Uber for Art Forgeries

So you want to own a masterpiece? It’s easy! In part two in this series about artistic authenticity, we explore how to score that painting you have always wanted. 

I still wanted my Vermeer.

In part one of this series, we reflected on the status of the 35, or 36, okay maybe 37, verified Vermeers in the world. Given such scarcity, one might assume that owning a Vermeer is an impossible feat.

But one would be mistaken. Look, here’s my brand new Vermeer, hanging — completely unguarded! — on my apartment wall in New York:

“Christ and the Adulteress,” aka “My Vermeer!”
Of course, this is actually a forgery (of a forgery).
But it is the forgery that fooled Hermann Goering, so it’s my favorite “Vermeer.”

As it turns out, living in an on-demand culture has its benefits.

Whatever artwork you covet — classic to modern, Da Vinci to Duchamp — is up for sale on the internet. Don’t worry, you don’t have to tread into the nefarious corners of the deep web, where assassins and ayahuasca fluctuate with bitcoin values. The worst you will have to endure is some stupendously transgressive web design, plus the queasy feeling that accompanies the shaky politics of Chinese labor production.

Yes, that’s right, China has a booming industry of oil painting reproductions — forgeries, to some. Numerous custom-order websites will create faithful reproductions of any masterwork, whatever your bon vivant heart desires. Here are just a few of those sites, all of which happen to be based in one Chinese city, Xiamen, located directly across the bay from Taiwan:

There are many, many more.

Interview with a Forger

I am quite fond of my faux Vermeer, which arrived via one of those sites. The brushwork is confident; the colors, vibrant.

Close-up of my “Vermeer.”

But painting is an awkwardly intimate art form, quite different from the mechanical printing press or an MP3 anonymously shared across networks. A painting has within it the traces of its own production, the labor in a brushstroke. The hand of the creator is visible in the work itself.

This familiarity leads to some inevitable questioning: Who painted my Vermeer? How did they paint it? How did this strange bit of global capitalism evolve? What kind of life does this painter lead? Does this painter even like Vermeer?

With so many questions, I reached out to my Chinese reproduction gallerist for an interview. He was eager to talk, on the condition that I withhold the website with which he is associated.

Here is our conversation, slightly edited to account for the language gap:

Did you paint my Vermeer?

I am a writer. I can’t paint. I sell art for a living.

So you own the website?

Yes. We have over 100 skillful painters in our gallery.

Oh, it’s a physical gallery too?

Yes, in Xiamen. There are about 5,000 painters in Xiamen who do oil paintings full-time.

Does your gallery display reproductions of classic western art as well?

Yes, most of the paintings are reproductions. We reproduce paintings on demand, so there are usually very few in stock. Here is a picture from the gallery:
Gallery in Xiamen, China. I added the animation, illustrating my feeble art history skills.

How many paintings does your gallery create?

We create hundreds of paintings every month.

Wait, you do hundreds of oil painting reproductions every month?

Yes, most stay in China, but about half go to America and Europe. I ship to Florida a lot.

What is the technique for reproducing a painting?

We print out an image on a large sheet of paper, and then we paint it by eye.

Sounds simple enough. How long does it take to paint a reproduction?

Usually, we arrange the paintings in turns. Different paintings styles need different painters. It takes 2-3 weeks to finish. If you need it urgently, we also can finish it within one week.

How much does it cost?

It varies by size, style, and complexity. [Note: I paid $135 for two reproductions, a Vermeer and a Van Gogh, which included shipping.]

Who is your favorite artist?

I respect all the original artists though their works are different.

Which artist does your gallery reproduce the most?

Claude Monet.

Are the reproductions good enough to be mistaken for real masterpieces?

No, it is impossible. No one can do it. Even the original artist can’t do it.

Can’t do what?

Can’t fake their own painting.

That confuses me. Anyway, do you consider what you do forgery?

Even the great art works, like those by Van Gogh, belong to humanity, not only the museum or rich people.

Art in the Age of Mass Duplication

At this point in the story, you might be thinking, this isn’t art, this is reproduction. To which I would reply back, cease your snobbery!

Call it kitsch if it satisfies your sensitive cultural lobes, but this type of art is all around you, flooding middlebrow America, filling up boutique hotel rooms, selling by bulk to Pier 1 Imports and Bed, Bath & Beyond.

But most importantly: Vermeer himself was a faker! The 17th century Dutchman was very much like my 21st Chinese reproductionist, according to no less than Christie’s Auction House, which made that claim in proffering a painting that Vermeer himself copied. Discussed in part one of this series, here it is again:

It’s like that prompt you get while saving an image: “Painting.jpg already exists. Do you want to replace it?”
On the left is Felice Ficherelli’s “Saint Praxedis” from c. 1640.
On the right , if you believe Christie’s Auction House, is Vermeer’s copy of that painting from 1655.

The copy — the one that everyone agrees is a fake! — sold for $10.2 million yesterday.

Who’s a forger now?

The Next Great Artist

Aesthetes enjoy reflecting on how great artists were overlooked in their lifetime: Melville died poor and unrecognized, despite Moby-Dick; Van Gogh, notwithstanding Starry Night; Franz Kafka, Johann Sebastian Bach, Edgar Allan Poe — the list goes on (including Vermeer, who died in debt).

This historical circumstance always spirals to the same question: Who is the great undiscovered artist of our time?

Here, I wish I had the temerity to propose that the painter behind my faux Vermeer will persevere as the master artist of our time. But that would be needlessly dense. So I will propose something less impetuous: An artist raised in the school of art reproduction seems most equipped to become our next Vermeer.

The Replicant Culture Matrix

Let’s pause for some language clarification.

Is it accurate to be labeling these paintings — either Vermeer’s copy or my Chinese reproduction — as “forgeries”? That seems a bit harsh. So far, the art police are not breaking down my apartment door, waiving forgery search warrants. For an artwork to warrant that stern appellation, some degree of deception on the part of the artist should be present. That, presumably, was not the case with Vermeer.

Okay, could we identify these works as “parodies”? Again, that seems obtuse. A parody engages a previous artwork, commenting upon it or society at large. It does not seem likely that Vermeer was trying to critique his obscure Italian contemporary or make an oblique statement about Dutch society.

So what do we call these things? I would like to suggest that these paintings are part of a larger cultural industry that has thrived in recent decades. These new products strive to be exact replicas, but have no desire to deceive you. I propose we call these new objects Replicants.

Here, a handy chart, let’s call it the Replicant Culture Matrix:

X marks the spot!
Verisimilitude without deceit: Replicants, located in the upper-left quadrant, may be the purest form of mechanical cultural reproduction.

Not only do the Replicants occupy a full quadrant of contemporary cultural production, but, one could argue, they represent its purest manifestation: precise verisimilitude, without deception.

They strive to be perfect copies, innocent and honest. The Replicant is your plainspoken friend who is free of the nagging regrets of irony and commerce.

This is why I am so pleased with my proxy Vermeer. I am prepared for your criticism — it is a fake of a fake!

I know. That is why it is great.

Up next: In part three, we see how rampant art forgery really is.