A fake can be defined as an artwork intended to deceive. The motives of its creator are decisive, and the merit of the object itself is a separate issue. The question mark in the title of Mark Jones’s Fake? The Art of Deception reveals the study’s broader concerns. Indeed, it might equally be entitled Original?, and the text begins by noting a variety of possibilities somewhere between the two extremes. These include works by an artist’s followers in the style of the master, deliberate archaism, copying for pedagogical purposes, and the production of commercial facsimiles.
The greater part of Fake? is devoted to a chronological survey suggesting that faking feeds on the many different motives people have for collecting art, and that, on the whole, the faking of art flourishes whenever art collecting flourishes. In imperial Rome there was a widespread interest in collecting earlier Greek art, and therefore, in faking it. No doubt many of the sculptures now exhibited as “Roman copies” were originally passed off as Greek. In medieval Europe, because art was celebrated more for its devotional uses than for its provenance or the ingenuity of its creators, the faking of art was virtually nonexistent. The modern age of faking again in the Italian Renaissance, with two linked developments: a passionate identification with the world of antiquity and a growing sense of individual artistic identity. A patron of the young Michelangelo prevailed upon the artist to make his sculpture Sleeping Cupid look as though it had been buried in the earth so that “it will be taken for antique, and you will sell it much better.” Within a few years, however, beginning with his first masterpiece, the Bacchus, Michelangelo had shown his contemporaries that great art can assimilate and transcend what came before, resulting in a wholly original work. Soon his genius made him the object of imitators.
Fake? also reminds us that in certain cultures authenticity is a foreign concept. This is true of much African art, where the authenticity of an object is considered by collectors to depend on its function. As an illustration, the study compares two versions of a chi wara mask made by the Bambara people of Mali. One has pegs allowing it to be attached to a cap for its intended ceremonial purpose. The second, otherwise identical, lacks the pegs and is a replica made for sale. African carving is notoriously difficult to date, but even if the ritual mask is recent, made perhaps to replace a damaged predecessor, and the replica much older, only the ritual mask should be seen as authentic, for it is tied to the form’s original function. That, at least, is the consensus of the so-called experts. One wonders whether the Bambaran artists would agree.