Um, About That Monet On Your Wall...Thane Peterson
The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes
By Thomas Hoving
Simon & Schuster -- 366pp -- $25
In his scathing 1993 tattletale account of his tenure as director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Making the Mummies Dance, Thomas Hoving opined that it isn't sufficient for a museum chief to be a connoisseur, scholar, and administrator. Other essential attributes, he argued, include "gunslinger," "legal fixer," and "accomplice smuggler." Now, in False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes, Hoving demonstrates in revealing and often wicked anecdotes why a museum leader needs a touch of larceny in the soul or at least a keen understanding of the larcenous heart.
In this new book, Hoving takes his usual delight in serving up shocking tales about revered institutions. He headed the Met from 1967 to 1977 and served an earlier term as a curator for medieval art. Hoving now claims that perhaps 40% of the works he evaluated (and some he bought) were fakes. He gleefully describes the scam artists who regularly cheat the Met, the J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, Calif., the National Gallery in London, and other august collections out of millions. He pillories the museum boards and scholars whose greed, egotism, and complacency abet the scams. And, as is his wont, he names names and mercilessly assigns judgment. One juicy tidbit: He finds "convincing" a French scholar's arguments that Van Gogh's Sunflowers, for which Japan's Yasuda Marine paid $39.9 million in 1987, is really the work of one of Van Gogh's students.
Hoving's most interesting tales, however, are about art counterfeiters he has known. Now 65, he met his first, one Frank X. Kelly, in the course of a college summer job in the interior design department at the Bonwit Teller department store, in which Hoving's father had a controlling interest. Kelly, who also did work for Bonwit, was a painting restorer whose sideline was doing knockoffs of Impressionist paintings. Among Kelly's tips for avoiding detection: Paint over old canvases scavenged from antique shops, combine elements from existing works but never copy them exactly, and paint fast, because a lack of spontaneity is a dead giveaway of a fake.
Bad boy that he is, Hoving provides a further twist to this tale: Many of Kelly's works, he alleges, are still extant and undiscovered in private collections. He saw two just last year, he says, in prominent New York galleries (he doesn't say which). And he contends that at a 1968 reception chez Joan Sutherland, five of the diva's 25 Impressionist paintings on display were Kelly's. Characteristically, Hoving only hinted to her at the time that he thought the works were fakes. She'll get the news, he implies, from his book.
There are plenty of other mischievous stories. One of the most involved starts with a 1986 research trip by Hoving to the Getty Museum. Upon seeing a rare intact Greek kouros, a 6th century B.C. statue of a youth for which the Getty had paid millions, Hoving immediately concluded it was a fake. Teaming up with a British journalist, he quickly traced the scam to Jiri Frel, an "electrically persuasive" Getty curator who had once worked for him at the Met. Frel viewed the Getty's trustees as "intellectual cripples," Hoving says, and to prove his point, foisted thousands of dubious works on the museum--for a tab totaling $14 million. Hoving implies that Frel and art dealers profited from the scheme, but he doesn't prove this point. The kouros is now displayed with a label saying it may be modern; Hoving delights in quoting the many experts who once testified to its authenticity.
And why does Hoving contend that any museum director worth his salt should count on being an "accomplice smuggler" and a "legal fixer"? According to him, museums spend no small amount of time trying to spirit artwork and artifacts out of such places as Greece, Turkey, Mexico--even Britain and France--without getting caught by authorities. In one tale, he describes himself as busily trying to figure out how to get a rare 14th century Madonna and Child out of an Austrian church and back to the Met--only to discover just in time that the dealer-friend who brought the statue to his attention is trying to foist a fake on him. It's really an altered later work planted at the church by the dealer's cousin, a sacristan there.
Fascinating as it is, False Impressions shares many of the weaknesses of Mummies. Hoving can't resist the unkind rumor. (In one aside, he claims that a secretary always called to warn the staff at the Met library when Frel, a notorious harasser according to Hoving, was coming there.) And there's a question about how much of all this to believe. In Mummies, after all, Hoving admitted to "embellishing" his essay for the Met's controversial 1969 Harlem on My Mind photo show by making up a story that his family had a black maid and chauffeur. Hoving adds verisimilitude to his tales by pillorying himself along with everyone else, but one always has the nagging feeling that he's telling only part of the story.
What's more, this book lacks some of the manic verve and vivid, if often cruel, characterization of Mummies. To business readers, part of what made the previous work appealing was the sketches of such legendary figures as Wall Street's Robert Lehman, as well as behind-the-scenes tales of the role business executives took in running the Met. There's less of that here. But there are lots of dazzling anecdotes. Just don't take them as gospel.