Tuesday, August 26, 2008

"The Forger's Spell"

Edward Dolnick is the author of Down the Great Unknown, The Rescue Artist, and Madness on the Couch. A former chief science writer at the Boston Globe, he has written for the Atlantic Monthly, the New York Times Magazine, and many other publications.

He applied the Page 69 Test to his latest book, The Forger's Spell: A True Story of Vermeer, Nazis, and the Greatest Art Hoax of the Twentieth Century, and reported the following:
The Forger's Spell is the true story of an astonishingly nervy forger who made tens of millions of dollars in the 1930s and '40s by peddling fake Vermeers. But there's a twist in the tale that sets this story of forgery apart from all others -- these forgeries fooled the world, but they are dreadful paintings that never should have fooled a soul. The book is about art and art history, but it's just as much about psychology and how our beliefs and expectations can lead us astray.

I wanted to give an insider's view of how forgers work and think, so I visited a modern-day forger who took me behind the scenes in his studio. John Myatt lives in a farmhouse a few hours outside London. Every surface in his house is cluttered with art. Paintings sit in a pile on a chair, they stand in stacks in a corner of the living room, they hang only a few inches apart on every wall. Mondrian, Chagall, Matisse, Renoir. While I watched, Myatt took up his pencil, sketched a bold and instantly recognizable face, and handed me a drawing. "To Ed," he wrote, "from Picasso." Then he added a date: "May, 1940."

On page 69, we're following Myatt around his studio:

The strangest feature of Myatt's career was that his successes turned out to have scarcely anything to do with his skill as a painter. Buyers want to believe they have found something extraordinary; the forger's task is to find ways to bolster that belief. Myatt did this (more accurately, his partner did this) by creating unquestionable credentials for each fake. Those perfect pedigrees imbued the paintings with virtues they did not truly possess, much as a fortune or a title can transform a troll into a heartthrob. "Some of my Giacomettis," Myatt says, "are just embarrassingly bad. You flip through a Christie's catalog or a Sotheby's catalog, and there they are, but you just cringe." Those paintings sold for prices as high as $250,000.

Early in his forging career, Myatt goes on, "I had to teach myself, and in the process of teaching myself, I did some really appallingly bad paintings, all of which we put on the market. Because I didn't know that they
were appallingly bad until about two or three years later, and then I thought" -- here Myatt moans in mortification -- "'Oh no, everything about that's wrong, it's all wrong.' But you find yourself in the unbelievable situation where other people are saying, 'Oh, isn't it wonderful!' It was like being in a Monty Python film."
Read an excerpt from The Forger's Spell, and learn more about the author and his work at Edward Dolnick's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue