If I were to write a short sentence such as this: "Jack went in the tent, pulled out his Mannlicher, and shot his wife", it would be clear to most people that it was written in the style of Ernest Hemingway. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, but it becomes a crime only when I try to pass it off as his work and benefit from the proceeds, or a cause for humiliation if I use his words in my articles and try to pretend they are my own.
Plagiarism can plague many a literary career, as indeed has embellishing quotes harmed the prospects of Johann Hari, The Independent's star columnist, who was perhaps too independent even for his editors. James Patterson, last year's highest-paid author, pocketed a cool US$85 million (Dh312.2m) for a series of books that he co-wrote with other people. Nobody knows how much he writes of each work, if at all. Maybe his sole contribution is to read them and then add "by James Patterson" to the cover. Perhaps he doesn't even read them.
Many artists of the Renaissance did not actually make all the objects or paintings they sold, but had a hand in their design or creation and signed them before they left the premises. Damien Hirst, the modern British artist, uses a similar technique, employing students to colour in the dots or paint the stripes. Hymn, one of his most popular works, which he sold for more than £1m (Dh5.9m) to the collector Charles Saatchi at the turn of the millennium, was a 20ft bronze sculpture of a male anatomy. The only problem is that it was an exact copy of a plastic toy made by Humbrol, an English toy company, that sells for £14.99.
One art critic dubbed Hirst's giant piece "a masterpiece" and "the first key work of British art for the 21st century". It is not reported what he thought of the Humbrol toy. Hirst had to pay an undisclosed sum to children's charities to avoid copyright issues, but the question of what is real and what is fake remains very difficult in art.
It was rendered more complicated by modernism which deemed that anything can be a work of art if an artist says it is. Thus Marcel Duchamp branded a urinal a work of art, even though he didn't make or design it, and was able to sell that very piece for a fortune, while other less fortunate identical objects were sold in hardware stores and received a rather different fate. This week the trial began in Cologne of three people arrested last year on charges of defrauding rich art collectors, including the banjo-playing actor Steve Martin, into paying millions for forged paintings. The police identified 44 artworks as fake, purportedly by names such as Kees van Dongen, Max Ernst, Max Pechstein and Fernand Leger. Many of the Ernsts were declared authentic by Werner Spies, a doyen of the German art scene and editor of the Ernst catalogue.
A frenzy of buyer interest occurred last year, when Cologne galleries and auctions were offering previously unknown works by modern masters. Dealers, museums and art lovers were duped into thinking the masterpieces had been hidden for years by a secretive collector who never told art historians about his hoard.
The forgeries came to light only when a buyer purchased an alleged Campendonk - personally I'd be suspicious of anything called a "Campendonk" - through the Cologne auction house Lempertz for $3.7m and had the work scientifically tested. After testing, the painting Red Picture with Horses was shown to contain a colour that had not yet been invented at the time it was painted.
The fraud amounts to $13m, but art experts have estimated the real loss to museums and collectors may be even more. Steve Martin managed to offload his colourful Landschaft mit Pferden or Landscape with Horses, another purported Campendonk effort, to a Swiss businesswoman at a Christie's auction, at a loss of €200,000 (Dh1.04m).
The FBI estimates that international art crime has doubled in the past 10 years. Fakes, forgeries and thefts now account for more than $6 billion in losses annually. Some people insist that art crime has not increased, only public awareness of these often high-profile crimes. Media attention also brings about copycat thefts.
"The increased coverage of art theft may be leading to ever more art theft, because one common feature of many art theft stories is just how easy it is. You hear about underfunded museums, about lax security, about million-dollar paintings hanging in busy hotel lobbies … That's bound to have an impact," Donn Zaretsky, the John Silberman Associates art lawyer told The Art Newspaper.
This year is the centenary of the theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre. For a while, Picasso was one of the chief suspects because he had been seen in the gallery that day. The painting was missing for two years, and turned up only when Vincenzo Peruggia, who worked at the Louvre and took it off the walls, was caught trying to sell it to the Uffizi Gallery in Florence.
The Mona Lisa may be the most valuable painting in the world, but it is also worthless because you can't sell it. Unlike Shergar, the racehorse that went missing in 1983 from its stable and was never seen again, you couldn't even turn it into dogmeat.
Seeing that all art is fake anyway, I'd be happy to have Landschaft mit Pferden hanging on my wall. At least I wouldn't have to feed the horses.