“Authentic,” like its near-relations, “real,” “genuine,” and “true,” is what J.L. Austin called a “dimension word,” a term whose meaning remains uncertain until we know what dimension of its referent is being talked about. A forged painting, for example, will not be inauthentic in every respect: a Han van Meegeren forgery of a Vermeer is at one and the same time both a fake Vermeer and an authentic van Meegeren, just as a counterfeit bill may be both a fraudulent token of legal tender but at the same time a genuine piece of paper. The way the authentic/inauthentic distinction sorts out is thus context-dependent to a high degree. Mozart played on a modern grand piano might be termed inauthentic, as opposed to being played on an eighteenth-century forte-piano, even though the notes played are authentically Mozart’s. A performance of Shakespeare that is at pains to recreate Elizabethan production practices, values, and accents would be to that extent authentic, but may still be inauthentic with respect to the fact that it uses actresses for the female parts instead of boys, as would have been the case on Shakespeare’s stage. Authenticity of presentation is relevant not only to performing arts. Modern museums, for example, have been criticized for presenting old master paintings in strong lighting conditions which reveal detail, but at the same time give an overall effect that is at odds with how works would have been enjoyed in domestic spaces by their original audiences; cleaning, revarnishing, and strong illumination arguably amount to inauthentic presentation. Religious sculptures created for altars have been said to be inauthentically displayed when presented in a bare space of a modern art gallery (see Feagin 1995).
Whenever the term “authentic” is used in aesthetics, a good first question to ask is, Authentic as opposed to what? Despite the widely different contexts in which the authentic/inauthentic is applied in aesthetics, the distinction nevertheless tends to form around two broad categories of sense. First, works of art can be possess what we may call nominal authenticity, defined simply as the correct identification of the origins, authorship, or provenance of an object, ensuring, as the term implies, that an object of aesthetic experience is properly named. However, the concept of authenticity often connotes something else, having to do with an object’s character as a true expression of an individual’s or a society’s values and beliefs. This second sense of authenticity can be called expressive authenticity. The following discussion will summarize some of the problems surrounding nominal authenticity and will conclude with a general examination of expressive authenticity.
2. NOMINAL AUTHENTICITY
2.1 Forgery and Plagiarism
Many of the most often-discussed issues of authenticity have centred around art forgery and plagiarism. A forgery is defined as a work of art whose history of production is misrepresented by someone (not necessarily the artist) to an audience (possibly to a potential buyer of the work), normally for financial gain. A forging artist paints or sculpts a work in the style of a famous artist in order to market the result as having been created by the famous artist. Exact copies of existing works are seldom forged, as they will be difficult to sell to knowledgeable buyers. The concept of forgery necessarily involves deceptive intentions on the part of the forger or the seller of the work: this distinguishes forgeries from innocent copies or merely erroneous attributions. Common parlance also allows that an honest copy can later be used as a forgery, even though it was not originally intended as such, and can come to be called a “forgery.” In such cases a defrauding seller acts on an unknowing buyer by misrepresenting the provenance of a work, perhaps even with the additions of a false signature or certificate of authenticity. The line between innocent copy and overt forgery can be, as we shall see, difficult to discern.
Plagiarism is a related but logically distinct kind of fraud. It involves the passing off as one’s own of the words or ideas of another. The most obvious cases of plagiarism have an author publishing in his own name a text that was written by someone else. If the original has already been published, the plagiarist is at risk of being discovered, although plagiarism may be impossible to prove if the original work, or all copies of it, is hidden or destroyed. Since publication of plagiarized work invites wide scrutiny, plagiarism is, unlike forgery, a difficult fraud to accomplish as a public act without detection. In fact, the most common acts of plagiarism occur not in public, but in the private sphere of work that students submit to their teachers.
2.2 Honest Misidentification
Authenticity is contrasted with “falsity” or “fakery” in ordinary discourse, but, as noted, falsity need not imply fraud at every stage of the production of a fake. Blatant forgery and the intentional misrepresentation of art objects has probably been around as long as there has been an art market — it was rife even in ancient Rome. However, many works of art that are called “inauthentic” are merely misidentified. There is nothing fraudulent about wrongly guessing the origins of an apparently old New Guinea mask or an apparently eighteenth-century Italian painting. Fraudulence is approached only when what is merely an optimistic guess is presented as well-established knowledge, or when the person making the guess uses position or authority to give it a weight exceeding what it deserves. The line, however, that divides unwarranted optimism from fraudulence is hazy at best. (Any worldly person who has ever heard from an antique dealer the phrase “It’s probably a hundred and fifty years old” will understand this point: it’s probably not that old, and perhaps not even the dealer himself could be sure if he’s merely being hopeful or playing fast and loose with the truth.)
