The ‘Mona Lisa’, arguably one of the most-discussed paintings in the world and among the most famous works of the Renaissance artist Leonardo da Vinci, which now hangs in the Louvre, the iconic museum in Paris, was in the news recently – not directly, but because a replica fetched millions at an auction at Christie’s, the renowned auction house in Paris.
The painting has been copied many times, but perhaps the most famous of those copies is the Hekking Mona Lisa, named after its previous owner, the antiquarian Raymond Hekking (1886-1977). It was this replica which went under the hammer at Christie’s for a whopping 2.9 million Euros.
Forgeries or fakes of paintings by artists of enduring talent hang in museums all over the world; there are more of them than anyone knows, all hiding in plain sight. The mesmerising tales behind art forgeries has been the subject of documentaries such as Made You Look: A True Story of Fake Art directed by Barry Avrich.
Why are fakes of masterpieces so highly priced? Why do artists devote their time to copying masterpieces rather than creating original work? And how big is the Indian market for original and fake artwork? Experts discuss this fascinating subject.
Pricey vs Priceless
“It is true that the Hekking Monalisa was sold for 2.9 million Euros (way more than estimated!), but it should also be said that the real ‘Mona Lisa’ remains priceless,” notes Rekha Lahoti, founder, Kalakriti Art Gallery. She says there have been and always will be pricey copies of masterpieces, but the original work will remain iconic and priceless.
Discussing the history of the painting that was sold recently, Rekha says there has always been controversy around the Hekking piece, relating to the authenticity issue, fanned by scholars. This has made it intriguing, “which is why it has remained in the news for so long,” she says, adding, “And, not to forget, we are talking about THE Monalisa – the world's most enigmatic painting, so there is bound to be talk around anything even remotely related to it. And the auction house played a role too, hyping up the work to achieve a spectacular sale.”
According to artist Fawad Tamkanat, there are many reasons for the existence of forged art. “Earlier, fakes were made because art theft from museums was rampant, and thieves often replaced the original with a fake to avoid detection. Another reason is that people who buy million-dollar masterpieces can’t keep them at home due to security reasons, and instead they go for a brilliant forgery so that the art work can be displayed as a status symbol,” he explains.
According to Fawad, the Indian art market is flooded with fakes and very few people here are able to differentiate between an original and a copy. “Every month I get 5-6 enquiries from people who want me to check the authenticity of artwork before they invest in them,” he says, adding, “Identifying a fake is not easy and one needs knowledge and decades of experience as well as technology such as carbon dating to pinpoint the chronological age of a work of art. “The sad truth is that fake art can be produced anywhere. In a market where names rule over creativity, budding artists are bound to feel the pinch of despair, and are eventually drawn to produce forgeries of original pieces as it ensures easy money,” he says.
Kolkata-based artist Avijit Dutta feels that forging masterpieces is a short-cut to glory and commercial success, at the cost of the values and ethics of art. “Viewers as well as gallery owners encourage artists to imitate masters because they often market artwork not for art’s sake but money’s sake. This is a kind of exploitation, since the artists lose their identity and creativity in the process,” he notes. “In this advanced age of Internet, upcoming artists have several ways of accessing masterpieces and often viewers are not alert enough to identify the original, once again leading to the death of creativity,” he adds. He feels young, talented artists must be encouraged to create masterpieces of their own instead of imitating others.
Discussing the high price of fakes, Rekha feels it is because everyone wants to own something that is priceless and iconic. “It is a basic human desire, and this is exploited by various operators controlling the art market. So, while I can't own the ‘Mona Lisa’ because it is safely behind a plexiglass at the Louvre, I would like to have something that closely resembles it,” she explains, adding, “In India, this is common with miniature paintings and illustrated manuscripts. All the works signed by the famous Mughal, Rajput and Pahari painters are in museums, and those by unknown painters who worked under these master artists are in circulation through auction houses and antique dealers. Jamini Roy's simple figures are still being imitated by artists who draw ‘inspiration’ from him, and everyone knows about the number of people who are copying Husain's horses.”
Gouri Vemula, another artist, feels forgeries of famous works are highly priced because they capture some of the essence of the masterpiece, and feels the Indian market for imitation art is driven by people who want to enjoy the great works without acquiring them. However, she says that for artists, developing their own style is a journey, and those who enjoy producing original work do not make copies.
Forging a new perspective
Talking about art forgeries and inspired artists, art curator Annapurna Madipadiga, quotes famous artist Pablo Picasso’s words - ‘Good artists borrow. Great artists steal.’ “Do we call it plagiarism/ copy/ an inspiration or influence?” she asks. A look at the history of art reveals that copying the life they see around them is common practice for an artist, she notes. “But copying works of established artists, and reworking them with a new perspective is a new way of approaching a popular subject,” she feels, and cites the example of Manet's ‘Le Déjeuner sur l'herbe’ which was reinterpreted by Picasso to give the subject a different mood. "Similarly, Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’ was reinterpreted by Vivek Vilasini to reflect a different social context and emotion. Likewise, surrealist Salvador Dali's ‘The Persistence of Memory’ has been recreated many times. So, in a way, popular images become the muse themselves, opening new windows of time and space,” she concludes.