In Praise of the Fake

If the best art excites our emotions, makes us question the world around us, and exhibits astonishing skill… what better than forgeries?

When the New Orleans Museum of Art received a donation from Mark A. Landis in 1987, the curators had no idea how lucky they were. While the watercolor bore the signature of Marie Laurencin, a minor French Cubist, Landis himself was the painter. Over the next several decades, often disguised as a priest, Landis gifted at least a hundred more fakes to some fifty American museums, boosting their holdings in names ranging from Paul Signac to Charles Courtney Curran to Pablo Picasso.

The New Orleans Museum was fortunate – though the curators may beg to differ – because Landis is now more noteworthy than Laurencin. To be sure, his watercolor isn't much to look at, faithful as it is to Laurencin's sentimentalism, but the con job he perpetrated is astonishing. As one of the foremost forgers of our time, Landis is one of the greatest artists.

To appreciate Landis as an important artist, and to recognize forgery as a vital art form, you have to set aside the antiquated notion of art as a precious bauble. Since the advent of Modernism in the mid-nineteenth century, serious artists have been battling that perception, struggling to make art subversive. Impressionism and Cubism presented radical challenges to how we visualize the world. Dada and Surrealism undermined our confidence in logic. Expressionism – both figurative and abstract – bombarded us with visions of existential crisis. Pop Art made a show trial of consumerism. These are oversimplifications of course, but they suggest a common cause shared by all modern art worthy of attention. The most significant artists provoke us to examine ourselves and our civilization.

Yet the provocation is seldom sufficient for most people to take notice, let alone to question their worldview. That's because even the fiercest work is tamed when it's presented as art. Edvard Munch's paintings won't actually pain you, nor will Marina Abramovic's performances (unless you happen to be one of her volunteers). Well-lit and air-conditioned, museums are safe havens. Expert wall texts provide comforting explanations. Any anxiety you feel is just a passing thrill, like the fear you experience watching a horror film.

And anyway, only a small minority of people visit museums and galleries in the first place. Generally patrons are well-educated, liberal, urban and affluent. Those may be good demographics for cultivating donors or clients, but art can hardly change the world if it reaches only an elite.

Forgeries have none of the limitations of legitimate art. They're anything but safe, and encountering them is anything but voluntary. When a forger perpetrates a fraud, he or she plays to our blind spots. And if the forger is caught, the ensuing scandal broadly exposes the false assumptions and flaws in our system that permitted the deception. In the aftermath of a great forgery, we see ourselves and our world more clearly.

Take the case of the Dutch painter Han van Meegeren, the most famous art forger of the 20th century. In the late 1930s, van Meegeren faked a painting by Johannes Vermeer that looked nothing like Vermeer's known pictures. It was a Biblical scene, showing Christ breaking bread at Emmaus, and it seemed to validate the longstanding claim of a leading Dutch scholar, Abraham Bredius, who believed that Vermeer had gone through a lost religious phase. Bredius eagerly authenticated the painting. (In The Burlington Magazine, the toniest art journal of the day, he even declared it to be "the masterpiece of Johannes Vermeer of Delft".) His endorsement was a license for van Meegeren to produce more in the same style, and World War II made the paintings ridiculously easy to sell since patriotic Dutchmen were desperate to keep their patrimony out of Hitler's collections.

Van Meegeren painted one too many. His version of Christ and the adulteress was acquired by Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, the Luftwaffe commander who'd recently leveled Rotterdam. After the war, van Meegeren was discovered to have been the seller, and charged with criminal disloyalty to Holland. He confessed to the far lesser crime of art forgery. His court case garnered worldwide media attention, featured in newsreels and magazine articles. "The knowledge and integrity of many experts... stood on trial," wrote Irving Wallace in The Saturday Evening Post. More broadly, the van Meegeren scandal encouraged people to question the mechanisms of authority – buttressed by the war – that protected his ghastly paintings from public scrutiny.

Maybe van Meegeren couldn't have done it today, but there are myriad other ways in which forgers manipulate everything we take for granted. Tweaking those beliefs, more than any technical skill, is the forger's métier. One of the last big cases of the 20th century played out on eBay in 1998, when a seller named Kenneth Walton brushed the initials RD52 on a colorful abstract painting he found in a junkshop, leading bidders to believe they were outsmarting him – and getting the deal of a lifetime – by buying a 1952 canvas by Richard Diebenkorn. With the help of a little shill bidding, the painting topped $135,000 before the FBI closed in. The scandal reverberated far beyond the art world, engaging audiences that had never even been online, let alone heard of Diebenkorn. Just three years after eBay was founded, Walton's con job revealed how ill-adapted human instincts are for negotiating the virtual marketplace.

While Walton had scarcely touched a paintbrush, he was a great artist because his scam made us examine our nascent relationship with the world wide web. Sure it was a crime – for which Walton was punished with a jail term – but art can't be judged by legal standards, let alone by an artist's character. (After all, Caravaggio was a murderer.) We can appreciate the con without condoning it.

And forgery is not necessarily a crime. Mark Landis has never been charged because he's always given away his fakes. He donates them to minor museums, often in memory of his parents. He declines to take a tax deduction. Sometimes he offers to pay for framing.

Most of his forgeries are mediocre. Many are painted directly atop printed photos of the original paintings, downloaded from the internet. Some have gaps where you can see pixelation, as curators have noticed long after he's gone. They've spread word about him, so he's taken up aliases. For a while, one of his favorites was Jesuit Father Arthur Scott.

Several newspapers have interviewed Landis, trying to ascertain why he'd selflessly pass off fakes. His responses are inconsistent and hardly convincing. (He told the Financial Times that he wanted to commemorate his parents but couldn't afford a suitable memorial, a touching story until you consider how many paintings he's donated under fictitious names.) What makes Landis's work so provocative is that it defies conventional thinking. Curators are duped over and over again because the conman's munificence disarms them. Evidently our materialist culture has a blind spot for generosity. His fakes are more subversive, and thus more artistically compelling, than the Signacs and Picassos he copies.

The great irony is that forgeries are more real than the real artworks they fake. They genuinely manipulate society rather than merely illustrating alternate points of view. There are no boundaries, no frames or explanatory texts. We are at once the forger's materials, subject, and audience.

Artists need not be taken aback by the fact that forgers are outperforming them. On the contrary, artists should take the subversiveness of forgery as inspiration. Artists have a natural advantage, since forgers are inclined to hide their ruses. (Their forgeries can only become great art if they're exposed.) Most forgers don't want to get caught. In contrast, artists can flaunt their subversions.

In 2011 the new media artists Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev built a simple device that allowed them to hijack the wi-fi signal in a library, and to remotely edit the content of news sites such as nytimes.com so that everyone in the room reading the New York Times on a wireless device would see modified headlines. Then they posted the blueprints online so that anybody with a soldering iron could manufacture the appliance.

Countless artworks comment on the unreliability of information in the digital age. Oliver and Vasiliev make the precariousness palpable. Any time you use public wi-fi, you have to wonder whether someone has installed their device in your vicinity. Your anxiety is real, and leads to honest questioning of everything you believe. All art should be so engaging.

Jonathon Keats is most recently the author of Forged: Why Fakes Are The Great Art Of Our Age (Oxford University Press).

Jonathon Keats is most recently the author of Forged: Why Fakes Are The Great Art Of Our Age (Oxford University Press).

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge