Image via Anthony M. Amore
BY ANTHONY M. AMORE
The following is excerpted from The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World (St. Martin’s Press, 2015).
GILBERT STUART’S ICONIC PORTRAIT of George Washington is one of the most often viewed images in the world. Referred to as the Athenaeum portrait, it is this unfinished rendering of the newly constituted republic’s first president that has been featured on the American one-dollar bill for more than 100 years. The painting is shared by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts with the National Portrait Gallery, with each institution it at three-year intervals.
The portrait certainly caught the attention and imagination of merchant seaman Captain John E. Sword. In 1801, Capt. Sword approached Stuart to buy a copy of the beloved Washington, who had died little more than a year before. Though he struggled with debt for much of his life, Stuart was willing to sell provided the captain would agree to a non-negotiable condition: the painting must not be copied.
It was an understandable demand: selling his highly-regarded portraits of esteemed Americans was how Stuart supported himself and his family. So Capt. Sword easily agreed to the demand, promising Stuart that he had no intention of doing so. Instead, he wished to buy the portrait in order to present it to a gentleman in Virginia. Taking the good captain at his word, Stuart sold him the work.
Soon thereafter, Capt. Sword boarded the Connecticut, with his George Washington in tow. However, his destination was not Virginia—it was the Far East. And he had no intention of keeping his word to Stuart. Instead, upon arrival in China, Capt. Sword turned to the well-practiced copyists of that nation and placed his order: one hundred copies of the portrait, painted in reverse on glass.
Upon his return to America, Capt. Sword was able to easily find customers eager to buy a painting of the late president, who the citizenry saw as their own Cincinnatus. Provenance was no more an issue to the buyers than it was to the seller: they simply couldn’t resist the opportunity to own a work by the man who was arguably the new nation’s greatest artist. Eventually, word that the captain was selling the portraits made its way to Stuart who was, understandably, outraged. And so the artist resorted to that most American of actions in response: he took Capt. Sword to court. Stuart asked the court “that the said John E. Swords may, by the decree of this honorable court, be enjoined and restrained from vending or any way disposing of any of the said copies and may be ordered to deliver up all that remain unsold or otherwise” so that the court might dispose of them as it saw fit. Before the day was out, the court acted on Stuart’s complaint, ordering Capt. Swords and any associates to “desist from selling or otherwise disposing of the same copies of the Portraits.”
Capt. Sword’s betrayal of Gilbert Stuart by selling unauthorized reproductions of his famous painting is the first major art scam in American history. While fraudulent schemes involving art of all sorts is quite a common occurrence in the United States, it is a not a uniquely American problem. And the dodgy captain was not the first to the game of producing rip-offs of other’s art, as the practice of misrepresenting the authenticity of an artwork is a centuries-old practice. In fact, no less than the great Michelangelo himself is said to have sculpted a sleeping cupid figure and used his artistic genius to manipulate it into appearing ancient so that he could sell it to Cardinal Riario of San Girgio.
The innocent Cardinal Riario wanted so badly to believe that he had come upon a truly special piece, something that perhaps no one else had found, that he was easy prey for Michaelangelo’s fake. His desire to own a true object of beauty was so great as to make him want to believe in the same way one of Adolph Hitler’s most trusted accomplices, Hermann Georing, did.
The founder of the Gestapo, the art-loving Goering was not a man to cross. Though he was suspicious of attempts by his enemies to deceive him, his eyes opened wide when he saw Johannes Vermeer’s Christ and the Adulteress. With only 35 or 36 known paintings attributed to the great Dutch master (scholars will probably argue over the actual number forever), a “new” Vermeer would be a crowning addition to his growing, awe-inspiring, and completely ill-gotten art collection. Even Hitler hadn’t scored such a coup as a heretofore unknown Vermeer. It didn’t matter that Christ and the Adulteress didn’t look at all like the artist’s work. And also didn’t matter that Goering had doubts about its provenance, believing it might have come from “a Jew, who would try to blackmail him later.” The Reichsmarschall wanted to believe he had come upon the find of a lifetime, and paid 1.65 million guilders for this so-called “missing Vermeer,” which was, in truth, created by an unsuccessful artist named Han van Meegeren.
Because the painting was inauthentic, there was no genuine documentation the forger could provide. So, Goering accepted a simple letter describing the painting’s history. Later, with the war over and facing execution for plundering Dutch national treasures (which were, in fact, his own counterfeit paintings), van Meegeren admitted that he had forged the alleged Vermeer and proved so by painting another in the presence of court-appointed witnesses. So great was his delusion that when Goering was informed that his beloved Vermeer was actually a forgery, the stubborn Nazi steadfastly refused to believe it.
In examining the works of van Meegeren today, it is somewhat difficult to understand how anyone could see Vermeer in them. But it wasn’t just the twisted, morphine-addicted Nazi who was fooled by the faux Vermeer. Even some experts of the day who examined the forgeries were convinced that they were by the great master painter. The opportunity to be part of the important new find seems to have clouded their judgment, a pattern that has been repeated several times throughout history.