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The Morality of Forgery

Frindle's picture

Co-authored by Claire

In writing a paper on forgery, it is necessary to first state the definition of plagiarism and forgery. Plagiarism is a reproduction or seizure of another’s work without proper accreditation.  Forgery, on the other hand, occurs when someone reproduces a work of art (or style thereof) and puts a different creators name on it (e.g. painting in the style of Van Gogh and putting his name on it).

Society teaches us that stealing is wrong, and this includes stealing someone’s identity. In the case of art forgery, it is wrong because it uses another person’s name and reputation to make money, without the consent of the aforementioned individual. Copying another work is acceptable, but using another person’s name is not. Painting in the style of Van Gogh and then telling people it was a new painting of his that you found is equivalent to writing in the style of Shakespeare and then saying it was a new play written by The Bard Himself. In both of these cases, the work is being unveiled not because of how happy it will make people or how beautiful it is, but because the presenter wants prestige and, potentially, money. If someone wanted to bring happiness to people, they could do that without using a different creator’s name.

People wanting to make money is not wrong; it is human nature. What is wrong is the means used to get the money. The first thing a creator will be remembered for is their works. The rest of their life is always background information. When someone uses a creator’s name to make money, they are giving credit where credit is not due, and may not be wanted. Indeed, it must be remembered that one who goes into arts such as painting or writing does not do it for the prestige. An artist will want to be remembered for what they have done, not what someone else has done in their name.

On the other hand, many benefits can arise from forgery. It has never been a hotly debated topic in the art world because it is considered wrong, yet as a society, we teach children that copying and forging is not only good but an essential ability to have during their education and the rest of their lives. From a young age, children are exposed to writers and artwork to which their teachers point and say “look, you should be like this.” They are encouraged to copy the styles and ideas presented to them. In art class they are presented with Van Goghs, Monets, Renoirs and many others and are told to learn about themselves and about art through copying. It is all well and good to argue that these students are not technically forging anything because they have not replaced their own name with that of a famous artist, but if their copying is not wrong, then why is forging? Although they might protest, it does not harm the artists whose works are forged because, if anything, it gives them greater renown. Moreover these pieces of forged work go so long without notice that there is little doubt that they are of as high quality as the originals, and so how can people complain about the perpetuation of artists and art movements that we so celebrate as a society? One might complain about floods of forgeries devaluing the cost of art, but if the art is really worth that much on its own, should it not retain its worth amongst a flood of other work? The high value of art should not be celebrated in the first place because the lower the financial value of art, the more people can have access to it and find enjoyment in it.

The Barnes Foundation uniquely deals with the concept of forgery largely because of its founder, Albert Barnes, who assembled and arranged a collection solely based on the aesthetic value of each of the pieces. Alfred Lessing explains what Barnes might have had to say on the issue had he been alive when the forgeries within his collection were found: “Considering a work of art aesthetically superior because it is genuine, or inferior because it is forged, has little or nothing to do with aesthetic judgment or criticism. It is rather a piece of snobbery” (461).  The modern caretakers of this collection have reflected much of this opinion in their dealings with forgeries. They, rather than remove the pieces placed with such care by Barnes, have merely said that a work is inspired by the artist it is forging. This decision has not been immune to controversy as people say that “The [Barnes’] refusal to investigate its own collection or listen to others has cost the Barnes Foundation credibility as a serious educational center or professionally managed museum over the last several decades.” (Lucinda Fleeson 34).

In most of the art world forgery is condemned outright, but Barnes, like him or hate him, has sparked controversy and has caused real, probing questions to be asked about how we view art in our society.

Works Cited:

Fleeson, Lucinda. "How Years Of Eccentricity Saved Barnes' Priceless Art." N.p., 04 June 1989. Web. 09 Dec. 2013.

Lessing, Alfred. "What Is Wrong with a Forgery?" The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 23.4 (1965): 461-71. JSTOR. Web. 9 Dec. 2013. <>.