Authenticity takes a hammering in our world of ripoffs and cons

20:19, Nov 16 2012

The art market can be a dodgy industry with examples here and abroad of downright mendacity. 

"It's a fake!" Three little words that can send shivers down the spine of serious collectors of art and artefact, particularly if large amounts of cash are concerned.

Those few fatal words were heard recently, resounding in the ears of Trust Waikato board members when it was revealed that the Gottfried Lindauer painting of Tainui chief Kewene Te Haho, bought for $212,000 in 2001, was a counterfeit.

It was a good copy, but not good enough for Whanganui artist Peter Ireland, who first raised questions when he saw it hanging in the Waikato Museum of Art and History this year. The thing that triggered it for Ireland was there appeared to be no sign of ageing in the painting. It looked too new; always a giveaway.

The painting was sent to Wellington then to Auckland for analysis, the upshot of which was the pronouncement of those three dreaded little words.

The work was a forgery, a fraud, a fabrication. Red faces all round.


Things get a little awkward, not to say nasty, when huge sums of money like this are involved in such transactions.

Listen to the fob-off from the director of the International Art Centre, Richard Thompson, who sold the trust the painting, when confronted with the fact that the work was a fake.

"This is really not my business. We could ask a lot of questions about a lot of paintings."

Indeed, we could.

The art market can be a dodgy industry with examples here and abroad of downright mendacity.

Most notorious is the fact that the avaricious Gala Dali, wife of the famous Spanish surrealist, got her husband to sign hundreds of blank sheets of paper for later "limited edition" lithographs.

Andy Warhol contested the whole phenomenon of authenticity head-on. His predilection for the use of repeated and identical multiple images on the same canvas had something to say directly about the fetishism involved with the idea of originality that contributed to the notion of value.

Of course, today we live in an era of the fake, the ripoff, the con. Thereare fake Gucci handbags, imitation Rolex watches, pretend suntan, simulated sex scenes, bogus bond schemes and fake bottom drawers.

In the commercial world, the brand name means all. You feel you don't need to investigate or check, you simply assume and buy the product. It's a shorthand method where name equals quality. Published by Victoria University Press? It must be good, surely. In reality, it makes us lazy, careless and easily fooled. It amounts, at a certain level, to intellectual sloth.

The name, Lindauer, as all know, is historically famous for his portraits of prominent Maori figures and scenes of the indigenous population doing their stuff. Lindauer has the same brand value as Goldie and mined a similar artistic vein quite profitably in the late 19th century, based on the erroneous notion of a "dying race".

Now others, ironically, are mining the same territory, cashing in on the art market's infatuation with things historical.

What is the trust to do in this quandary? I can hear already the snapping of lawyers' briefcases.

To go a bit philosophical, authenticity has had a hard time lately.

Jean Baudrillard, a postmodern sociologist, claims that reality itself is an open question in a society in which it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish between hype and substance, the real and unreal, especially in the media world.

Perhaps the answer to the ersatz Lindauer is to up the ante, play the same game and turn the work into the "famous fake".

Come see the simulation that fooled the denizens of the art world for 10 years.

Marketing is all.