I’d been at the Frieze Masters art fair for about an hour when I started spotting fakes. Every museum, every big art collection has a few things of dubious authenticity skulking in shameful corners. An expert at one of our top galleries once told me: “We know what our fakes are.” And that’s at a deeply responsible museum.
Frieze Masters is not a museum, with a museum’s caution — it’s just an art and antiques fair, under the ultra-cool veneer. Dealers are pushing merchandise that ranges from Japanese erotica to David Hockney paintings. What are the chances that among all these beautiful things for sale there are no dodgy goods?
I can’t review Frieze Masters as if it were an exhibition for the general public. It’s not that. The public are allowed in, but are essentially spectators of the fair’s real business, which is serious art selling. This is a market. It’s a shop. As a critic, have I really got any business being here? With its bijoux restaurants artfully breaking up the mega-malls (fancy a quick lunch at Locatelli, love, before we decide on that Picasso?), it’s like reviewing Selfridges department store.
playground for the rich
The only way I can really engage with it is by fantasizing. What if I did have a few million in the bank, what would I be putting a “reserve” on? I pick up this lingo while eavesdropping on a salesman’s patter in front of a painting by Pieter Brueghel the Younger. The painting is a copy by this minor artist of a masterpiece by his much more gifted father. This is important, so pay attention: there is only one member of the Bruegel (or Brueghel) family from Antwerp who is a truly great artist. That is Pieter Bruegel the Elder, the father of the clan, who died in 1569. The Census at Bethlehem is one of his most powerful visions of peasant life.
The version of it on sale at Frieze Masters is, to my eyes, a loose, pale mockup of this great work. Still, it’s interesting. “It’s reserved at the moment,” the dealer’s telling the aristocratic pair. Chap came in this morning and ran over to the stand to say he wanted it — but what about this other Brueghel? The potential buyers are interested. They appear to have absolutely no idea that there were two Pieter Brueghels.
Wandering to the next stand I find ... more Brueghels! These, too, are imitations of the great man’s style by his less great son. One looks as if it has been botched by an incompetent restorer: not even Brueghel the Younger would give peasants such mad, staring eyes, surely.
Forget the old stuff
When I say there are fakes at Frieze Masters, I don’t mean there’s a guy round the back of the tent knocking up Brueghels. For the record (and the lawyers) I do not believe a single gallery here is knowingly selling forgeries — though history shows anyone can be taken in, even art dealers. No. What I mean is that old paintings that lasted a long time in private collections have inevitably been through all kinds of restorations and remakes and dubious transformations to become the commodities on sale at Frieze. Looking at the old masters and wondering what I might buy if I had that ultraplutonium credit card, I start getting a queasy sense of caveat emptor. Buyer beware.
Why are there so many 16th and 17th-century Dutch paintings by minor masters that look as though they are made of shiny plastic? Old paintings are often dirty and dark. These have all been cleaned to perfection, polished up like mahogany furniture. Presumably that’s so they will go with the target clientele’s mahogany furniture. Seriously: once you’ve seen 30 baroque paintings all buffed up to the same bright sheen, the stomach starts to churn.
Absurdly bright lighting adds to the growing sense of inauthenticity. Hey, this is Frieze. It is orgasmically glamorous. The art here can’t look like it’s old and dull. So every painting has a spotlight on it. Everything becomes shiny. That adds to the overcooked look of some of these expensive bits of history.
The light reveals some rubbish. There’s a medieval painting (studio of Giotto, no less) with grossly painted hands. There’s a sculpture by the Renaissance artist Andrea della Robbia with the face of a Victorian clergyman and an ugliness a million miles from the charm the Della Robbia clan usually brought to their painted ceramics. Well, I suppose he was having an off-day.
If I were buying art at Frieze Masters, I would give most of the older works a wide berth. Leave them for museums who can weed out the really worthwhile and repair the bad restorations. Go for the moderns. At the Dickinson stand, there’s a fantastic Monet of a church beside a dazzling sea, and I believe every brushstroke is by Monet. I also believe Matisse drew every line in an exhibition of works by him at Thomas Gibson Fine Art. Annely Juda has beguiling sketches by the Russian abstract visionary Malevich — who’d have thought this severe artist had so much fun drawing?
Wait, isn’t that a Toulouse-Lautrec? The truth is that, for all my suspicions, there is beauty in bucketloads at this art fair. And it’s all for sale. Why can’t I enjoy that more? I feel tantalized. I also feel stupid. I kid myself that art is some great universal human possession when in reality it is a luxury good for the super-rich. Frieze is the temple to what art has become in our age: a millionaire’s toy.
I thought the first Frieze Masters last year was an improvement on the vacuity of the original fair — but now I realize it’s far worse, because it takes the entire history of art and turns it into an elitist shopping mall. This place disgusts me. It makes art into congealed money. Old paintings have never before looked dead in my eyes; they have always lived and breathed for me, until now. Here they are mummified by the market. Just stuff to trade, basically.
It’s like seeing your parents having sex: innocence is over. I leave through the darkened park, brooding on how an art fair has just taken everything I love and exposed it as shining trash sold by posh hucksters to rich idiots.