retiring professors and proudlyannounced that is was going to be sent to the Sao PauloBiennale and discounted the importance of a George Braqueshe’d “got rid of”, which had, consequently, lost all its artisticimportance. One of the guests a teaching assistant, apparentlyfed up with her posturing asked if she were familiar with the “soand so” collection in New Port. She wasn’t, of course, familiar with it and dismissed the question with a gesture of her wrist, atwhich point feigning submission the questioner admitted that itwould have been unlikely since it was a really private collection.The hostess got the point immediately and turned a deep purple.
If customers behave the way Hebborn describes they deserve toget fakes, although I consider it thoroughly regrettable that aclever pastiche maker should have prostituted his talents to thatend.I am still amazed at how clever some forgers can really be. Thefollowing story involved myself, a painting I own, which hadbeen attributed to Albert Bierstadt, and Forrest Fenn, a veryprominent art dealer in Santa Fe. I had come into the possessionof this painting while still an undergraduate art student havingbought it with the frame of the size I needed. I told theshopkeeper that I didn’t want the painting so would he be able tolower the price. He lowered the price 40%.The painting was so dirty it was impossible to tell what hesubject matter was. I did some research into the methods ocleaning and following the advice of Max Doerner discoveredthat it was a landscape, a mountain landscape with a large lake,snow on the tops of the mountains, two eagles, and a sail boatback in the distance. One of the birds had been, apparently beenpainted with pigment that had varnish in it and as I was carefullycleaning, millimeter by millimeter, I could tell that the bird wasdisappearing little by little. So, I didn’t clean that area with asolvent any more. I left it that way and it remained that way for about thirty years until I had a friend who was a professionalcleaner clean it again and restretch it. The bird had flown awaywhen I got the painting back and my “friend” denied it was ever there. At one point I told Forrest I had the painting and hevolunteered to photograph it and make an enquiry of KennedyGallery in New York. I hadn’t been aware that Kennedy had aninterest in Bierstadt, but I assented. It was, I suppose,photographed and some months later I asked Forrest what he’dheard from Kennedy. He said he couldn’t remember, but he’dlost the letter. A few months later Forrest held a small exhibitionof Bierstadt paintings and what appeared, without doubt, to bean exact duplicate of my painting, but 1/2 the size was a part of that exhibition at a sale price of only $18,000.I learned that the Goldfield Galleries in Los Angeles had aninterest in the smaller painting and so I contacted them, made an
appointment, flew to Los Angeles with my painting and askedthem what they thought. Their response was silence. Theyremarked that it had been retouched and I said I knew that, theydid not express an interest in buying it, or in even saying thatthey weren’t interested and I didn’t tell them what I knew, andthey didn’t ask. The absence of professional curiosity made methink I had been the vehicle for their discovering they, and I, hadboth been somehow fooled, but by whom, and for what reasonsand, how, I still ask myself, could a genuine painting be socompletely, so totally, dot by dot, a replica except for the changein size.My curiosity is still unsatisfied as to how a painting could be soexactly copied, without the bird, I should emphasize, even if ithad been done by the original artist. It was a perfectreproduction at least in so far as I was able to determine notbeing in a position to take the copy in my hands to check detailsout about the canvas or stretcher, but the details of the paintingitself were quite exact, undeviatingly exact.Of course, I know this is a matter of theft and that somehow animage that is rightfully mine –through the coincidence of physical ownership only --is out there masquerading in amaterial form that is not mine and that the damages done othersmay have been worse than those done me, except for one point.If I were unable to tell the difference between the two worksexcept for the difference in size would any future buyer of thework be defrauded aesthetically?To phrase the question differently, if, to the human senses, thereare no discernable differences between these products other than their sizes is the buyer, observer, being mislead, fooled, or bamboozled?Only if it is sold as and he buys it as a Bierstadt is hedefrauded? And then perhaps only because I, and a few others,know it isn’t a Bierstadt. But, by the same token, maybe thepainting I have might have been the product of a similar confidence game. The important difference in this hypothetical

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