In a media landscape saturated by fears of “fake news,” when the daily deluge of information threatens to drown the public in a self-fulfilling echo chamber, author Nancy Moses’s Fakes, Forgeries, and Frauds sounds like a timely read. But instead of drawing sharp parallels, Moses’s book on some of the more notorious incidents of forgery and fraud in the world of art and literature meanders on a grandiose theme, never managing to thread a cohesive narrative.
Shakespeare, Pollock, and Nuremburg
In fact, only the first few chapters really deal with the issue of fraudulence. Anecdotes abound, including the one about William-Henry Ireland, an 18th-century teenager who faked a Shakespearean signature and wrote an almost laughably bad approximation of a tragedy that he tried to pass off as one of the Bard’s own. Then we leap to the nigh-impossible task of authenticating paintings in the style of Jackson Pollock as being originals of the man himself. Then we get a window on restoration and the effect of time’s passage on art and furniture: after so many years, with the hands of so many restorers stamping the original, at what point does something cease to be the authentic product of a singular genius? It’s a fascinating question that could become an entire book on its own, but we move on to the restoration of the city of Nuremburg, the medieval town in Germany that became an epicenter for Nazi propaganda.
Philly’s treasure trove
Moses’s considerable talents in research and her ability to humanize the historical figures about whom she writes could easily produce an entire book about every subject she touches per chapter, but her broad strokes leave the reader feeling disjointed and unsatisfied, getting crumbs of information without ever delving into the meat of the matters at hand.
Astute readers will note the many Philadelphia cultural institutions that pop up throughout the book. The Rosenbach, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Barnes Foundation, and the University of Pennsylvania all contributed to the research and lent their expertise in the fields of literature, art, and science, reminding local readers what a treasure trove the city is, and how important Philly is on a world stage.
Disagreement doesn’t equal fraud
The latter half of the book examines how the truth becomes nebulous in the face of controversy, but inadvertently conflates disagreement with fraudulence. The decade-old controversy of moving the Barnes from its original Merion location to the Benjamin Franklin Parkway gets reignited in chapter seven, but no matter how one feels about the ethics involved in such a move, the opposing sides of tradition and progress were clear on their goals. And the following chapters, dealing with opposing viewpoints in science, give far too much credence to untenable theories. Opposition to proven scientific tenets doesn’t mean scientists and their detractors should have equal footing in our discourse, yet the text implies that anti-vaccination beliefs, climate-change denial, and creationism are merely conflicting viewpoints to the substantial evidence that bolsters mainstream scientific conjecture.
All in all, Fakes, Forgeries, and Frauds is a slim but dense volume that stretches itself too thin and does a disservice to the richness of its subjects.
What, When, Where
Fakes, Forgeries, and Frauds, Nancy Moses. Rowman and Littlefield, February 15, 2020. 195 pages, hardcover; $35.00. Get it here.