For The Love Of Forgery

by Jonathan Keats
“Utterly rotten.” Those were the words with which Tom Keating described the art world that he failed to impress as an artist, and subsequently humiliated as a forger, passing off fake Gainsboroughs and Renoirs to gullible collectors and curators who declined to acquire paintings bearing his own signature. To buttress his case, Keating embellished his counterfeits with anachronistic details, ensuring that people would eventually realize they’d been duped.

Keating’s story, which played out primarily in England in the 1960s and ’70s, can be read as a typical tale of vengeance, and his popularity following his capture — including his own TV program on Channel 4 in the UK — can be seen as a standard case of underdog allure. Keating deserves more credit. A closer look at his work and its impact reveals a challenge to tradition more subtle, and probably more potent, than the majority of Dada and Pop Art. In a stroke, Keating’s paintings called into question sanctified notions ranging from the authority of connoisseurship to the importance of authorship to the cult of originality. And they did so with a directness that was accessible not only to insiders, but to everybody.

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