Forgery as an Art Practice // Özgür Demirci

According to Plato, artists’ reproductions of the things are not the reality itself but the shadow of it. Artist creates a feverish, enthusiastic, and counterfeit world by revealing the beauties that people cannot used to see. However, according to Aristotle, the artist is not an imitator who shows fake worlds, s/he is the one who finds the beauties in nature and describes them as different worlds. Aristotle claims that the artist has no obligation to explain the reality. 

In this regard, fake artwork can be defined as a new interpretation of the final end of the work after its production. When the reproduction of the artwork is questioned on the value of the commodity, fake reaches another dimension. When this matter is considered from a historical point of view, the institutional autonomy of art was realized with the rise of the art market. “The artists were getting rid of the control of the palace and church, the aristocratic system of protection, to make the order and leaving the rigid education and work discipline of the guild system with the rise of the art market”.[1]The market was also manipulated with the fake artworks that produced with valued original artworks.

“The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” by Benjamin is an essay that he states that the aura of the artwork is depreciated when the work of art has been reproduced or copied by mechanical reproduction. Aura gives the work of art to uniqueness and authenticity. According to Benjamin, these are elite traits and cannot reach the masses unlike the reproduced copy of the artwork. However, this way of thinking is also vulnerable to traps of the previous one. There is nothing remains from art when the content and form relation turns upside down and imitation and technology become the essence of the artwork. In this manner, art is used as a tool to show the power of the technology. [2] Benjamin’s aura is directly engaged with the commodity value of the work of art. The desire to have the unique one has become a representation within the balance of power. The museum that derived from the Greek word “mouseion” is defined as the area where sovereigns show their spoils over the war with public as a symbol of their power in Ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia. Today, museums and collections also take an important place as part of power and prestige. The act of art forgery can also be defined as a struggle against this power and prestige.

Martin Heidegger’s “The Origin of the Work of Art” which was published at the same time with Benjamin’s “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” opens up a different discussion by approaching the origin of the artwork not the essence of it. According to Heidegger, the origin of the artwork is always in somewhere else. “The hermeneutic circle discloses the truth (aletheia) of a being relation to Being and the works relation to the artist”.[3] The notions that were brought forward by Benjamin and Heidegger are the tools in the manner of understanding the essence of the artwork and its reproduction. 

The artwork’s eligibility to be merchandised made it commodified. It is a great prestige for the people who buy and sell artworks with a premium price on the market. The core point of the issue is not the artwork itself but the commodity value it represents. The fake artworks cannot find a place in a big art world. Fake is the structure that mocks the commoditized art system.

During the research process, I analyzed some case studies in the art history. First case study was Elmyr De Hory who was one of the productive art forger. He had produced more than 1000 fake artworks. After the World War II he moved to US and he introduced himself as an aristocrat from Hungary who selling his private art collection. His fake artworks, which he produces, are still in the museums’ collections because his fake artworks haven’t been proved yet.  De Hory was also the subject of the F for Fake documentary movie, directed by Orson Welles. De Hory famous quote from the movie “If my work hangs in a museum long enough, it becomes real” opens different discussions in the art world.

Mark Landis is another art forger who realized his talent of copying an artwork while his painting therapy for his schizophrenia.  He has been producing fake artworks for 30 years and donating museums and private collections. There is no definition of crime within the law since he has never made money from his fake artworks. He donated museums such as Oklahoma City Museum and California Museum. Currently Mark Landis makes a desired paintings for money from a website set up in his name.

Han van Meegeren had a  tragic story in his art life. Van Meegeren wanted to be an artist but his artworks found non-modernist, because of bad motivation he couldn’t achieve what he desired. He started to produce fake paintings such as Pieter de Hooch, Gerard ter Borch, Johannes Vermeer and others. Van Meegeren accused of selling painting to Nazi Officer R. Hermann Göring in Holland, which was under invasion in World War II. When he realized that he was sentenced to death penalty he confessed that he had made a fake painting and that the pictures he had sold were fake. In 1937, his work Supper at Emmaus, based on the description of Caravaggio, made Vermeer’s signature. He has created the most important forgery of art history by producing a work of Vermeer which never exist.

Wolfang Beltracchi was the last art forger in my research, his real name Wolfang Fischer was born in 1951 in Höxter. Beltracchi, who has learned to copy paintings from his father, who is a restorator at churches. He has sold countless copies of paintings to the art market. It is known that many of his works are still original and may be included in some museums and galleries.  Beltracchi, who started producing fake artworks after the financial problems of his wife. He started copying French and German artists in twentieth century which was easy to find pigment and frame. Beltracchi, who made a profit of around $ 45,000 by copying many of the German expressionist Johannes Molzahns’ works who escaped from the Nazis to America. Beltracchi sold even a painting of Molzahns to the artist’s ex-spouse.

The first time Beltracchi, who spent his time by producing painters and disappearing paintings in World War II, made a big profit by copying painters such as Fernard Léger, George Braque and Max Ernest among others.

Art crimes find institutional representation by Fake Arts Museum in Vienna founded in 2005, the museum exhibits its famous fake artworks. The collection of museum includes works by art forgers such as Han van Meegeren, Elmyr de Hory and Eric Hebborn. Defining fake artifacts within the rules it defines, the museum argues that the definition of art crime will only occur when the artwork is claimed to be original and sold. 

Producing a fake artwork also become business in the village called Dafen in Shenzen, China. In Dafen, more than 5 million fake paintings have been producing every year. From the ancient period to the Renaissance, from Van Gogh to Damien Hirst, there is a wide production line and they sell to the world through a website called 

Many of the case studies show that art forgery is related with art market and money but the act of art forgery can also be defined as a struggle against this power and prestige as I mentioned before. In contemporary art “art crimes” represented in different forms such as Leila Pazooki’s installation called Fair Trade. Her installation, which she performed at the Christian Hosp Gallery in Berlin in 2011, produced 100 copies of Lucas Cranach the Elder’s Allegory of Justice by 100 artists from Dafen in the same space within 6 hours. 

The vital relationship between humankind and violence has been caused extreme hazards, wars and grieves throughout the history. This relationship can be interpreted in different ways within the fields of mind creation. Discussing violence directly or indirectly in art can be seen in new production practices. Violence and crime notions that I discuss are contextually fictional. Another example is my last project called Trumbauer Family Collection collaboration with Suat Öğüt. The Trumbauer Family is interested in works of art located in public areas [parks and museums]. The family collection consists of works obtained from such locations and has been growing over generations. For the first time a special selection from the family collection exhibited and created a new style of narration which explains the role of the exhibits in collective memory, their conversion from works of art to commodities, and their ways of presentation. This collection revisits works that have ceased to exist or had never existed in the first place, which directly intervene in real stories throughout history.

[1] piyasasi-ve-sanatin-ozerkligi/2611

[2] Hugh J. Silverman, Art and its Shadow, Çev. Massimo Verdicchio, New York, Londra, 2004

[3] Hugh J. Silverman, Art and its Shadow, Çev. Massimo Verdicchio, New York, Londra, 2004

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