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the art of the con

5 march 2021

Anthony Amore's Art of the Con is a catalogue of all the ways to get rich in the art world by criminal means. You can forge masterpieces and construct phony provenances for them. You can pay an obscure artist to forge them, and peddle them cleverly to suckers. You can pay obscure artists to copy genuine works that you have legitimate provenances for, and sell them to multiple buyers by making multiple copies of the provenance documents. You can sell people genuine art and never cut the artists in on the sales, or alternatively sell more shares in art investments than your stock of artworks represents. You can make unauthorized casts of genuine sculptures that their creators trust you with, and sell the casts. You can find old worthless paintings, sign a master's name to them, and sell them. You can find genuine, stolen masterpieces in your deceased legal client's attic and sell those. You can grab yourself a digital printer and multiply a single image into countless "artist's proofs," merrily signing them yourself, and sell those. You can advertise stuff on eBay that isn't worth the shipping cost and run up the auctions with the Internet equivalent of "chandelier bids."

Much of this activity may land you in prison, but as of 2015 when The Art of the Con was published, it showed no signs of slowing, and Amore has written a couple of sequels. Perhaps most telling is that buyers who've already been rooked by swindlers return again and again to do business with them.

Amore chronicles the juncture between old artisanal scams and newer, higher-tech versions. In the old game you got an artist, either naïve, down on their luck, or recently immigrated, to forge stuff for you. In the new era, especially in the realm of prints, you just crank out the counterfeits: "You type in 100 and push the button print and you've got 100 images," says Martha O'Brien, wife of defrauded artist John. Walter Benjamin saw this coming from aesthetic and political angles long ago, and crooks twisted his theoretical observations into lucrative practice almost before he made them.

One interesting principle that Amore lays down is that it's easier to forge some artworks than others. Rembrandt is hard – I would have thought hard just because modern materials are going to be almost impossible to put past experts, but Amore says it's also because Rembrandt did really difficult things, compared to Jackson Pollock or even Claude Monet.

Of course, it is much easier to replicate a seemingly random series of splatters than the hand skills of a master painter whose brushstroke technique has mesmerized art historians and connoisseurs for hundreds of years.
Of course, the effort an artist puts in (including the ars longa effort of his or her apprenticeship) may bear little correlation to the value a viewer gets out of an artwork. It remains that a stock complaint about modern art ("My kindergartner could do that!") may have an effect on the art market itself, from the perspective of replicability.

Maybe another takeaway from The Art of the Con is that if you have any excess cash lying around and you don't want to put it into Gamestop or Dogecoin, you might also think twice about investing it in fine art. As Aly Sujo and Laney Salisbury showed in Provenance (2009), which focused on the partnership of John Drewe (hustler) and John Myatt (forger), the chain of associations that proves the authenticity of art is never guaranteed to be intact and itself genuine, so you rarely have any idea of what you're getting unless you buy it directly from an artist's studio, or from a gallery the artist frequents. And suppose you do – decades from now, when your executors find some artwork among your possessions and suspect it may have value, how can they verify its bona fides? Most art, except for public monuments and the most prominent of museum pieces, spends a lot of time sitting around unobserved in private … and who's to say, after a while, which item came from which source?

Basically, if you want art at all, buy stuff you like, locally, don't spend very much for it, don't worry about how much it might appreciate, and don't encourage your heirs to think of it as their nest egg. But such advice is hard to promote when everybody's looking for a growth investment and the Internet is full of deals that seem a little too good to miss.

Amore, Anthony M. The Art of the Con: The most notorious fakes, frauds, and forgeries in the art world. New York: St. Martin's [Macmillan], 2015. N8790 .A46. Kindle Edition.