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Forgery Fiction by Maggie Cao in Public Books

Fellows, SOF Fellows

October 2, 2016
Le Mensonge by Felix Edouard Vallotton

MAGGIE CAO (SOF 2014 - 2015) in Public Books

October 1, 2016 — Even Michelangelo was guilty of forgery. As the story goes, the young artist buried a sleeping Cupid he carved from marble so that it would pass as a Greco-Roman antiquity. Upon learning of its true maker, the buyer, Cardinal Raffaello Riario, returned the piece to his dealer for a full refund. The unfortunate Cardinal, though a few hundred ducats wealthier, will forever be remembered in the annals of art history as aesthetically clueless, unable to recognize Michelangelo as the first modern sculptor to surpass the celebrated ancients he was trying to imitate.1

Forgeries expose some of the art world’s most psychologically complex figures: the collector and the counterfeiter. What compels the prototypical collector to accumulate objects of beauty is usually a peculiar devotion to the power of singularity. The collector worships art’s power to move us, a power we imagine emanates from unique objects. Meanwhile, what motivates the counterfeiter is an undue confidence in the possibilities of replication. To deceive a viewer with a copy is to affirm that copy’s interchangeability with the original.

The emotional liaisons between people with these clashing viewpoints on art is the subject of two recent forgery novels, Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sara de Vos and Martin Suter’s The Last Weynfeldt. These books join a growing list of contemporary fiction that uses great works of art to propel plots of mystery and intrigue, including Michael Frayn’s Headlong (1999) and Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch (2013). For the Swiss-born Suter and the Australian American Smith, both veteran creators of rarified cultural worlds, forgeries prove more interesting than originals.

The title character of Suter’s novel, Adrian Weynfeldt, is a collector and auctioneer embroiled in a forgery scheme. A billionaire bachelor in his mid-50s and the last surviving member of an elite Swiss family, he works as a specialist of 19th- and 20th-century art at a major auction house out of passion rather than necessity. Adrian is the kind of person whose judgment is reserved for the beautiful things that fill his workplace and museum-like home rather than for the people around him. His social world consists of a handful of aging, blue-blooded friends of the family and a circle of younger, charismatic types whose unfruitful creative pursuits he alone seems to support. In their midst, he carries out quiet philanthropic gestures so as to avoid seeming showy or condescending. If Adrian has a worldview (and he would surely be too self-conscious to voice any such thing), it might be that money is ugly but art depends on it.

Ever since Aestheticism’s mantra of art for art’s sake, capital-A Art has kept its distance from the taint of money, even though they have always been attached by what the critic Clement Greenberg once called “an umbilical cord of gold.”2 The canonization of an artistic masterpiece often goes hand in hand with its removal as a commodity from the market. In the hallowed halls of a national museum, artworks become sacred and exceptional.3 We want to believe that something as universally appreciated as a Michelangelo or as privately meaningful as a family heirloom is “priceless,” but the market is as blind to aesthetics as it is to sentimental value.

Adrian’s own neat compartmentalization of art and money is undone by the entrance of two seductive women into his life. The first is the penniless and emotionally damaged Lorena, sometime model and seasoned shoplifter, whom we encounter in the opening pages trying to fling herself from Adrian’s grand balcony the morning after their almost-consummated tryst. The other is a voluptuous nude painted in 1900 by the Swiss-French artist Félix Vallotton, owned by Adrian’s enterprising friend Klaus Baier (one of the aging, blue-blooded set), who asks him to sell it on his auction block. It is hardly a spoiler to say that the painting gets counterfeited for all the predictable reasons: Klaus can’t bear to part with the work, but he desperately needs the money. The scheme is simple: auction off the forgery and squirrel the original away in the upscale lakeside retirement villa funded by the sale. Yet the painting is not the book’s only double. The beguiling ginger-haired Lorena so closely resembles Adrian’s first love—the original redhead he cannot forgive himself for tragically losing—that the faces of the two women initially “fused … in his mind...." Continue to full article HERE.