Evaluating the Genuine Fake

Scott McLemee reviews Lydia Pyne's Genuine Fakes: How Phony Things Teach Us About Real Stuff.

September 13, 2019
 
 

The word "fake" seems to have its origins in 18th-century criminal argot -- possibly with a German, Dutch or Anglo-Saxon derivation -- though Anatoly Liberman's reflections at the Oxford University Press blog suggest its prehistory is speculative at best. "The amazing thing is not its putative origin," he concludes, "but its adoption by the 'cultured class.'"

More recently, the word has become the first refuge of scoundrels. Fake accusations of fakeness are an assault on the faculty of judgment: an effort to bully it into passivity. Lydia Pyne's agenda in Genuine Fakes: How Phony Things Teach Us About Real Stuff (Bloomsbury Sigma) is very much the opposite. Now a visiting researcher at the Institute for Historical Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, she leaves the topic of "fake news" to experts in the history of propaganda. Instead, she focuses on the paradoxical status of a number of "tangible, physical things that have been made, unmade and remade any number of ways throughout history." The genuine fake poses questions about the relationship between authenticity and value in ways that compel thought rather than numb it.

What, then, is a genuine fake? Few examples swarm immediately to mind, apart perhaps from artificial flavoring. (With a product called I Can't Believe It's Not Butter! at least you can be certain of what you aren't getting.) Pyne does have a chapter on the history of efforts to deceive the tongue, including such presumably doomed experiments as crab-flavored ice cream. But her most interesting case studies involve more complex relations between fabrication and veracity. There's William Henry Ireland, for example, whose knack in the late 18th century for locating documents signed by Shakespeare was uncanny as well as profitable.

Ireland even discovered a long-lost play, Vortigern and Rowena, performed in 1796 to more laughter than is usual for a tragedy. He eventually confessed to having concocted his "discoveries" in order to get money out of his father, who, Pyne writes, "believed that his son was simply ‘too dim and shallow’ to create something so accomplished as these forgeries." Even after Ireland's confession, some people were either gullible or ironic enough to want to own the spurious documents, which gave him an incentive to forge copies of his own forgeries.

"Today," writes Pyne, "William Henry Ireland is one of the most collectable and valuable of the dubious pantheon of Shakespearean forgers, with authentic Irelands fetching anywhere from a few hundred pounds to tens of thousands of pounds at auction. More than just financial cachet, though, William Henry Ireland’s forgeries continue to intrigue scholars. Institutions that have Ireland holdings -- like Harvard University -- consistently find their Ireland forgeries in use for any number of scholarly research projects."

The author's reference to "authentic Irelands" implies that other hands have forged copies of Ireland's forgeries of his own fake Shakespeare texts. The career of a painter known as the Spanish Forger bear some similarities. Among the acquisitions that J. P. Morgan and other collectors proudly displayed in the early 20th century were various medieval-seeming artworks that had actually been churned out in Paris, circa 1900, by an unknown but clearly industrious painter who left certain distinctive stylistic fingerprints. He (the attribution of gender, like that of nationality, is guesswork) depicted "a very specific sort of secular medieval life, full of chess and falconry, knights and women in pointy wimples" -- not to mention ample cleavage -- in "scenes with gardens, music, games, unicorns and revelry."

Pyne notes that the Spanish Forger neglected religious elements in his work "as he gauged, quite accurately … his turn-of-the-20th century bourgeois collectors’ interests." Curatorial detective work revealed the fraud, but the Spanish Forger's artistry was impressive in its own right, and his paintings, with "their fabulously curious, historically quirky provenience," now sell well at auctions. (That's not a typo, by the way, but a semantic nuance: "Provenience refers to an artefact’s birthplace.")

Here, as with the forged Bard, an alchemy of sorts is evident. Something that came into being to deceive and defraud turned into an authentic cultural artifact -- albeit not of the kind first advertised. The story of the Grolier Codex serves as a kind of counterpoint. The conquistadores and priests who swept through the Mayan empire in the 16th century burned every text they could find, apart from three codices sent home as souvenirs and curiosities. First shown in public in 1971 after being discovered in Mexico under altogether sketchy circumstances, the Grolier Codex was generally assumed to be part of the enormous body of fake Mayan books sold to collectors throughout Europe and the Americas over the centuries.

"If there is anything suspicious," Pyne writes, "the whispers of fakery or forgery will follow an artefact for the rest of its life, directly affecting its social, ethical and financial valuations." Skeptics remain, but an analysis of the composition of one of the paints used in the codex suggests that it is genuine. "The story of the Grolier Codex is a reminder that objects live on a continuum of authenticity, and that they can move up and down that continuum, depending on their history and context."

The push in either direction may come from confession, laboratory testing, curatorial diligence or even quirks of scholarly enthusiasm. But a number of the "objects" she discusses come into the world as genuine fakes, with no apologies. In addition to artificial flavoring, we have artificial diamonds, as well as detailed reproductions of Paleolithic living spaces to meet tourist demand.

Within a few years of the discovery of prehistoric artwork in the Lascaux cave in France, the carbon dioxide and water vapor from the breaths of hundreds of visitors per day -- combined with their body heat -- created conditions in which fungi and molds began to destroy the paintings. Three duplicates of the original cave have been constructed, but the damage has been done. When an astounding set of cave dwellings was discovered in Chauvet in the 1990s, measures were taken immediately to restrict access to qualified researchers and preservationists; in 2014, UNESCO put the Chauvet Cave on its World Heritage list. A facsimile has been created, with the accuracy of its replicas vetted by researchers who first studied the cave.

This, Pyne says, raises "some tricky ethical questions about archaeological replicas. What makes a replica good? Can a replica really be authentic? What responsibilities -- if any -- do replicas have to an original archaeological site? Can a replica ever really, truly stand in for the genuine thing? … Isn’t this really, critics complain, akin to taking Plato’s Allegory of the Cave and pretending that the shadows on the wall are real objects? To put it bluntly: Where does the history stop and the pandering start?"

Somewhere along the line where fidelity to authenticity leads to responsibility for preservation, maybe? That would seem to be the author's own assessment. "Before we demand that something be authentic or dismiss something as fake," she writes, "we ought to think about the purpose, intent and context of the object in question and what we would accept as the Real Thing." All the more so now, amid the monotonous dishonesty that strives to abolish inconvenient truths.

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