fake or fortune

exposing the beauty and the ugly of the art world

One day in 1987, a man named Tony Varney decided to go fishing. His usual spot was a lonely riverbank in County Cork, Ireland. It was often empty, perhaps because of the area’s location beside a rubbish dump. On this day, Varney pulled up his car just outside of the dump, stepped out, and almost stepped on a stack of paintings that were lying in the dirt in front of him. He picked up the paintings, maybe glanced casually at each of them and, for whatever reason, decided to take them home. Varney may have also come home with fish that day, but only he would remember: His aquatic prize was far eclipsed by the paintings he’d salvaged from just beside the dump, one of which turned out to be a watercolor by Winslow Homer, one of the most celebrated American artists of the 19th century. The painting would be eventually valued at $250,000.

The story of this painting, including how it came to be confirmed as a Winslow Homer and valued at a quarter of a million dollars, is told in the second episode of the BBC’s reality television show, Fake or Fortune. The premise of the show may, on paper, sound to some more like academia than entertainment: BBC reporter Fiona Bruce teams up with international art dealer Philip Mould­­ who speaks with what, to my Canadian ear, sounds like the most posh of British accents to investigate the provenance of works of art. But this brief and general summary, complete with the art history textbook word “provenance” (the history of ownership of an artwork), does not do the show justice. It is always interesting, often funny, with an undercurrent of dramatic tension that rivals the excitement on a show like Scandal or CSI: (Insert City). Dangerously, Fake or Fortune is available for free on YouTube and, as my viewing history demonstrates, I am hopelessly addicted.

The art world: Glamour. Wealth. Intrigue. Beneath the surface, there’s a darker place, a world of high stakes and gambles. So begins the opening of each episode of the show, each of which deals with a different painting and artist. Some episodes set out to uncover the chronology of ownership of a painting, in order to determine its true artist, and therefore its value. The story of Tony Varney and his Homer is one of these. Other episodes focus on a specific art forger, in one case the immensely successful Dutch forger Han van Meegeren. (More on him later.) In most of these quests of discovery, it feels like watching real-time crime solving: Philip and Mould use advanced technology like infrared radiation and chemical paint testing, jet-set around the world to follow up on leads about from where and from what collections the painting might have come, and engage in some detailed, Sherlock Homles-esque sleuthing, minutely examining the back and the front of the painting for clues.

All this, plus the charming and very British banter between Bruce and Mould, contributes to the irresistible entertainment of the show. But what makes it most interesting to watch, at least for me, is the fate that befalls the often very ordinary people who dare to venture into the art world. It is the ordinary man, the man who goes to fish, who struggles in Fake or Fortune, brought up against the major art institutions that dominate the art world.

For example: episode one. David Joel is an eighty-two-year-old former art historian. He happens to both live in a lighthouse and, in 1992, to have bought a painting for more than $60,000, which he believes is a work by Claude Monet. For years, Joel has been trying to get the painting approved as a Monet by the Wildenstein Institute, the most widely accepted authority on Monet’s work. Every year the Wildenstein Institute publishes what is known as a catalogue raisonné: a catalogue containing all the confirmed works by Claude Monet. If a painting is not in the book, even if it is a real Monet, none of the major art auction houses—the most prominent in Britain being Sotheby’s or Christie’s—will sell the work. Together, Sotheby’s and Christie’s govern 42% of the world’s art auction market: There is no way around the Wildenstein Institute. The Institute’s word is, in the end, the only thing that matters.

Philip Mould, the art expert, believes the painting is genuine, and he and Fiona Bruce do a thorough examination. They take the painting to the Art Access Resource Centre, which applies X-ray photography and infrared to the work. They talk to the leading Monet experts about the kind of brushstrokes on the canvas. They travel all the way to Cairo to check the stamps on the back of a canvas that might have hung in the same collection, and might have gone through the same art dealer as the canvas they are investigating. The clues check out, one by one. In all these adventures, Mould and Bruce are joined by painting owner David Joel, who is both sweet and funny. His face lights up each time a new discovery solidifies the case that the painting is a genuine Monet. Near the end of the episode, when it seems all the pieces have fallen into place, a jubilant Joel declares: “It’s game, set, and match.” The first episode aired in 2011; Joel had been working for nineteen years at that point to get the painting accepted into the catalogue raisonné.

