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Aviva Briefel. The Deceivers: Art Forgery and Identity in the Nineteenth Century. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2006. ISBN: 978-0801444609. Price: US $39.95

  • Carole G. Silver

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  • Carole G. Silver
    Yeshiva University

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The Deceivers, Aviva Briefel’s book on forgery and identity, could not be more timely. As the staff of the Italian Prime Minister orders the nineteenth-century mural in his office “restored” (repainted) to conceal an allegorical figure’s bare breasts and the New York Times Style Magazine suggests to trendy women that “the coolest way to wear . . . [jewelry]” is “by mixing up the heirlooms and the costume” and asks readers to guess which pictured items are real and which are “faux,” we are made aware that the issues with which Briefel deals are very much alive today.

Exploring the intersections between forgery (broadly defined), narrative and identity in nineteenth-century England, France and America, Briefel utilizes sources ranging from actual forgery cases, art anecdotes and popular newspaper articles to journals of aesthetics and novels and stories by major nineteenth-century writers. She introduces us to the world of fakes: forgers, connoisseurs, dealers and restorers whose interactions with the increased demands for art objects, fueled by the new capitalists and the growth of museums and collectors, helped produce a gilded age of fakery.

From the beginning The Deceivers surprises, educates and usually convinces its readers. It is startling to learn that forgery was not necessarily perceived as criminal and was actually defended on cultural and economic grounds. The forger could be depicted, in fiction and in life, as an innocent victim or even as a model of respectable artistry. It is less surprising, but equally informative, to be told of the exclusion of women from the forgery enterprise. Females were seen as mere “copyists,” neither criminal nor colorful. Briefel deals with one female forger, Rosa Corder, only in an endnote, since she can apparently find little information on Corder’s activities.

The first two chapters discuss the gender, identity and authenticity of male forgers and female copyists in literary works including Henry James’s novel, The American, a Wilkie Collins novella called A Rogue’s Life, and Balzac’s short story, “Pierre Grassou.” The chapters investigate the homosocial bonds developed between male forgers and connoisseurs (with the art object taking the place of the female in the Sedgwickian triangle). Forgers and experts mirror each other, and the community of men that gather around a fake is explored in a valuable analysis of Oscar Wilde’s “Portrait of Mr. W. H.”

A third chapter, on forgery and national identity, raises another issue, that of restorations as either validating or negating the cultural authority of nations. The question of restoration and of the related creation of hybrid works (such as “classical” statues assembled from diverse fragments of antiquities and copies) is perhaps too lightly touched upon here. However, Briefel does examine the controversial treatment of the Elgin marbles and the botched restoration of paintings at both the British National Gallery and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She also glances at the issue of conservation: how the cleaning of a work of art can create or dissolve a fake. But the chapter really centers on an analysis of The Marble Faun. Here, Briefel anatomizes Nathaniel Hawthorne’s masterpiece as an attempt “to claim a place for America on the cultural map through the work of restoration” (96). The section deals both with America’s quest for cultural power and the enigma of Hawthorne’s copyist, Hilda. It might have been further enriched by a discussion of another related “marginal” or shady area, the creation of replicas--that is, duplicates produced by the artists themselves or, in many cases, by their assistants.

Chapter four brings up the often submerged issue of the character of the dealer as well as the more obvious one of his ethnicity. Art dealers were usually viewed as ignorant, materialistic and deceptive, as well as Jewish. Briefel analyzes the transferring of the forger’s guilt to the dealer, a preferred scapegoat because of his stereotypical Jewish traits. She comments on the general belief that his sole interest in art was monetary. What emerges is the popular view that the forger’s love of art led him to counterfeit, to submerge himself and his ego, while the dealer magnified himself and profited. Copyists were visible and female, forgers were male and invisible, and dealers (in three societies tainted by anti-Semitism) were slimy and sub-human. As Briefel traces the evolution of the figure of the Jewish dealer, depicting him as the locus of anxiety about the commodification of art, she explores his ultimate transformation into Svengali in George Du Maurier’s Trilby. Most insightfully, she examines Trilby herself as both a consumer object and a consummate “fake.”

A final and most provocative chapter, “Paste and Pearls,” makes use of Henry James’s short story “Paste” and Guy de Maupassant’s “La Parure” (“The Necklace”). Fake gems, unlike fake paintings, are not designed to deceive their buyers, but to help the buyers deceive others. A woman can deceive and transgress with paste, an unusual source of empowerment. While I think that Briefel is too hard on Mathilde, the protagonist of the famous Maupassant story, seeing her as a quintessential fake rather than as a pathetic Emma Bovary, her argument is certainly viable. An examination of Lizzie Eustace of Anthony Trollope’s Eustace Diamonds—a supreme fraud with authentic jewels–would have made an interesting comparison to Mathilde. Nevertheless, the chapter, ending with an analysis of the film Gaslight and its twentieth-century glorification of the female protagonist, is fascinating and thought-provoking.

Briefel indicates that our interest in fakes has not died with the Victorians and provides us with twentieth-century examples of its vitality, including The Maltese Falcon and Orson Welles’ F for Fake. She might also have mentioned a telling addition to the adventures of Sherlock Holmes. In the famous Jeremy Brett television versions of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective tales, the writers of the series invented new and different motives for Professor Moriarity’s hatred of Holmes. Amplifying the Victorian original of “The Adventure of the Final Problem,” they make forgery the motive for assassination, and depict Holmes foiling Moriarity’s scheme to sell fake versions of the Mona Lisa to rich Americans, especially to a certain Mr. Morgan – J. P. that is.

The Deceivers has significant implications beyond its ostensible subject. Transcending her concern with art, Briefel suggests the power of those who can either produce or detect fakes. She shows that fakes themselves become something more than objects–that they can merge with people or even be people. The book suggests too that the exposure of a forgery does not necessarily lead to its being devalued. Here, the philosophical argument espoused, for example, in Alfred Lessing’s article, “What is Wrong with A Forgery?,” that it should make no aesthetic difference whether a work of art is authentic or a forgery, would have been useful. Nevertheless, Briefel’s point that the power we assume over objects by calling them fakes or originals is like the power of magicians--that we transform what we see--is well taken.

In all, there is nothing fraudulent about The Deceivers. A thoughtful, wide-ranging and erudite book, well-written and rich in examples, it makes a fresh and significant contribution to nineteenth-century studies.

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