The Stuff Dreams are Made of
I can think of few books that have influenced our culture more than Dashiell Hammett’s 1930 mystery novel, The Maltese Falcon. The noir, hard-boiled detective story has been made into a movie at least three times, most notably the 1941 classic starring Humphrey Bogart as Sam Spade.
If there is anyone out there who has not seen the movie or read the book you may consider this a spoiler alert, but the story centers around a stolen artwork, the “jewel-encrusted golden figure of a bird.” Following all the killing, lying and scheming, at the end we discover that the statue is a forgery.
According to the story, the fake falcon was created in order to keep the real one from being stolen, a practice which is quite common in real life. Art collectors who own extremely valuable originals will often display copies in their place, affording themselves more peace of mind while also saving money on security measures and insurance.
Given the incredible prices being paid for name-brand artwork, of course, it is inevitable that some fakes will be passed off as genuine and sold to unsuspecting investors. These aren’t normally copies, but things painted in the style of deceased masters, as it would be inconvenient to have the original or the alleged author floating around to contradict the provenance.
According to an article from the November fifth New York Times entitled “Fake Art May Keep Popping Up for Sale,” a Manhattan gallery closed last year after a customer accused it of selling him a phony Jackson Pollock for $17 million. The FBI is investigating the so-called “Silver Pollock,” but no charges have yet been filed.
There is no law against selling an artwork of questionable authenticity, and although this particular one might be problematic because of its high profile, many others are on the market. In the case of undisputed forgeries, although it is fraudulent to represent them as the real thing to a buyer, they often remain in circulation anyway.
Law enforcement officials try to prevent the resale of fakes by stamping them or even destroying them, but both of those solutions are difficult. There are property rights to contend with, since it is not illegal to own a fake, and the very real possibility of shredding a masterpiece. Just last year, for example, three J.M.W. Turner paintings considered to be knock-offs were reclassified as genuine.
Sometimes the struggle crosses the line from irony into farce. When a judge levied a $2 million fine against an art gallery in Hawaii for selling fake Salvador Dali prints, the gallery didn’t have the money, so the court ordered it to sell 12,000 phony prints to the public. Some of them were sold with a small stamp that could be covered by a frame, some with a removable sticker, and some without any disclaimer at all. God only knows how many of them will wind up in the hands of people who don’t even know they are not the real article.
In Sam Spade’s day, counterfeiting was primarily confined to artwork and currency, but today there is almost nothing of commercial value that is not being copied. You have probably seen a fake Rolex or a Louis Vuitton handbag, but those are the very tip of the iceberg.
iPads and iPhones are popular knock-offs these days, along with pharmaceuticals, books and movies, sportswear, wine, beer, cigarettes, golf clubs, train tickets, lottery tickets and aircraft parts. It seems like it would be difficult to copy high-volume products like Budweiser beer or Marlboro cigarettes and make much of a profit, but I guess that’s the beauty of virtually free labor.
Believe it or not, there are even counterfeit cars. Not only can you buy yourself an ersatz Porsche or Ferrari, but even something as mundane as a Jeep. On the other end of the spectrum, you can pick up a bag of fake Sunkist oranges. (I assume the oranges themselves are genuine, but the stickers are phony.)
In most cases the consumers realize they are buying “replicas,” and probably don’t expect the same build quality as the originals, but there are exceptions. Not many people would feel comfortable taking heart medication that was not manufactured by an actual drug company, and I would certainly prefer that the engine parts on my plane don’t merely look like the real ones.
Even when the buyer is complicit, however, counterfeiting is not a victimless crime. According to the International Chamber of Commerce, fraudulent products make up 5 to 7 percent of all worldwide trade, or somewhere around $500 billion annually. In 2007, Underwriters Laboratories estimated that 750,000 jobs were lost due to counterfeiting in the U.S. alone.
China is clearly the world leader in imitation manufacturing, both for domestic consumption and export. Major cities feature shopping districts where tourists and locals alike can select from a huge variety of fakes, or even order from catalogs. Different villages specialize in different categories of knock-off products, some of which are produced in the same factories that make genuine merchandise for Western companies.
Counterfeiting is widespread through the rest of the “emerging markets” as well, including the Philippines, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia. Thailand even has a museum of counterfeit goods, displaying over 3,500 items from 14 product categories.
Perhaps the most serious issue arising from all this forgery is the proliferation of counterfeit pharmaceuticals, much of which originates in India. The World Health Organization estimates that up to 30 percent of all prescription drugs in developing nations are phony, while the U.N. figures that fully half of critically important anti-malarial drugs sold in Africa are fake.
Those of us who live in the developed world aren’t entirely safe, either. Pfizer, the world’s largest pharmaceutical company, has found counterfeit versions of at least 20 of its most popular medications in the legitimate supply chains of 44 nations around the globe.
It almost makes forgery in the art world seem quaint, doesn’t it? Somehow the guy who laid out 17 million for a fake Jackson Pollock doesn’t seem quite as sympathetic as the thousands of malaria sufferers getting ineffective or even toxic treatment.
In fact, most of the copying going on in the art business is a good thing, and I’m sure that many of your customers are buying supplies from you in order basically to copy somebody. One of my most prized possessions is a copy of a Picasso that my mother painted for an art class.
During the making of “The Maltese Falcon,” Humphrey Bogart apparently dropped and damaged the original prop statuette, so the studio made several more, two out of lead and one of resin. All three were covered with black enamel.
In 1994, one of those props (essentially a fake of a fake of a fake) was sold at auction for around $400,000 dollars. If any of them were to be sold today, they would be expected to fetch at least 2 million each.
You can e-mail Kevin at firstname.lastname@example.org.