This episode is high-tension throughout—will the Institute or won’t the Institute? And the inevitable ending, when it comes, is all the more crushing because of its absolute absurdity. Years ago, when Joel sent the painting to the Wildenstein Institute, patriarch Daniel Wildenstein declared it was a fake. At the end of the episode, leading Monet expert, (the now-late) John House who taught at the prestigious Courtauld Institute of Art in London, is tasked with bringing the painting to Paris for the meeting with Guy Wildenstein, the son of the late elder Wildenstein. Despite the considerable physical evidence that Mould and Bruce found to prove the painting is genuine, including the testimony of the world’s leading Monet experts, Guy Wildenstein refuses to go against his father’s connoisseurship. No, he rules, it is a fake. Evidence be damned.

The cameras filming the show are not allowed into the Institute, so they do not capture the actual moment that the Wildensteins declare that the painting is not by Monet. The cameras are on, however, for the moment when Bruce and Mould, having recovered from their own shock at hearing the ruling, tell David Joel. His astonishment, his disbelief, make this the saddest moment of the episode, because it is so grossly unfair. Previous Monets have sold at the major auction houses for close to $50 million; Joel’s, if it was determined an original Monet, would be estimated to sell at close to $1 million. But Joel, defeated by the unshakeable authoritarianism of the Wildenstein Institute, is less upset about the money than he is about the absolute immorality of it all. Well, he says, at least he owns a Monet.

The Wildensteins are an example of one of the worst yields of the art world. The show presents this in a tangible way: Art can be overrun by greed, or even simple spite. While in this case the fault lies clearly with the art house, there is a very real, ever-present fear in the art world of purchasing fakes. In one episode, an art expert estimates that nearly half of the art world is made up of fakes. The forger Han van Meegeren (he returns!) himself cost Amsterdam’s prestigious Rijksmuseum $12 million, the price they paid for his false Vermeers in the early twentieth century. Van Meegeren, at one time content to paint his own original works, grew angry with critics for deprecating his own paintings. He turned to forgery, copying the works of some of the leading painters of the Dutch Golden Age. During World War II, Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring purchased one of van Meegeren’s “Vermeers.” After the war, when the painting was found in Göring’s possession, the Netherlands put van Meegeren on trial as a Nazi collaborator, accused of having given up Dutch property. To prove his innocence of the crime he was accused of, he had to paint a “Vermeer” from scratch at the trial, thereby condemning himself as a forger but earning the status as a Dutch folk hero for having tricked Göring. Fiona Bruce interviews van Meegeren’s nephew during one of the episodes, and he says that he remembers his uncle saying: “If they still talk about me ten years after my death, than I will have meant something.” It is estimated that van Meegeren’s forgeries cost his buyers, including the government of the Netherlands, more than $30 million.

The art world is an industry of huge fortunes: over the course of just four days in 2015, Christie’s totaled $1.7 billion in sales, including a painting by Pablo Picasso that went for a record-breaking $179.4 million. Huge fortunes go hand in hand with huge greed.

Tony Varney, the man who went fishing and picked up a Winslow Homer, does not own a Monet, and, as the end of the second episode reveals, does not own a Homer either. Days before the painting was brought to auction at Sotheby’s, a descendant of the people pictured in the painting—whose identities, catalogued in paint, had only been discovered during the process of filming the episode—placed a claim on the work, maintaining that the painting belonged to them and had been in their possession at some point in time. (No evidence confirms this.) Varney had given the painting to his daughter Selina, a single mom with four kids, expecting her to claim the money earned at auction. The auction was cancelled because of the legal dispute of ownership; two years later, the painting remains locked in the Sotheby’s vault, and on Selina’s living room wall hangs a computer printout of the painting, a painting that sat in her attic for years.

As the introduction to each episode of Fake or Fortune states: The art world is “a world of great beauty and ugly deceptions.” The show, with every painting that exposes someone else to the realities of the art world, drives home this truth. And beautiful or ugly, great or terrible, it makes for fascinating, dramatic television.