Much of our evidence for the past comes from paintings and sculpture. But how reliable is this source? Kenneth Clark examines the history of forgeries in art and discusses the motives of the forgers and the reasons for which what now seem to us obvious forgeries were accepted in their time as authentic. He concludes with a discussion of the ethical problems raised by forgeries.
To forge a cheque, even if one has no great respect for the system of private property, is a questionable operation. It destroys trust, which is unethical by any standard. To forge incriminating documents, like the Dreyfus papers or the Casket letters, used to bring Mary Queen of Scots to the scaffold - incidentally, neither of these forgeries would have deceived a child - is definitely wicked.
Here I am going to discuss a far more debate-able aspect of forgery: that is to say, works of art made, for whatever reason, considerably later than the time when they were supposed to have been made.
There are several reasons why the forgery of works of art is such a delicate subject. For one thing, what we should call forgery is often done with conviction and even with approval. And then we are by no means always agreed as to what is and what is not a forgery. If a remarkable work of art has been admired by a generation of amateurs and scholars what useful purpose can be served by proving that it is a forgery? In the Metropolitan Museum of New York is a fifth-century Greek bronze of a horse, which for many years seemed to me one of the most beautiful things in the whole collection of antiquities.
Then some intelligent scholar decided that it was a fake. The mouth was open and the nostrils dilated in a way that never existed in the fifth-century. Worse still, a line down the middle of the forehead showed that it had been sand-cast in moulds - a technique unknown in the fifth-century. The horse was duly consigned to the basement, to the sorrow of many visitors to the Metropolitan.
Then another scholar examined it and said that the horse was indeed antique, but was perhaps an attempt by an artist of a later period of Greek art to reproduce the style of the fifth-century. So up it came again, and was exhibited in solitary splendour, surrounded by four walls of photographic documentation.