Forgers and Experts

A couple of weeks ago I blogged about our upcoming exhibition “Friend or Faux” which deals with the nature of authenticity. Recently in doing research for the exhibition I had occasion to delve into the story of the forger Mark Hofmann. For those of you who are not familiar with his case, Hofmann was a forger of Americana and Mormon documents who ultimately ended up murdering two people with pipe bombs in 1985 in an attempt to buy time to deal with his spiraling financial problems. Obessive fans of procedural crime dramas might recognize that an episode of Law and Order: Criminal Intent (“The Saint”) was loosely based on his story, which also spawned at least half a dozen books. If you are wondering what the connection is to the Rosenbach, it comes through our (genuine) Bay Psalm Book, which provided forensic evidence in the case. To find out all the details, you’ll have to come to Friend or Faux.

Anyway, while playing around on the internet I ran across this article, comparing Hofmann and the forger Han van Meegeren, a Dutch painter who notoriously faked Vermeers during World War II. Since I recently read The Forger’s Spell by Edward Dolnick, which deals specifically with Van Meegeren, I was intrigued by the comparison.

What I thought was really noteworthy about both forgers was the way in which they handled/manipulated experts. Both were accomplished forgers technically (although van Meegeren grew increasingly–and almost unbelievably– sloppy as time went on), but their true genius was in getting experts in their fields to buy into their forgeries, to the extent that the experts had their egos and reputations bound up in the authenticity of the forged documents and therefore became the forgeries’ greatest proponents.

Hofmann and van Meegeren were very good at giving the experts exactly the kinds of artifacts that they wanted to see–the kinds of artifacts that they felt “should” exist, but had never been discovered. Then of course when these items miraculously surfaced, the experts bought right into them, since they confirmed their views. Psychological research indicates that we are very prone to do this–that we tend to accept facts which support our pre-existing view of the world and to discount those that don’t , to the extent that when we are confronted with irrefutable evidence that we are wrong we often embrace our positions more strongly. This seems the key to the forgers’ success.

So what’s the take-away from all of this? Thinking about these two forgers reminds me that we need to have a healthy recognition that all experts are human and that they are subject to human flaws, even when they are acting in good conscience. I think we also need to keep this in mind for ourselves and recognize that we engage in this process of psychological self-protection and that we need to consciously counteract this in order for our opinions and evaluations to have any hope of objectivity. And of course everyone would do well to keep in mind the old adage, “if it seems too good to be true, it probably is.”