How Much is a Forged Painting Worth?

Apparently, real estate and Bordeaux wines are not the only price bubbles in China these days. As reported by Felix Salmon,

If you look at the artists who made the most money at auction in any given year, it’s normally pretty predictable, with Picasso at the top of the list and Warhol increasingly dominating. But here, courtesy of ArtPrice and Bloomberg’s write-upof ArtPrice’s results, is the top of the 2011 league table:

1. Zhang Daqian, $506.7 million

2. Qi Bashi, $445.1 million

3. Andy Warhol, $324.8 million

4. Pablo Picasso, $311.6 million

5. Xu Beihong, $212.9 million

In 2008, sales of Daqian and Bashi were worth only a few million. But it turns out that Daqian was not only a great painter, he was a master forger as well. Via Wikipedia:

Chang’s forgeries have been purchased as original paintings by several major art museums in the United States, including the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston:

Of particular interest is a master forgery acquired by the Museum in 1957 as an authentic work of the tenth century. The painting, which was allegedly a landscape by the Five Dynasties period master Guan Tong, is one of Zhang’s most ambitious forgeries and serves to illustrate both his skill and his audacity.[6]

So how much should one of Daqien’s forgeries be worth? Are they as valuable as one of his original paintings? If we discovered that Picasso forged paintings, would one of his forgeries be as valuable as an original if the forgery exhibited the same level of skill and exhibited the same aesthetic properties?

I think the answer must be no. We value works of art, in part, because we value the vision of the artist—the peculiar, original way the artist perceives her subject. An original painting is an accomplishment because it reveals that point of view. A forgery doesn’t reveal the forger’s point of view; thus it lacks the greatness of a work of art. The real achievement is in the original regardless of how much we might enjoy the forgery.

Of course, the art market might decide to value the forgeries of Daquien as much as his original works. But that would be because of his celebrity, not because of the intrinsic value of the work.

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