Forgeries and Figments

Dominic Smith

Legendary Dutch forger Han van Meegeren with his fake Vermeer in his studio in 1945

Every fake should tell a story. Maybe it’s the blue chalk marks on the back of the frame, partially removed by hand, that suggest previous auction sales. Or maybe it’s the insect frass on the picture itself, evoking decades of neglect in an attic, since flies are drawn to the sugars in the varnish. A careful collector might run an ultraviolet light over the depiction, looking for signs of oxidation—the delicate blue-white fluorescence that is a by-product of age—so in order to deceive collectors, forgers will sometimes remove the varnish from an old, worthless painting and apply it with a spray gun to the new creation.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos
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When Han van Meegeren duped Hermann Goering and the Nazis into buying his fake Vermeers during World War II, his narrative problem was one of porosity. Since oil paints can take half a century to fully harden, a prospective buyer might stick a pin into a particular pigment to see if it’s still soft. Van Meegeren bought a pizza oven to experiment with hardening his paintings, but it wasn’t until he began adding Bakelite to his pigments and then baking the pictures slowly that he solved his story problem.

While writing The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, which features a forgery of the only Dutch Golden Age landscape to be painted by a woman, I was fortunate enough to enlist the expertise of a master forger. Ken Perenyi vetted my fabrications by e-mail. In 2012, he published a memoir, Caveat Emptor, in which he describes in elaborate detail how he created and sold fake masterwork paintings to the world’s most prestigious auction houses and dealers. In the e-mail, I sent him a list of forgery techniques that lay at the center of my evolving novel. I had an art restoration expert making a copy of At the Edge of a Wood, a winter scene of a girl watching ice skaters at dusk, painted in 1636. My contemporary character, Ellie Shipley, copies the painting using the techniques I’d learned from a handful of interviews and forgery books, including Eric Hebborn’s The Art Forger’s Handbook and Perenyi’s Caveat Emptor. I got most of it right. But Perenyi called out a serious technical and narrative mistake. I had Ellie sourcing and repurposing a Dutch canvas of the same period, but she overzealously—in that draft—stripped back the upper layers of paint and then used a pumice stone to smooth the canvas before painting her own depiction. Perenyi pointed out that this was an amateur move since it would remove the “surface signature” of the paintings. A four-hundred-year-old painting shows the skeins and warbles of age in a distinctive way; sometimes the craquelure pattern makes it look like a colored pane of delicately shattered glass.

Because the Seventeenth-century Dutch created their canvases in meticulous steps and layers—sizing, grounding, dead-coloring, depicting, glazing—their paintings are almost geological in their structure. What happens in a stratum below, like the use of gray for the shadows or lead white for a patch of snow, affects the storyline up above. Perenyi, like all good forgers, knows this geology like a parcel of land he’s cleared with his own hands. Decades spent experimenting with the techniques of illusion, from grinding his own baroque pigments to making his own glue from rabbit pelts, have given him the technical skill to pull off his narratives. The master forger’s prowess is an odd combination of technique and storytelling bravado.

Before the forger Mark Landis was profiled in a recent New Yorker piece and a documentary, he often trundled his fakes around to various museums across the country in costume, sometimes dressed as a priest. A clerical collar has a similar effect to imitation insect frass; it diverts the eye from the depiction itself. Unlike Perenyi or van Meegeren, though, Landis didn’t profit from his forgeries since his works were given to curators as donations (also avoiding fraud crimes). Perhaps the suspension of disbelief is a little easier when no money changes hands.

Like forgers, novelists trade in figments, illusions, and the limits of veracity. We are both specialists in deceiving the senses. Maybe that’s why it seemed natural for me to e-mail a master forger to authenticate a forgery of a fictitious painting by a fictional character (though Sara de Vos is based on several historical women painters of the period). It seems ironic now that I was asking Perenyi, a fellow expert in deceit, to tell me the truth. For someone who’d spent most of his professional life hiding in plain sight, he was remarkably candid and forthcoming. It strikes me that his own story was something he couldn’t resist, just like a novelist of a certain age and reputation might give in, finally, to the memoir impulse.

Why forgeries, like plagiarism, are felt so viscerally by our culture was something that stayed with me over the course of writing the novel. I kept coming back to the quote by Plato that “everything that deceives must be said to enchant.” That is as true for fiction as it is for successful forgeries. The work must entice, suggest, evoke, and depict. It must feel true. And it’s because it does all these things that the buyer, or the reader, creates their own narrative with the work. This story, this moment, has traveled to them over time, through the mediums of paper or plasma or pigments, and now it’s unfolding, as if for the first time. When we are transported by art, it’s intensely personal. So forgery and plagiarism cut to the beating heart of our own experiences with other human minds. And nobody, after all, wants to fall in love with an impostor.

The Crooked House

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See the re-creation of a forger’s studio on Dominic Smith’s website.

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos, Dominic Smith’s fourth novel, will be published on April 5 by Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Library Journal calls it “stunning . . . a masterly, multilayered story that will dazzle readers.”

Dominic Smith grew up in Australia and now lives in Austin, Texas. He’s the author of three novels: Bright and Distant Shores, The Beautiful Miscellaneous, and The Mercury Visions of Louis Daguerre. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize and has appeared widely, including in The Atlantic, Texas Monthly, and the Chicago Tribune‘s Printers Row Journal. He has been a recipient of a Literature Grant from the Australia Council for the Arts, a Dobie Paisano Fellowship, and a Michener Fellowship. He teaches writing in the Warren Wilson MFA Program for Writers.

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Photo: Legendary Dutch forger Han van Meegeren with his fake Vermeer in his studio in 1945. Source: Wikimedia Commons

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