Authenticity is a fraught concept. Reproduction is a significant threat to the authentic, whether it comes in the form of fakes and forgeries, or even the authorised reproduction – in the form of a print, or a recast sculpture.
Writing in the 1930’s, Walter Benjamin discusses the effect that reproduction has on art, stating that:
“Even the most perfect reproduction of a work of art is lacking in one element: its presence in time and space, its unique existence at the place where it happens to be. This unique existence of the work of art determined the history to which it was subject throughout the time of its existence. This includes the changes which it may have suffered in physical condition over the years as well as the various changes in its ownership. The traces of the ﬁrst can be revealed only by chemical or physical analyses which it is impossible to perform on a reproduction; changes of ownership are subject to a tradition which must be traced from the situation of the original.”
In other words, a reproduction can never fully replicate the original work because any copy will lack the authenticity of the original.
A crucial question, then, is it possible for a copy to recreate any of the power of an original? The answer, always difficult, probably has to be emphatically no. But still, high-quality reproductions of famous European artworks, part of the collection of Australia, are going to be displayed in the National Library of Australia, 100 years after their creation. The paintings were created by Mortimer Menpes, who made them to provide access to the artefacts of High European Art to an Australian public which could afford neither the time, nor the fare of travel to Europe to see the originals. To the extent that there is value in displaying these replicas (fakes?) even now, suggests that even a reproduction can hold some of the cultural power and authenticity of its original.
Of course, there is also the question of undetected forgeries, which might pass for original art work. History is littered with compelling frauds, fakes and forgeries, the detection of some of which made their authors all the more interesting.
I am sure that the annals are Art History are filled with these, but I am not so familiar with the subject; literary hoaxes, on the hand, are more my game. Thomas Wise, a bibliophile, funded his collection on the sale of forgeries. Interestingly, these forgeries are now themselves the focus of many collectors, to whom the story of the fakes makes these copies as valuable as the authentic pieces they originally were purported to be. The Sokal affair demonstrated the potential for mischief in some circles of literary theory, and provides comic relief to all those crazy enough to delve into the depths of deconstruction and post-structuralism, among other evils. And in Australia, the non-poet Ern Malley proved that sometimes poets produce their best work when pretending to be someone else, out of spite.