Museum Studies at Tufts University

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Book Review: False Impressions: The Hunt for Big Time Art Fakes

reposted from editor emeritus Amanda Kay Gustin.

False Impressions: The Hunt for Big Time Art Fakes
Thomas Hoving

This book is fairly typical of all Hoving’s popular works, which is to say it’s uncomfortably gossipy, breathtakingly arrogant, and compulsively readable.

The overall narrative of the book is split into two parts, and for me it didn’t really get going until the second half. The first part is Hoving’s chronological overview of art forgery through time, starting with Roman forgeries of Greek originals and coming up through the present day. The second part of the book is much more interesting, and follows Hoving himself through several major forgeries that he’s unmasked (or tried to unmask) in museums throughout the world.

The first thing to understand about this book is that Hoving is never wrong, in anything. Even the fakes he purchased for the Met were ones that he felt uneasy about to begin with, and his gut was eventually proven correct. Disputes with other curators were of their own making, and they always loved him in the end. Eminent experts who fell for fakes are lesser, gullible, sad specimens. Oh, and in case you didn’t know, he was responsible for bringing Velazquez’s Juan de Pareja to the Met.

That overwhelming arrogance is particularly on play in this book, as part of his thesis on fakebusters (those who are particularly gifted at detecting forgeries) is that they have an innate sixth sense, a superior eye that allows them to instantly make judgments that ultimately, after further study, appear correct. Hoving himself, of course, has this eye.

In spite – or perhaps because of? – this personal heroism, this book is a great read. Hoving is a gifted storyteller, and he holds nothing back, giving you the constant impression of being let into his inner circle as he shares secrets, gossip, and information that would probably embarrass all sorts of people.

From a museology point of view, I was primarily struck by two things. First, Hoving has a very black and white view of what a “fake” is and he doesn’t allow for much sophistication in thinking about the concept. For him, any work of art that is not 100% by the original artist is a fake. No in-the-style-of could possibly be as good as the original. He frequently recounts stories of art that has been so extensively restored that it is now worthless, and no longer original. He doesn’t really allow for any further thinking about why someone might imitate a style, or what the line in over-restoring is, or what compels an art forger beyond money. Anyone who paints, sculpts, or otherwise makes art in a style not their own is committing a sin, full stop. Not really any moral gray areas or ambiguities there.

Second, and this one pained me quite a bit as the book went on: Hoving’s concept of the museum begins and ends with expensive masterpieces. Money is nothing in the pursuit of a really good piece of art, and the millions spent on fakes by both himself, his curators, and the other museums he tells of are simply the price you pay in the collecting game. Education for him happens almost entirely through exhibitions that expose the masses to what they ought to know. The only time he talks about education “for the public” what he really means is an intensively scholarly weekend symposium that he put together on forgery – and by public, what he really means are rich collectors who might end up donating to the Met. Money is only to be used in pursuit of his particular version of perfection; woe to those who might want to use it to make school tours free, or expand art education in low income communities.

In the end, this was a highly entertaining read that frustrated me at times, but also made me think. It’s a good weekend or beach read while still being “on topic” for museum professional development.


Read more on Amanda Kay Gustin’s blog, Amblering.

Book Review: Making It In The Art World, by Brainard Cary

We’re going to have occasional guest reviews of museum-related books going forward. This is our first, by Tufts student Molly Braswell. If you’d like to review a museum book, please comment on any post or email the editor. If you’d like to review books, but don’t have a particular one in mind, we’ve got a long list to work through and can hook you up!

Making it in the Art World: New Approaches to Galleries, Shows, and Raising Money
By Brainard Cary

Brainard Carey’s book, Making it in the Art World: New Approaches to Galleries, Shows, and Raising Money, is written for artists who either want to establish their careers, or
propel and improve their existing careers. His book is a how-to guide with a workbook component. In the book Carey delivers information about how to be a successful artist,
mostly through personal anecdotes and experiences. At the end of each chapter he gives the reader space to answer some questions and respond to certain prompts; these sections are designed to keep the reader on track with his or her career. The workbook aspect is well thought out and helpful, but Carey’s reflections and tips in the chapters are often redundant and common sense. In my opinion, Carey missed out on a great opportunity to create an artist’s workbook, complete with a calendar/scheduling component. This, for the average artist who works from home and without a fixed schedule, could be really helpful. Where Carey misses the mark, however, is with the book’s content.

