Originals or copies - which are better?


In an article in the Times last week, there was a suggestion by leaders from the museum and art gallery world that reproductions of artistic masterpieces should be put on display while the originals are stored out of sight. It seems that with modern scanning and reproduction techniques, the imitations would only be distinguishable from the originals because they could be colour-corrected to show what they had been like when originally painted. No longer would they have to be displayed in semi-darkness in order to protect them from damaging light.  No longer would they need to be behind shatter-proof glass to protect them from attack. So then the proposal would have the benefit of preserving the originals from further deterioration and the risk of theft and, at the same time, enabling the public to view those great works currently considered to be too fragile to be displayed or displayed as we would like to see them – in the light. 

Neil MacGregor, the former director of the British Museum and the National Gallery, says that the modern, really amazing reproduction techniques now available could enable people to see old paintings in their original, unfaded colours. “Technology could give us for the first time the experience the artist intended us to have.” This is an intriguing concept. The idea that a reproduction can be better than the actual work painted by the artist challenges our belief in the value of authenticity to the work of art. But, as deterioration over time means we don’t see the actual vivid colours of the picture as painted, then in that sense the original work is no longer authentic. It has lost a part of itself.  So then which is the more valuable experience?  Is it looking at the original painting with its faded colours, or looking at a reproduction which to us as non-specialists would be indistinguishable from the original, and so with the colours as they would have been when the painting left the artist’s studio?

Perhaps we should set aside a room in a gallery in which superb reproductions of well-know paintings from the collection could be hung.  We could then judge the attitude of the public by their popularity.  If as I suspect, it would prove popular, perhaps we could extend the idea to stately homes. They were in their heyday lined with tapestries and paintings all designed to show-off the status of the owner.  Now, they belong to the National Trust and are ghosts of their former selves.  The tapestries are all reduced to faded blues and greens, because the other colours have long-since faded away.  And of course the interiors of those stately homes and castles are kept in a permanent twilight in order to conserve what is little is left of the brilliant colours which made up what were intended to be emblems of the owner’s status. Instead of spending lots of money on their conservation, why not store them away in the dark and commission at least some new tapestries, copies of the old ones? We would then have a far better idea of how the manor houses and castles would have looked like when they were dressed to impress. 

I understand perfectly the draw of an original work. Although not of great value, we have a number of them ourselves.  I have even arranged for copies of two of them, which we have on the walls in Annecy, to be printed on to canvas so that we can look at them in Coleshill.  I know that they’re not the original article, but you'd be hard pressed to tell the difference, and I find it doesn’t in any way detract from their enjoyment. We have a couple of signed prints of humorous pictures by Beryl Cook, which we’re very happy to display. I don’t think though that I would feel the same about a print of even a work by a great master bought from the shop at a museum. It would not have the same history. Unless of course carrying the genuine signature of say Leonardo da Vinci?

Herman Goering enjoyed the collateral benefits which accompanied invading other countries. Although Hitler had the first choice of the spoils available to him, Goering came second. He had another side to him which we don't hear of very much. He considered himself to be a great connoisseur of art. Although Hitler had the first choice from the museums and galleries, there was still loads left over for Goering. Normally. Towards the end of the war, Hitler had acquired 2 paintings by Vermeer, whilst Goering had none. Goering wanted a picture by Vermeer so desperately that he was even prepared to pay for one. He went to a prominent art dealer in Holland called Hans van Meegeren who said that he would be able to find the desired object. After a few months, Meegeren showed Goering an exceptionally fine example of Vermeer's work and Goering paid him a price equivalent to 10 million Euros in today's money.

After the war, the Allies discovered Goering's collection of paintings, including the painting by Vermeer.  Van Meegeren was arrested and accused of treason by reason of his collusion with the enemy.  Van Meegeren confessed to his crime, but it was not the crime of which he was accused. He confessed instead to forgery. As proof, he offered to paint, in his cell, another Vermeer more beautiful than the Vermeer “which I painted for that disgusting Nazi”. There was a condition: he wanted to be provided with alcohol and morphine ”because it's the only way in which I can work”. He painted another perfect 'Vermeer' and then confessed that there were lots of famous paintings in museums which were in fact his work. Having served a sentence of 1 year for forgery, he was released and became a national hero in Holland for what he had done to Goering. During Goering's interrogation at Nuremberg, he was told that his most favourite painting was a forgery. His biographer wrote that Goering “had the look of someone who, for the first time, had discovered that there was evil in the world”. He committed suicide shortly afterwards.

But why is a forgery worth nothing as compared to an original? The obvious answer is snobbery -  “because I can afford it”.  But is this the whole explanation? Some psychologists have conducted experiments to determine the true nature of our motivation. They asked what price a group of people would pay for something which had belonged to someone whom they all adored – George Clooney.  The object? A Pullover worn by gorgeous George. The average price offered was $132 dollars. But then the researchers re-offered it for sale subject to a condition that the buyer cold never reveal its origin or resell it. The price offered dropped by 8% to $122. It seems that the 8% was the proportion of its price attributable to snobbery. 

In the third part of the experiment, however, the researchers offered the pullover on the basis that the buyer could reveal that they owned it and who it had belonged to, but that the pullover would be washed before the sale was concluded. Even with the right to boast about the pullover, but without the true essence of George clinging to it, the price dropped by 20% to $105. So all this suggests that the desire to possess an original is not just down to snobbery. We see and value an object differently according to its history.  A painting is an object but, also, the relationship across time with the artist. 

We know from our own experience that this is so. If someone breaks in and steals our possessions, it is not just their market value which is of importance. Their sentimental value is of equal, if not greater importance. We cannot simply go out and buy something which has accompanied us perhaps throughout our lives or even those of our predecessors. The original may not have had the essence of George or had the beauty of a Vermeer, but its loss still leaves a peculiar gap, however good the replacement.  Which is in part, I suppose, what makes us human. 

12 May 2020

Paul Buckingham

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