Pei-Shen Qian was pleased. He would never have to paint Chairman Mao again.
The 1970s were not a good time for Qian, or for that matter, any young experimental artist in China. During the Cultural Revolution, Qian subsisted on creating endless images of the Chinese dictator, which were displayed in schools and offices across the country.
But as the decade closed, China began to reopen itself to the world, which allowed Qian’s artistic potential to flourish. As part of an experimental art movement in Shanghai, Qian could finally exhibit his work, helping incite a new avant-garde art scene in China.
Things were looking up.
In 1981, Qian emigrated to America, hoping to further his artistic career. After settling down in Queens, he took classes at The Art Students League. But by the end of the decade, his optimism slipped again.
Initially celebrated in his homeland and abroad, Qian’s art waned in popularity. Desperate, he set up shop on the streets of Greenwich Village, initially trying to sell his own art, but soon drawing portraits of tourists for $15 a pop.
One customer kept returning, querying Qian about his skills. How strong is your brushwork? Can you be bold, like de Kooning? Can you recreate the passion of Pollock?
Qian relished the challenge.
With a knack for imitating the abstract expressionists, Qian set to work on painting the lost works from Rothko, Pollock, Motherwell. He sold each painting to his challenger for a few hundred dollars — modest earnings, but at least he no longer had to paint those endless Maos.
Then one day in the early 2000s, as he walked into an art show in Manhattan, something caught Qian’s eye: His painting was hanging on the wall, for sale.
Unfortunately, it was not one of his original works. It was one of his Rothkos, which had earned him a few hundred dollars. The new price tag had some additional zeros. He instantly thought,
I am underpaid.
Qian immediately demanded a raise. His dealer gladly obliged, increasing his bounty to thousands of dollars per paintings. But that was still a fraction of what the paintings sold for — a total of at least $33 million in forged art, according the federal indictment that came out earlier this year.
This “Jackson Pollock,” for instance, sold for $17 million:
It is unclear when exactly Pei-Shen Qian became complicit in selling his copies as originals. He would later tell Businessweek that he thought he was making art for people who could not afford originals, not unlike the forger who made my Vermeer in part two of this series.
Was Qian naive or complicit? Probably both. But it seems likely that, for some time, Qian believed he was copying a style, not forging one. He was creating Replicants.
The Copy Is the Norm
How rampant is art forgery?
The question is, of course, unanswerable, by its very nature. But many experts estimate that up to half of all art in circulation is fake. In other words, the copy may have already usurped the original.
That might sound astounding, but the art economy is actually engineered for this aberration. Art collectors and museums have little incentive to investigate the authenticity of their collections, as art historian and critic Tom Flynn recently explained:
The art market is a web of social and economic interdependencies crafted from the complex relationship between art and economics and draws its very sustenance from the tenebrous boundary between the two.
Rare is the dealer or auctioneer who has not transacted, inadvertently or otherwise, in works of doubtful integrity. This may go some way towards explaining the reticence of many art professionals when cases of forgery are discovered.
In one recent notorious case, an entire museum in China closed because reportedly every single one of the 40,000 works inside were fake.
The Cult of the Original
It was not always this way. Copies were once an accepted part of artistic culture.
Not all that long ago, an “authentic copy” of an artwork was a fairly common occurrence. Before photography, how else would you even have any conception of the Mona Lisa without visiting the Louvre? You needed copies to spread awareness of the object — copies are inherently viral.
Recent evidence indicates that even Leonardo da Vinci created a copy of the “Mona Lisa” in real-time, as he was making it. (As we saw in part one of this series, Vermeer also probably created copies. Nearly everyone did.)
Up until the 16th century, the notion of an art forgery barely even existed. Paintings were more like memes — visual ideas that could be endlessly adapted, modified, upgraded. And copies were not necessarily considered inferior. If you recreated a painting that was better than its predecessor, then your new work could become hailed as an artistic triumph.
