Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Tremor of Forgery

Looking back I think I may have first become fascinated with forgery as a pre-teenager reading those novels and memoirs of derring do in World War 2. Books like The Great Escape, The Wooden Horse, The Colditz Story and so on were filled with information about forged passports and identity papers which stood up to scrutiny and caused the Germans to be outwitted by supersmart Brits, Aussies and Yanks so unfairly incarcerated. Later spy fiction made a contribution and then in 1967 or ‘68 there was the line uttered by Orson Welles in Michael Winner’s I’ll Never Forget Whats ‘is name when he says of a painting something like: “It’s one of sixteen Vermeers in the world, thirty three of which are in America”. Later on, the most thrilling ongoing character in modern literature, Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, introduced us to his skills at forgery in the first book of the series and went on to have a continuing relationship with the painter Derwatt, whose paintings he sold at high prices on the market, notwithstanding suspicions they were forged. Derwatt was supposed to have died you see, but in fact, in a cunning career move, he had faked his death in order to drive up his prices and was happily alive and out of harm’s way in New York, gleefully painting previously unknown Derwatts which Tom was slipping into the market at premium prices. I hope you got that. Wim Wenders made a movie of the first Ripley/Derwatt story, one of his best, called The American Friend. Nicholas Ray, by then sick, old and crotchety played Derwatt most memorably

I once met Highsmith and she told me how she loved writing about Ripley because she could let him get away with just about anything including murder. Her readers wanted it that way and she was happy to oblige. It satisfied a lot of her own darker impulses to be able to write about a character with so many unredeeming features, make him attractive and allow him to manipulate other people’s propensities towards illegality when tested.

I also once met the film-maker Errol Morris. It was early in his career when he had brought his second film Vernon, Florida to the 1981 London Film Festival. He was a nice guy and he sent his film out to Australia the next year. After that he gradually made for himself a very significant reputation as a documentarist able to extract truth from situations and people where it’s not readily apparent or always on offer. Thus my attention was caught recently noticing on the New York Times website that Errol Morris had posted a series of pieces on the subject of a forger on a blog under the series heading Bamboozling Us. Heading straight for it as fast as the nation’s intolerably slow download speeds will allow, I read a fascintating account of the life and career of one Han van Meegeren and his forging of a Vermeer that he sold to Herman Goring and which for some time was regarded by leading art experts as authentic.

I suspect Errol wanted, or maybe still wants, to turn this into a movie, though I can see how the subject would lack the visual punch that are a feature of the director’s work. None of the active participants are alive and Goring even blew up his mansion where the painting was displayed to stop the Russians getting their hands on his legacy. The big Nazi gave the painting to a servant near the end of the war suggesting she could live comfortably off the proceeds for the rest of her life. She handed it in. It’s a fascinating story with a lot of resonating moments for those who follow a thread that in my case at least runs from Colditz to Welles (himself fascinated by forgery and whose F for Fake studies another high ego practitioner of the art, Elmyr de Hory) to Highsmith, Ripley, Rene Clement, Alain Delon, Wim Wenders, Denis Hopper, Bruno Ganz, Nicholas Ray, then much later the book and the film of The Girl with the Pearl Earring, and all the way through to Errol Morris (ignoring if possible Liliana Cavani’s godawful remake of the Highsmith novel with John Malkovich, hopelessly miscast once again, as Ripley). Morris indeed takes it full circle as his interest is in a forger from the Nazi era who was called to account for activities at the end of WW2. Van Meegeren faked eleven Vermeers including the one he sold to Goring. Morris’s interest is not just in how the forger and his forgery work but also on whether this forger was a Nazi himself and thus used his skills to ingratiate.himself into the Nazi inner sanctums. These and a whole host of other big and small ideas are explored in the seven part series that Morris posted here at

It has obviously drawn a lot of interest as Errol’s most recent post notes that there have been more than seven hundred responses published since it started to appear. The latest post this week at
contains additional information so the series may not yet be over. For myself, the fascination remains lingering but awful for in this age of Bernie Madoff I still seem to at least half-admire people with skills sufficient to bamboozle the wealthy into believing anything you tell them or sell them.