Han van Meegeren painting Christ Among the Doctors, after Johannes Vermeer, during his trial in Amsterdam, 1945. (Indianapolis Museum of Art)
The Minds, Motives and Methods of Master Forgers

By Noah Charney

Phaidon. 282 pp. $35

The most abstract aspect of art today is its price: High-value fine art now fetches so much at major auctions that the cost of a painting by Gauguin or a balloon sculpture by Jeff Koons is meaningless outside the rarefied world of the super-rich. For the rest of us, it’s the circus that counts, such as the single evening in May when Christie’s sold 34 contemporary works for $706 million, including a wiry Giacometti sculpture for $141 million and an indelicate “Women of Algiers (Version ‘O’),” by Picasso for $179 million. Christie’s dubbed the event “Looking Forward to the Past,” but maybe it should have been called “Looking Forward to the Commissions.”

Those works are demonstrably the real thing, but where we find valuable art, we also find forgers. Surprisingly, as readers of art historian and novelist Noah Charney’s book, “The Art of Forgery,” will discover, greed alone is rarely the prime motivation for art-world fraudsters.

The artful dodgers whose fakes have infected private collections and public museums alike are driven by a number of complicated impulses. One is the idea that it’s okay to dupe, say, a collector who made his billions on the backs of little people, or the auction houses that feed at the trough. Another is the faker’s need to stick it to an art establishment that rejected him (almost all forgers are men). How satisfying for the spurned artist to prove his work good enough to pass as a Picasso, Dalí or Pollock, fooling the supercilious connoisseur. Recognition feels so good that some forgers expose their own fraudulence — or, if unveiled by others, revel in the experience. The public seems to love these villains, and the press is happy to whip up interest. Many outed forgers, Charney points out, “are greeted as heroes of a sort and go on to lucrative careers” even after conviction and imprisonment.

The Art of Forgery by Noah Charney. (The Art of Forgery)

Charney reminds us of some high-profile cases. There was the Dutch forger Han van Meegeren, whose fakery saved him from the gallows. Van Meegeren’s Vermeers had little of the delicate luminescence of the real thing, but he convinced the experts that they were the artist’s early paintings. In 1947, he found himself on trial for high treason for “selling a piece of Dutch cultural heritage,” a Vermeer, to Hitler’s sidekick Hermann Göring. Van Meegeren’s defense was that the painting was one of his fakes, and he proved it by knocking out another “Vermeer” while in custody. The defendant “went from Nazi collaborator to folk hero” for swindling Göring.

Others produced works that were of such quality that they fooled the most discerning connoisseurs. Icilio Joni led a ring of master forgers who produced sacred pictures indistinguishable from those of the late Gothic Sienese School. The German master goldsmith Reinhold Vasters crafted a gold and enamel cup fit for a king and passed it off as the work of the greatest Renaissance goldsmith, Benvenuto Cellini. It ended up in the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Charney regards the English painter Eric Hebborn as the most skillful of forgers. He specialized in Old Master drawings, but beyond his artistry, Hebborn paid close attention to the provenance and forensic pitfalls awaiting the careless forger. “No documented forger was as careful, as passionate about the research and details, nor as artistically skilful,” writes Charney. Meanwhile, forgery is getting harder all the time. Today, technical skill alone is not enough for a forger to pull it off. He must create a credible paper trail of ownership — provenance — and also fool modern forensic technologies that can scrutinize pigments and varnishes and reveal hidden layers as never before.

The book is organized as a series of case studies. They move desultorily between characters, art media and periods, and the device of grouping them under such rubrics as Genius, Pride, Revenge and Money is insufficient to create an easy narrative flow. Each, though, is a fascinating account of avarice and hubris. After a second reading, the disjointededness didn’t bother me because the material was so rich. (Charney is the founder of the Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art; note that it is styled “crimes against art,” not “crimes against art buyers.”)

A forgery scandal “can ruin careers, lose millions, pay criminals and harm reputations,” Charney writes. “But it also damages our understanding of the past and skews the study of history.”If the popular image of the forger is that of a lovable rogue, Charney chips away at that ideal, to his credit. Aren’t real artists the ones whose work is instilled with their own originality and invention? Their value is that they teach the rest of us a new way to see and feel. Charney writes that “no matter how convincing the forgery, a forger’s work is inherently derivative.” He sees them as “largely failed artists.”

The forgers, it turns out, are cheating themselves.

Adrian Higgins is The Washington Post’s gardening columnist. For more books coverage, go to washingtonpost.com/books.