Carey is a working artist whose pieces have been exhibited all over the world, most notably at the Whitney Museum of American Art and MOMA. He owns a company called The Art World Demystified, which produces tools and materials designed to help artists further their careers. The pro and con of Carey’s book, is the use of his own personal experiences as an artist. On the one hand, it is nice to hear advice that has worked for someone; on the other hand, Carey’s delivery often feels patronizing. For example, the fact that the chapters are titled things like: “Getting into the Whitney Biennial” (which Carey did), makes the book seem a little condescending. Because most of his content is derived from personal experience, the book sometimes reads as an ode to Carey’s genius handling of his career. Other times it reads as an advice column from someone who has “made it.” The truth is that Carey probably does know what he’s doing, and his success and career are proof of that. However, the book would be much more successful if the anecdotes were less prominent, and if there was more of a focus on the practical advice.

This book, if it had been a workbook with practical how-to sections, would have been successful and very useful. The short chapters and approachable writing make for a quick and easy read, and Carey is right to assume that working artists might need frequent support and a few nudges to help them stay on track. The book excels in its ability to make the reader accountable for his or her career. But Carey’s helpful advice is often overpowered by the many anecdotes about his successes, and the advice is hard to take seriously when it is surrounded by common sense suggestions like: don’t drink too much at work parties, and always write thank you notes.

As someone who tried, albeit for only a short time, to make art for a living, I was anxious to read Carey’s book. In my opinion, the art field does need to be taken more seriously, and likewise, artists need to take themselves more seriously. It is clear that to be a successful artist one must approach art like a job, and there is obviously a need for  helpful, how-to books that explain this. Carey is somewhat successful in his attempt. While he is right to use his own experiences to help get his points across, he should have relied on them less and he should have spent more time on the practical tips and suggestions.

Book Review: Museum Masters by Edward P. Alexander

In the new year, I’m hoping that the Tufts Museum Studies Blog will feature book reviews of interesting museological texts both old and new. These books will then be listed in our currently-anemic bibliography page, and linked back to their reviews.

If you have a book that you’ve enjoyed reading, and would like to write about, let us know!

<i>Museum Masters: Their Museums and Their Influence</i>
Edward P. Alexander

First published in 1983 by the American Association for State and Local History, Alexander’s broad overview of energetic museum founders and their famous museums is only a little bit worn around the edges. Much of the information he considers belongs to the historical past rather than the more recent past. Only when he finishes each chapter with small “where are they now” updates and refers to the Soviet Union or East Germany does he really go wrong.

Alexander set out to write short biographical histories of several men and women whose life work culminated in the founding of a famous or influential museum – Sir Hans Sloane and the British Museum, Charles Willson Peale and the Philadelphia Museum, Dominique Vivant Denon and the Louvre, and so on and so forth. The chapters are arranged chronologically and are self-inclusive: each is its own essay, and can be read independently. The structure makes this an easy book to pick up and put down repeatedly, and each individual chapter is 25-40 pages long and can be read in a day.

Alexander’s writing style is lively but informative, and for the most part he manages to organize and present large varieties and volumes of information succinctly and well. Many of the figures he cover had extensive careers even before they turned their attention to museums; in fact, for some of them, their museum work was nearly an afterthought. One of the strengths of his approach, however, was connecting the energy and innovation of individuals to institutions, and then to the larger museum world. He specifically sought out museums whose course was fundamentally altered by a single personality for his study.

I read this book hoping to see how individuals could change the course of museums, and while I don’t think I found the key I was looking for, I did come away with a great deal of respect for the clear visionary leadership that each individual showed. Some chapters stood out in that regard: Denon and the Louvre, Ann Pamela Cunningham and Mount Vernon, Artur Hazelius and Skansen, and John Cotton Dana were all especially good in showing how vision could create new archetypes for museums.

In summary: recommended for those who are seeking out examples of how clear vision can change the museum world, and who are interested in the backstory behind some of the world’s greatest museums.

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