Faking it big in the 21st century

We inhabit a world of imitations in which we are no longer even certain what is real, argues Patrick

I am a big fan of The Who, but have never seen them play live - indeed, I have no particular desire to do so. Maintaining that a trio of geriatrics without Keith Moon is something less than the "real thing" anyway, I remain content to have enjoyed two performances by tribute bands The Maximum Who and Who's Who.

The success of other tribute bands, such as Bjorn Again and The Bootleg Beatles, suggests that many pop fans are also happy with the fake article. Why? On the surface, the proliferation of tribute bands since the early 1990s can be explained as owing to the exigencies of time and money: the real artists were too old, too expensive, had split up, or were just plain dead.

Yet the explosion was also very much a phenomenon of the time, representative of the declining importance of authenticity in western culture and our acceptance of a world where imitation is all-pervasive. Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin may have bemoaned it, Roland Barthes may have plainly foretold it, but it seems we inhabit and enjoy a world where the real thing does not really matter.

In the arts and in our lifestyles, endless bricolage, regurgitation and imitation bear testament to this trend. We drink in fake Irish pubs, cocoon ourselves in virtual reality, and visit Disneyland to immerse ourselves in the worlds of ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, Olde England or the Wild West. Some - such as the residents of Celebration, Florida, a recreated world of Midwest America - even live in a simulated world. Eclectic genres of rap and dance music unashamedly borrow guitar riffs from the Seventies, looping them over a Sixties bass-line. Meanwhile, a put-together girl band mimes on stage and reaches number one.

Technology dictates that nearly any object can be simulated. Not only are Van Goghs and da Vincis endlessly reproduced on posters and postcards, but we countenance with eagerness the day when we ourselves can be cloned. This may symbolise the ultimate narcissistic fantasy - the potentially endless reproduction of the self - but it also heralds a liberation from the Platonic ideal of the essential object. If someone is an identical copy, then what makes the original "original"? After all, we do not label identical twins as "real" and "copy".

In the world of fashion and sportswear, there is even an enthusiasm for fakes. Recent research undertaken by MORI revealed that 40 per cent of British consumers admit they would knowingly buy counterfeit products if the price and quality were acceptable. Of these, 76 per cent would buy clothing or footwear, 43 per cent watches, 38 per cent perfume and 22 per cent electrical goods. Up to 11 per cent of clothing and footwear in circulation are thought to be fakes.

Even in the world of high art, we are happy with simulation. If you want an oil-painted reproduction of a Monet or Cezanne, Heirloom Arts of Harrogate, Yorkshire, will do one for you. Provided the artist you seek has been dead for 70 years or more, reproducing such work is perfectly legal. Its customers include families who want to sell valuable paintings and substitute the fake for the real on their walls for their unwitting friends to admire.

The demand for fake art has even spawned a curious sub-genre. Last month, the Times reported that, 24 years after his death, the infamous art forger Elmyr de Hory, who duped countless collectors and curators in the 1960s and 1970s, had become a star in his own right. His fake Matisses and Picassos have become so sought-after that they are now being faked themselves: the "genuine fake" begets the "fake fake".

A similar fate befell Konrad Kujau, the notorious Hitler diarist who fooled Stern and the Sunday Times in 1983. After he was released from prison in 1988, Kujau opened a gallery in Stuttgart, where he sold "genuine" forgeries of Hitler's paintings, but also turned his talent to creating "reinterpretations" of Dali, Monet, Rembrandt and Van Gogh, signing them all with both his own and the original artist's name. Kujau's forgeries proved so popular that, by the mid-Nineties, there was a market in fakes of his fakes.

Such contemporary artists as Jeff Koons and Mark Kostabi positively celebrate the loss of authenticity. One of Koons's notable works, New Shelton Wet/Dry Double Decker (1981) consists of two vacuum cleaners within glass boxes, while Kostabi went through a stage of paying art students $7 an hour to produce paintings that he sold for $20,000 - all signed "Kostabi".

For such artists, this is all a philosophical game initiated by Marcel Duchamp. When he signed a urinal and called it Fountain, Duchamp was provoking us to question the nature of artistic authorship in an era where mass production allows objects to be reproduced infinitely. Is it the signature that renders it authentic? We may admire the urinal in Tate Modern, but that wasn't the one he first displayed in 1917. It is a reproduction of an original urinal that Duchamp did not make and did not even put his own name to, preferring "R Mutt" instead. After Duchamp came Piero Manzoni, who once signed Umberto Eco's wrist with indelible ink, rendering him a living work of art, and Hans Haacke, who believed he could "sign" weather patterns such as rain and fog. There is even a story that Picasso signed a forgery of his own work because he believed that it was aesthetically "a Picasso".

The appeal of the fake is not entirely new. In the mid-1890s, the Louvre acquired a 6in-high headpiece called the Tiara of Siataphernes, believing that it dated from the third century. After it was revealed that it had been created in 1890, it became the talk of Paris. Ugly crowds jostled to gain access to the gallery, using elbows, fists and umbrellas.

More recently, in 1937, the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam bought Christ at Emmaus on the understanding that it was a Vermeer. But, after the war, when it was known to be a forgery by Han van Meegeren, the painting did not lose its appeal. Instead, it became such a popular attraction that the museum could not produce enough postcards to meet public demand. To this day, van Meegeren's fakes remain classics in themselves.

Around the same time, a number of medieval frescoes in the church of St Mary's in Lubeck, Germany, were restored. Lubeck's museum director asserted that they would change all previous notions of what a freshly created Gothic brick interior had looked like. The frescoes even made it on to a German postage stamp. Yet, soon, it was revealed that some of the images had been created by a painter who had worked on the restoration. He was treated as a hero, a harmless prankster who had fooled connoisseurs.

Such an attitude plays an important part in our attraction to forgers. In the fashion world, we like to think of forgers as Del Boys, loveable rogues mocking the greedy sportswear moguls and their overpriced wares. In the same way, we have a sneaking regard for Kujau because he belittled an eminent historian like Lord Dacre; and van Meegeren because he conned Hermann Goering.

We should be a little wary of fakes, however. The Department of Trade and Industry estimates that counterfeit products cost Britain £8bn a year in lost taxes. Fake "designer" perfumes are known to have resulted in burns and rashes, and fake alcopops have been found made with antifreeze, whisky and industrial methylated spirits. Dealers in counterfeit goods are not really harmless Del Boys, but drug traffickers, criminal gangs and terrorist organisations. From a wider perspective, if we celebrated the ultimate forgery, currency counterfeiting, we might witness the collapse of civilisation itself.

Authenticity does matter. Indeed, the phenomenon of the "fake fakes" of de Hory and Kujau illustrate that we do, in a way, yearn for the "hand of the master". People don't want fake fakes, but the real fakes of the masters imitated by these forgers in the first place. Many appreciate such counterfeit artists because, unlike many modern-day anti-representational artists, they seem to display considerable talent and skill.

De Hory may or may not be laughing in his grave about his work being plagiarised, but I dare say the likes of Kostabi would find it amusing if others started making money out of his name. Konrad Kujau, who died in September, certainly did not find forgery of his work amusing. When he was released from prison, he declared that he would write his memoirs. A book was published under his name in 1998, but he did not pen it. Kujau denounced this "autobiography", The Originality of Forgery, protesting: "I did not write one line of this book." It seems a fitting epitaph.