Lance Charnes's Reviews > False Impressions: The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes

False Impressions by Thomas Hoving
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bookshelves: nonfiction-art-culture, nonfiction-crime-espionage, reviewed
Recommended for: people who like their true-crime stories chatty and upscale

Imagine you've crashed an Upper East Side party full of the culturati. As you skulk around behind the potted ficus, you run across a mostly-bald man with a hawk nose and a gravelly voice holding court, attended by a clutch of people expensively clad in designer black. He's performing. People laugh. But instead of riffs on Manhattan real estate or the impossibility of finding good help, he's talking about art fraud.

He's Thomas Hoving*, and that, in a nutshell, is False Impressions.

Art fraud and forgery has been with us since the dawn of art. The first recorded art forgeries are Phoenician; the ancient Romans were notorious fakers; the Christians of the Middle Ages created a lively trade in fraudulent saints' relics, holy writings and other such; and so on down through history. Even the least-talented forgers can unload their wares as long as they can find a mark who fills the three vital qualifications for being had: need, speed, and greed.

Hoving overcame his one-percenter background (wealthy parents, Exeter, Princeton) to rise through the ranks of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, becoming its director in 1967. Among other things, he gave the world the original blockbuster traveling museum exhibition (The Treasures of Tutankhamen). He continued to be a fixture in the art world until his death, meeting, working with, fighting against or promoting a who's who of that milieu.

A showman and no stranger to self-promotion, Hoving is a natural storyteller. He alternates chapters about historical fakery with his own brushes with fraud as a curator or museum director. He manages to keep the jargon to a minimum, though it sneaks in, especially when he's describing the real or fake artworks that feature in his tales (prepare to spend some time with Wikipedia if you don't have a grounding in art history). He's certainly not shy about letting you know his opinions, which enhances the general chattiness of the book. He's even willing to tell tales on himself and how he either proposed or approved buying for the museum what turned out to be forgeries. It would be hard to find a livelier story written by a scholar of medieval art.

The downsides? The chapters featuring Hoving are sprightlier and more involving than the ones in which he's absent, leading to some unevenness of tone. For a book subtitled "The Hunt for Big-Time Art Fakes," there's surprisingly little hunting; the most developed story of detective work is Hoving's recounting of how he helped chase down the provenance of the infamous Getty kouros. If you're looking for detailed descriptions of how art experts uncover fakes, you won't find that here. There are, blessedly, pictures (not something you can say about a number of art-crime books), but something that would've been very enlightening is missing: a photographic comparison between one of the forgeries highlighted in the text and examples of real artworks of the same type, so we can see the differences in style and execution that the author spends a great deal of time explaining.

False Impressions is a relatively painless entrée into the world of art fraud and forgery, led by a highly experienced and articulate guide. It's much more like being at that imaginary cocktail party than in the field or the lab, and you'll learn more about the author than you strictly need to. At the end, though, you'll come out somewhat entertained, a bit more informed...and a good deal more skeptical about the works you encounter in a gallery or museum.

* Actually, it's his ghost; he died in December 2009. Nonetheless.
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Reading Progress

August 23, 2014 – Shelved
July 10, 2015 – Started Reading
July 18, 2015 – Finished Reading

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