I wrote about the underestimated dangers of counterfeiting just before Christmas, and the topic has once again been under discussion in Grossey Mansions. On a recent episode of “Fake or Fortune?” (which I watch avidly, as Fiona Bruce has my life, not to mention my height and my cheekbones), a painting believed to be by Marc Chagall was declared a fake, and the Chagall Foundation in Paris announced that, as permitted (or, as they have it, as required) under French law, they will be destroying it. The owner, who paid £100,000 for the painting when its provenance was uncertain, has appealed to have it returned to him as he likes it anyway, and says that they can stamp “Fake” on the back if they wish, to prevent it ever being passed on as genuine. (Personally I would advise “Shamgall”, but no-one has suggested it, not even Fiona.)
I’m in two minds about this. Counterfeiting is of course a crime – and a bad one, as I have argued many times in the past. And if there were any chance of this painting re-entering the art market as a genuine Chagall, then I would support its destruction. But it’s been all over the news; London’s leading art experts have made enquiries about it everywhere and presumably put the world’s art dealers on alert; and with that stamp on the back (come on, Shamgall’s got to work) then it’s never going to be believed again, is it? And the owner has had it for two decades, he paid a lot of money for it, there’s an empty space on the wall in his hall, and he’d like the nude lady back.
But what really worries me about it is the message this sends out about voicing your concerns. If art owners fear that questioning the legitimacy of their purchases could lead to the destruction of those artworks (with no compensation), then – to be frank – they would be mad to make any enquiries at all. The smart owner will just squash his own suspicions, keep quiet and hope for the best. And this is precisely what criminals hope we will all do when that little note of unease creeps into our minds.