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Collections of the heart

Exploring the dark side of the art world at Vienna's most irreverent museum

An edited version appeared in The Australian - Travel & Indulgence on 19-20th November 2011

When I ask museum director Diane Grobe to show me her favorite piece, she quickly indicates a gilt-framed painting of a wintery country scene. In the foreground is a wizened, bare-branched tree, while to its left, barren stone cottage pulls my attention into the snow-covered distance.

The work is by English artist Tom Keating, and is one of seventy or so fakes Grobe houses at the Faelschermuseum (Museum of Art Fakes) in a former wine cellar in Vienna's bustling Landstrasse district.

Wait a minute. Fakes? Yes, art fakes. This museum of creative criminality holds more than 70 artworks by forgers who made a living fooling art experts and ingénues alike.

Grobe and her partner Christian Rastner opened the Faelschermuseum in 2006 after meeting an art copier, and becoming intrigued with the art world's dark underbelly.

"The man we met was a registered copier, which means he has permission to sit in galleries and copy the work of famous artists. Of course, he doesn't forge their signatures!" laughs Grobe.

"But we started looking into it, and realised that some art fakers are as just as famous, and just as collectible, as those they imitate."

Take Keating. The art restorer turned disgruntled forger became hugely popular in the 1970s, after he confessed to forging 13 watercolours by British landscape painter, printmaker and writer Samuel Palmer.

He claimed to have forged more than 2000 art works by more than 100 artists, and argued his forgeries were a protest against art dealers getting rich at the expense of artists. This anti-establishment atttitude, along with his penchant for inserting 'time bombs' that, when examined by experts, reveal his paintings as fakes led to his works being sought after by collectors while he was alive, and dramatically increasing in value after his death.

There are three types of art fakes, Grobe explains. There is the 'exact copy' of an artist's work by a registered copyist – perfectly legitimate, provided the original painter has been dead for at least 70 years.

Then there is the 'work in the style of' of an artist, complete with a forgery of their signature. These 'long lost gems' are usually presented to the art world as newly discovered works, and have caused many an art historian to go weak at the knees.

Lastly, there is the outright 'forgery', which falsely credits an exact copy of a painting to a renowned artist, and often sells for tens of thousands of dollars.

The work by Keating – an experimental foray into impressionism and fauvism after Jean Puy – is a 'work in the style of'. It sits alongside those of other infamous imitators, like Eric Hebborn, who turned to counterfeiting the Old Masters when critics did not appreciate his own paintings. He went on to become one of the twentieth century's wealthiest art fakers, wrote 'The Faker's Handbook', and was murdered on the streets of Rome in 1996.

Other works hanging in the Faelschermuseum's cool underground confines harbour a double doses of intrigue. Hanging opposite the Keating are several sheets of stained, crumpled paper covered in rows of tight, cursive handwriting. They are Konrad Kujau’s forged Hitler Diaries, which he sold for 2.5 million deutschmarks to Stern magazine in the early eighties.

At least, that's what they appear to be, at first glance. They are in fact cheap, Asian-made fakes created by Kujau’s grandniece, Petra, which she planned to sell for €3,500 a pop, before she was busted in 2006. They're fakes of fakes, and Grobe couldn't be more delighted.

”Based on the poor quality material of the canvas and frame, and the bad application of the paint, we sensed something was wrong shortly after we bought it. It had clearly not been made by a master forger,” comments Grobe, who happily shares her extensive knowledge of the art world – real and fake – in guided tours. 

One of dozens of museums in the Austrian capital of Vienna, the Faelschermuseum gives an intriguing insight into the not so highbrow side of the art world. It is located just around the corner from the Huntertwasserhaus, a fantastical expressionist apartment building still inhabited by locals today. The two can comfortably be combined into a morning or afternoon outing, and sit in delightfully stark contrast to the city's reputation as a destination for lovers of secessionist and high art par excellence.

Next year, 2012, is the 150th anniversary of the birth of Gustav Klimt, and the city has many special commemorative events planned. The Faelschermuseum might not be on the official events list, but that's not to say I don't spot a Klimt or two in the Faelschermuseum's collection. The question is, are they real or fake? At first, and even second glance, I can't tell the difference. Time to take closer look.