Foreword by Jason Bailey
I probably have more in common with notorious art forger Robert J.C. Driessen than I do with most blue chip art collectors: We both grew up dreaming of being artists, and we were both deeply disappointed to discover the art world is not designed to support most artists and often feels rigged (data suggests this is not just a “feeling”).
Anecdotally, I spent much of my life in art school and in art classes surrounded by artists. Despite this, I have met only one person who makes a full-time living off of their art, and he is a political cartoonist.
So I can see how Driessen could easily have become disillusioned and desperate as a young artist and started justifying forgery as an act of revenge against a system that failed to recognize his own talents. It’s likely Driessen thought forgery was a crime that only impacted a tiny percent of very wealthy collectors and institutions. The problem is, this isn’t true. Forgery impacts us all.
In an open letter to art forgers I wrote back in October of 2017, which mentioned Driessen by name, I pleaded with forgers to stop thinking of their actions as victimless crimes. I reminded them that it is the would-be artists, the modern versions of their younger selves, who are the ones who miss out as a result of their forgeries. The damage is not merely mistaking their works for those of other artists, but the cumulative erosion of a credible artistic record of our most important cultural objects: our art.
To his credit, Driessen responded to my open letter to forgers to open up a dialog. From Driessen:
By coincidence I read your “OPEN LETTER” to Art Forgers, now one year ago.
My name is Robert JC Driessen and I forged “Giacometti” sculptures and many other artists I admired.
The fact I forged was that I was not bright minded enough to create something myself.
That is why I always tell people, “I am not an artist but I make art”…
…I did try, (after my prison sentence) to make my own art but the public does not seem to like it very much.
But please do not worry, I will not forge “ART” any more.
I am very happy that Driessen no longer creates forgeries, and I hope other forgers follow his good example. But we need to stop celebrating forgery in popular culture as “a few rascals getting one over on the rich and powerful” and call it out for the irreparable damage it does to our shared cultural history. That said, I don’t believe anyone, even forgers, are all good or all bad. I believe everyone can change, and I believe that people deserve second chances. I also believe that if you see something as a problem (forgers and forgery in this case), it is better to engage with the problem and try to understand it than it is to ignore it and hope it goes away on its own.
In the spirit of better understanding forgers, I’d meant to interview Robert Driessen since he reached out to me almost a year ago. I had not found the time and did not trust anyone else to do the interview. Then journalist and art historian Christina Cacouris reached out to volunteer to help with Artnome. Cacouris was willing to help with the less-exciting aspects of Artnome, including cleaning data. But when I read her writing and, particularly, her interviews, I thought data cleaning would be a waste of her talents. So I asked if she’d be interested in interviewing Driessen for Artnome.
Cacouris obliged, and she did an excellent job with a tricky interview. She avoids the trap of lionizing or villainizing Driessen, and instead tries to understand him and his motivations. Much of what Driessen chooses to share with Cacouris has more to do with attacking the art world rather than with his own history as a forger. I must say this blame feels misplaced for me. If Driessen and other forgers had not produced the forgeries in the first place, there would be no concern with the work entering into the marketplace (and later, into our museums).
I also don’t believe any auction house would make it a regular practice to undermine public trust in their own brand, as trust — not art — is their stock and trade. With hundreds of years in operation as trusted brands, Christie’s and Sotheby’s have outlasted most brands from most other industries. Businesses do not achieve that type of prolonged success by trading long-term trust for a quick buck in the short run.
While I disagree with Driessen’s assessment, I appreciate him sharing his perspective with Cacouris so that we might better understand some of the motivations behind forgers and forgery moving forward. I am also delighted to welcome Cacouris as a contributor to Artnome, and I encourage you to read her other work, as it is excellent.
An Interview With Art Forger Robert J.C. Driessen by Christina Cacouris
People have a fascination with forgery. Perhaps it’s because the art world has been so overinflated that when we hear about the Leonardo da Vinci selling to a Saudi prince for $450 million and then have it turn out to be most likely fake, we respond with glee. There’s something of a Robin Hood complex about it all: Only the ultra-rich are being swindled, so what’s really the harm?
“It’s absolutely not da Vinci,” says Robert Driessen of that spectacular auction. A former art forger, he says he can spot fakes a mile away. “Have you seen the before restoration and after restoration? It’s a totally different painting now. It’s unbelievable how people can fall for that.”
By his own estimate, Driessen created thousands of forgeries during his run as a forger in Europe, starting with oil paintings, then moving to sculpture. He sold these works to collectors, who, knowing they were fake, would then take the pieces to auction. At the apex of his forging career, he focused his production on Giacometti sculptures, before his arrest in July 2014. He spent a few years in prison, then relocated to Thailand, where he still makes Giacometti reproductions—with the disclaimer that they are not originals.