Authenticity, therefore, is a much broader issue than one of simply spotting and rooting out fakery in the arts. The will to establish the nominal authenticity of a work of art, identifying its maker and provenance — in a phrase, determining how the work came to be — comes from a general desire to understand a work of art according to its original canon of criticism: what did it mean to its creator? How was it related to the cultural context of its creation? To what established genre did it belong? What could its original audience have been expected to make of it? What would they have found engaging or important about it? These questions are often framed in terms of artists’ intentions, which will in part determine and constitute the identity of a work; and intentions can arise and be understood only in a social context and at a historical time. External context and artistic intention are thus intrinsically related. We should resist, however, the temptation to imagine that ascertaining nominal authenticity will inevitably favour some “old” or “original” object over a later artefact. There may be Roman sculptures, copies of older Greek originals, which are in some respects aesthetically better than their older prototypes, as there may be copies by Rembrandt of other Dutch artists that are aesthetically more pleasing than the originals. But in all such cases, value and meaning can be rightly assessed only against a background of correctly determined nominal authenticity (for further discussion see Dutton 1983; Goodman 1976; Currie 1989; Levinson 1990).
2. 3 Han van Meegeren
One of the most famous episodes of misidentification and fraudulence in the last century involves the van Meegeren Vermeer forgeries. The Dutch artist Han van Meegeren (1889–1947) was born in Deventer and studied in Delft, which was the home of the great seventeenth-century Dutch artist Johannes Vermeer. As his career declined in the years following the First World War, van Meegeren became increasingly resentful of dealers, critics, and academics. In part to wreak silent revenge on his enemies (“woman-haters and negro-lovers,” he called them), but also simply to make money, van Meegeren tried his hand at forgery, producing in 1923 a Laughing Cavalier, ostensibly by Franz Hals. Later he turned to the much scarcer and more valuable paintings of Vermeer. (Fewer than forty Vermeers have survived into the twentieth century.) His most ambitious plan, hatched in the mid-1930s, was to forge a large Vermeer on a religious subject. This would have been an unusual find for an undiscovered Vermeer, and therefore an unlikely choice for a forger; but in fact van Meegeren was cleverly confirming published scholarly speculation that Vermeer had visited Italy and painted on religious themes in his youth, and that such paintings in a large, Italian style might yet be found.
Han van Meegeren, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus (1937)
This forgery, Christ and the Disciples at Emmaus, was completed in 1937. To produce it, van Meegeren studied seventeenth-century pigment formulas, incorporated volatile flower oils in his pigments to create hardness, and used badger-hair brushes (a single modern bristle embedded in the paint would give him away) on canvas recycled from an unimportant seventeenth-century painting. He conceived a way to produce a craquelure, the fine web of surface cracking characteristics of old paintings, and concocted a plausible provenance for the work, claiming that it had come into his hands from an old Italian family that had fallen on hard times and wanted to dispose of the painting under strict confidentiality (Godley 1967;Dutton 1983). The work was ultimately purchased by the Boymans Museum in Rotterdam for a price of approximately 2.5 million US dollars (2002 value), two-thirds of which van Meegeren pocketed.
When the Emmaus was unveiled at the museum, van Meegeren had the satisfaction of standing at the edge of a crowd that heard the painting extolled by the eminent Vermeer scholar Abraham Bredius as perhaps “the masterpiece” Vermeer (Bredius 1937). Van Meegeren went on to forge six more Vermeers, one of which ended up in the private collection of the Nazi Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring.
Han van Meegeren, Christ and the Adultress
(1941) Purchased by Hermann Göring
Because van Meegeren was known to have dealt with this work, he was arrested by Dutch police a few days after the end of the war for having sold a Dutch national treasure to the enemy. Only then did he confess that he had actually created this painting and the others, going on to paint a last Vermeer in jail as a demonstration while he awaited trial. The trial itself was a media event, and the worldwide coverage made him a folk hero. Van Meegeren was given a prison sentence of only one year; he died of a heart attack shortly after beginning his sentence (Dutton 1983).
The van Meegeren episode is justifiably notorious as a case of recognized experts being hoodwinked by a clever, artistically gifted fraudster. As such, it calls into question both the validity of official expertise and the existence of ascertainable aesthetic values that should ideally enable art professionals to identify “masterpieces” and distinguish them from inferior fakes. After all, if even renowned experts cannot tell the difference between a Vermeer and a van Meegeren, and if the van Meegeren has the power to delight museum visitors, as the Emmaus clearly did, then why should anyone care very much whether or not the painting is a Vermeer? Why should such a work be consigned to the basement? The discovery that it is forged does not, it seems, alter its perceived aesthetic characteristics. Arthur Koestler has argued that in such situations there can be no justification for rejecting a copy or forgery. If the forgery is indiscernible from an original (in the case of an identical copy), or if it fits perfectly into the body of work left by an artist, and produces aesthetic pleasure of the same kind as other works by the original artist, then there can be no warrant to exclude it from a museum (Koestler 1964).
In his influential discussion of forgery, Nelson Goodman has advanced arguments calling into question the idea that there can be no aesthetic difference between an original and an indiscernible forgery. In the first place, Goodman would have us ask, “indiscernible to whom?” Differences between the Mona Lisa and a so-called exact copy of it may be indiscernible to a child, but obvious to an experienced museum curator. Even if the curator cannot tell the difference between the one and the other, that does not mean that a difference will not emerge, and later on appear glaring not only to the curator, but to more innocent eyes as well. This process of change in perception, actually a sharpening of perception, is nicely illustrated by the van Meegeren episode. In the first place, it should be noted that, even at the time of the unveiling of the