For centuries, visual arts existed for varied purposes, including historical record, religious stimulation, and casual enjoyment — but not as singular objects representing authorial genius. Art took a historical turn with the introduction of a new professional class, obsessors of “the original.” These para-artistic vocations propagated, successively over centuries, starting in the Renaissance and continuing through the Enlightenment:
- Auction houses (commerce)
- Experts and academics (scholarship)
- Authenticators (science)
- Forgers (reproduction)
Today, that obsession for “the original” resonates as deep cultural anxiety. This might be because the very notion of “the original” is eroding.
Imagine, for a moment, a future that adopts widespread replication. In our new hypothetical world, a new field — let’s call it Replicant Engineering — allows any object to be reproduced, atom-by-atom, indistinguishable from its antecedent. How would art function in this world, where matter can be copied, duplicated, reproduced, cloned?
It might sound like the fanciful visions of a Star Trek replicator, but this technology is more fate than fantasy, more science than science fiction. The hypothesizing evinced by 3D printing technology has closed in on us.
Here, an image from the future, which is now:
It is a Van Gogh’s “Sunflowers” — sorta.
It is actually a “premium three-dimensional replica” made by Fujifilm in conjunction with the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam. In announcing the replicant technology, they write:
The originals are recreated in size, colour, brightness and texture to achieve an ultimate fine-art reproduction.
Fujifilm has even devised a clever brand name for their new replicants. (You know it’s a big deal when the marketing department gets called in.) The reproductions are called:
When the device creates a Relievo, it even reproduces the back of the painting (which is actually much harder to forge), with remarkable verisimilitude:
This week, Relievos are will debut to the public in — of course! — Hong Kong, China.
Not to be outdone, here is Canon Camera’s competitor product, the Océ, replicating Rembrandt:
The Artists’ Prophecy
Far from being victims to this future, artists seem to grasp, even foretell, a world of mass replication.
Warhol, who barely touched his own canvases, was the master harbinger of reproduction, constantly tweaking edition numbers against prices. Kitsch master Jeff Koons employs around a hundred people in his studio, creating art that has the sheen of mass-production. Hirst and Murakami — all harbingers of duplication.
Whereas artists seem prepared, if not complicit, with a replicant future, a palpable fear is emerging among art houses, experts, authenticators, and historians. Fakes need to be exposed, experts argue, but if too many fakes are revealed, then the whole house of cards could collapse.
At some point, we might have to come to the terms with the unthinkable:
The copy is the original.
I mean this literally.
The original “Sunflowers” you see at the Van Gogh Museum is not the “Sunflowers” that Van Gogh painted — the colors have muted; the surface, cracked; the intention, stifled. It is wilting.
The painting is deteriorating, like all non-replicant art does.
To compensate for the effects of age, one museum in Boston has gone so far as to develop software that projects colors over the top of Rothkos to simulate their original color — “pixel-by-pixel,” as they say.
Eventually, the non-aging “Relievo Sunflowers,” indistinguishable from its progenitor, will be younger than Van Gogh’s version. It will be like watching Dorian Gray fend off his deteriorating visage before our eyes.
“All art is quite useless.”
—Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray
Replicant art does not suffer the vagaries of time. Take, for example, The Complete Frida, an exhibit currently touring America that contains the collected works of Frida Kahlo, all 123 paintings — made by Chinese forgers.
This type of exhibit might strike you as frivolous, perhaps even vapid. But then you might realize that the reproductions could more closely resemble the hue and luminance of the original paintings, as Kahlo herself saw them. The copies might be more authentic than the originals.
No wonder we have such anxiety about “the original.”
Qian Returns Home
So what happened to Pei-Shen Qian, the artist accused of creating all those AbEx forgeries? It appears that he fled back to China.
It is unknown if he is has returned to painting Chairman Mao.
Up next: In part four in this series, we look closely at how art authentication might be gasping its final breath.