Art Forgeries and the Uncanny Valley

In the third instalment of the Bamboozling Ourselves series (a look at the master Vermeer forger, Han van Meegeren), Errol Morris interviews the author of The Forger’s Spell, Edward Dolnick, and the two discuss the application of the uncanny valley in the forgery of art.

I particularly like Dolnick’s thoughts on the hindrance of expertise (final paragraph of this excerpt).

You would think a close copy would be the goal of a forger, but it might not be a smart way to go. If you were a brilliant technician it might be an acceptable strategy, but my forger, Van Meegeren, is not as good as that. […] He’s going to get in trouble, because that’s asking for a side-by-side comparison, and he’s not good enough to get away with that. […]

So how is he going to paint a picture that doesn’t look like a Vermeer, but that people are going to say, “Oh! It’s a Vermeer?” How’s he going to pull it off? It’s a tough challenge. Now here’s the point of The Uncanny Valley: as your imitation gets closer and closer to the real thing, people think, “Good, good, good!” — but then when it’s very close, when it’s within 1 percent or something, instead of focusing on the 99 percent that is done well, they focus on the 1 percent that you’re missing, and you’re in trouble. Big trouble. […]

Van Meegeren is trapped in the valley. If he tries for the close copy, an almost exact copy, he’s going to fall short. He’s going to look silly. So what he does instead is rely on the blanks in Vermeer’s career, because hardly anything is known about him. […] He’ll take advantage of those blanks by inventing a whole new era in Vermeer’s career. No one knows what he was up to all this time. He’ll throw in some Vermeer touches, including a signature, so that people who look at it will be led to think, “Yes, this is a Vermeer.” […]

It wasn’t going to be about how “you can’t tell the difference,” because you could. It would be, “How could people look at these things which are manifestly so different and not see what’s going on?” It became a story about how experts can get it wrong, and in fact, how expert knowledge, instead of helping, can be a hindrance. On the surface it seemed to be a story about art and history, but really, it’s a story about psychology.