Dishonesty is just plain wrong, I know because my mama told me so.
But there are grey areas, and here’s one of the haziest of them all, because it makes you look at history with sceptical eyes.
So I’m strolling though the British Museum’s Prehistory and Europe section past some of the great finds of all time.
And I walk past all the Tudor stuff: the gorgeous items from the 1500s which still beggar belief with their ability to dazzle and ask questions at the same time. Like this incredible piece:
The British Museum tells me it is from London, and 1554-5, it is a silver-gilt ewer, an early example of the English Mannerist style: sophisticated, stylised, clever.
Standing next to it is another incredible piece, almost indistinguishable in style.
It is made of three pieces of rock crystal, an exquisite ewer carved with superlative beauty, set off by a solid gold figurine handle.
And it’s a bally forgery.
But the museum has not moved it away from its partner whose provenance is rock solid. There it sits, a piece from the latter part of the 19th century, posing with its 459-year-old neighbour for all the world as if it, too, was seasoned by several centuries.
How? How could the august British Museum possibly sanction such impudence?
I’ll tell you how. Because the man thought to be the forger, in this instance, was a craftsman of such consummate skill that he would never even have been found out, had it not been for a pile of dusty papers sat in the Victoria and Albert Museum.
If the Museum’s hunch is right, the forger’s name was Reinhold Vasters (1827 – 1909). And like any shady dealer, little is known about his private life. His maker’s mark is on several of the restored pieces at that treasure box, Aachen Cathedral. And it is here that art dealer Frederic Spitzer, legendary antique salesman to the stars (including the Rothschilds), spotted Vaster’s work.
Vaster’s wife died in 1859, leaving him with two young daughters to look after: and Spitzer offered him work, and with that work, financial security. We have no way of knowing how, or even if, Vaster questioned the use to which his finished pieces were being put.
Because he was a genius. He could pastiche the style of the 1500s as though he were Benvenuto Cellini reincarnate. What he made passed for centuries old because even the hawk-eyed experts of the day couldn’t see the joins. And his works were masterpieces in their own right: they radiated grace and intricacy.
Vasters died a wealthy, though obscure, man in 1909. And his papers found their way to the Victoria and Albert Museum, where no-one looked at them much until one day, 71 years later.
V&A curator Charles Truman got them out, to look at how Vasters was inspired by the greats. What precisely were the drawings of ancient things for?
And he soon realised: they were not drawings of things made centuries ago, but instructions on how to make the beautiful objects which sat in the museums and houses of the great, labelled 16th century.
Vasters had made them. An artist of incredible stature, he chose – for whatever reason – to live a lie.
And that is why a forgery sits next to a rare and beautiful piece from the mid 16th century in the British Museum.
It is so very beautiful, so masterly, that we would not realise it was a fake, had it not been for a dusty pile of papers in a London museum archive.
Does that make it ok?