Tuesday, July 08, 2008

Forgery and impostors

Currently the Prado is staging a big show of the works of Francisco Goya (shortly to close, alas). The authorities there have announced their conclusion that the “Colossus,” formerly regarded as an almost emblematic work, is actually not by Goya. Some years ago, the authenticity of the Black Paintings from the Casa del Sordo, also emblematic, was challenged. I believe that their status remains in limbo.

This problematic situation entails a curious paradox, in that the works sometimes thought to be most characteristic of an artist may not be by him or her. In the late 1930s a Dutch forger Han van Meegeren created a “Vermeer” (The Disciples at Emmaus) that immediately took its place as one of the master’s “finest works.” After WW II Van Meegeren was exposed for other reasons, and the painting vanished from the monographs.

The problem of forgery is usually framed in dollar terms--that is, the loss to the dealer or owner if the work is challenged. Yet it seems to me to pose deeper questions of identity. The unified concept of personality (which may be debatable) has as its corollary the idea that the products of that personality will be uniform. In the case of handwriting this is so--but it may not be true in other realms.

Forgery consists of passing off things as something they are not. There are also cases of human forgery, as it were: the impostor problem. A well-known example is the 16th-century case of the two Martin Guerres, as depicted in the 1982 film and the 1983 monograph by the Princeton historian Natalie Zemon Davis.

The original Martin Guere was born about 1524 in the Basque town of Hendaye. In 1527 his family moved to the Pyrenean village Artigat in southwestern France. When he was about fourteen years old, Martin married Bertrande de Rols, daughter of a prosperous family. The marriage was childless for eight years until a son was born. Accused of stealing grain from his father, Martin abruptly disappeared in 1548. French law, reflecting the Catholic doctrines of the time, barred his abandoned wife’s remarriage.

In the summer of 1556, a man appeared in Artigues, claiming to be Martin Guerre. Taking advantage of his similar looks and detailed knowledge of Martin Guerre's life, he convinced most of the villagers. The “new” Martin lived for three years with Bertrande and her son; they had two children together.

Eventually, a soldier passing through Artigat claimed that the new Martin Guerre was a fraud: the real one had lost a leg in the war. Inquiries ensued that seemed to disclose the true identity of the impostor: Arnaud du Tilh, nicknamed "Pansette" (little belly), a man with a poor reputation from the nearby village Sajas.

In 1560 a law case was tried in Rieux. Bertrande testified that at first she had honestly believed the man to be her husband, but that she had since realized that he was a fraud. After hearing more than 150 witnesses, with many recognizing Martin Guerre (including his four sisters), many recognizing Arnaud du Tilh and others refusing to take sides, the accused impostor was sentenced to death.

He appealed to the high court in Toulouse. The new Martin eloquently argued his case, and the judges tended to believe his version of the story. But then dramatically the true Martin Guerre appeared during the very trial, with a wooden leg. Finally, Arnaud du Tilh confessed: he had learned about Guerre's life after two men confused him with Guerre, and he had then decided to take Guerre's place. He apologized to all, and was hanged in front of Martin Guerre's house in Artigat.

To this day historians dispute whether Bertrande was genuinely duped, or whether she simply went along with the imposture in order to have a husband.

The Martin Guerre imposture was done for private motives. There are also instances that reflect reasons of state and public policy, as with spies and infiltrators. The recent rescue of the high-value hostages in Colombia was effected in part by officers of the national army who had infiltrated the FARC. They were able to convince their host that they were gung-ho “revolutionaries,” possibly more gung-ho than most.


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