Driessen called me from Thailand to discuss his life’s work and perspective on forging. From our interview and from his self-published memoir, it’s clear that Driessen intended to be an artist himself, but fell into forging when he desperately needed money and received a commission to paint 19th century Romantic-style Dutch and German landscapes that weren’t exactly meant to be forgeries, per se, but also weren’t exactly meant to be anything else.
He wavers between remorse for his wrongdoing and denouncing the art world as essentially being no better, therefore justifying his work. “I really mean it from the bottom of my heart: I love art, I dream art, I eat art,” he says. “But the art world is so loathsome you wouldn’t believe.”
There’s an obvious incentive for auction houses to inflate the value of a work, which can be done in a variety of ways, from accepting something widely believed to be fake (see: Salvador Mundi), to price fixing (see: Christie’s and Sotheby’s ). The house always wins, and even the littlest white lies can begin to stack up.
“They take a glance at where it comes from, and as long as they can sell it, they need art to sell,” he says. “As long as it looks good and they’ve got some reference, they don’t really care where it’s from.”
“I think that 30-40% of all the auction houses is forged art,” he adds.
The normal process for selling work from a private collection at auction involves having the work authenticated by a third party expert; the collector then takes their work and the authentication certificate to an auction house, like Christie’s or Sotheby’s, who then sets a starting price and brings it to auction. Intentionally or not, there’s a lot of room for error in the authentication process.
Not every work by an artist has been documented, and artists often change styles throughout their career. There is rarely one singular marker that will clearly separate the fakes from the originals. It’s almost impossible to be certain, so, claims Driessen, most authenticators give objects the benefit of the doubt.
Would a database like Artnome’s compiling the top 40 artists’ known works help combat incorrectly authenticated forgeries? “Yeah, but I don’t think it’s possible,” he says. “Artists, if you’re talking about the top 40, you’re talking about Picasso, Giacometti, Cezanne. These people hardly ever held records, and you still find in attics or basements some piece which is not registered. Of course most of them are fakes, but sometimes a good piece turns up. The problem also is, if it is an original piece and you go to an expert, the expert will not want to burn his hand and say, ‘No, I don’t think it’s original.’ That also happens.”
But, authenticators can be persuaded to give something the benefit of the doubt: “If a piece is good, if a piece is almost original, I do know from experience that if you say to an expert, ‘If you say it’s original, and I put it in the auction, and for the selling price, I’ll give you 20%, 30%, 40%’ — if it’s a piece that brings $10 million, come on! It’s a million [dollars] just for the expert to say ‘yes’.”
There’s also a built-in protection for the expert, should things go awry and the piece is discovered to be a fake: “They say, ‘Well, I can’t know everything. To the best of my ability, I thought it was genuine.’ That also happens.”
The line between real and fake, authentic and inauthentic, can also be tenuous when looking at sculptures that are made from casts. Take Rodin, who willed his estate to the Nation of France in 1916, which authorized the government to make posthumous casts. There are some provisions; the date of the cast has to be inscribed on each sculpture, to delineate between those that were made by Rodin’s hand (or, if not by his hand precisely, at least made during his lifetime) and those that are being cast posthumously.
Every cast that the government makes of Rodin’s sculptures is, technically, a Rodin sculpture. What, then, separates that from the works by Driessen or other forgers who used casts they took from the original sources — are they any less authentic than a government-cast Rodin?
In his memoir, Driessen talks about the prevalence of family members creating posthumous casts to make more money after an artist’s death, citing the German sculpture Wilhelm Lehmbruck as one example, with his widow casting many more pieces from his original molds. “I made Lehmbruck, as well,” he says, “but his wife did the aftercasts, and she wouldn’t let anybody be involved because she wanted all the money. Everything that she knew wasn’t made by her, she called fake.”
“It is of course an extension of the original,” he adds. “But people don’t call it that way. They say no, there’s only five works, and now suddenly there’s 15 or 150; it’s still the same thing, but you can’t call it original anymore. But it’s still the same sculpture.”
I mention how this inflation ultimately lessens the value, which affects both the artists and their families and all of their patrons; I ask if he’s ever had ethical qualms about his practice as a forger and how it can affect others in this way. “Not whatsoever, actually. I never went to an auction house myself,” he says. “I sold it to people who were interested, and they knew what I was doing, but I never made the big money. I sold it for little money, and that’s how I lived my life. I was just making art.”
He catches himself. “Not making art. I was copying art. I’m not an artist.”