It is said that Van Gogh made 2,000 paintings in his lifetime — and that 4,000 of them are in America.
Now, let’s say you are an artist and your pupils mimic your style so closely that their works and your own cannot be told apart.
If your paintings sell for $10,000 a time while your pupils’ go for half of that, is there a temptation to sign theirs as yours and split the difference?
And how about the studio system that saw the master sketch in the composition and then add final touches to the eyes, nose and mouth, or handle tricky little details like a fur collar, after pupils had painted the rest?
The common practice of selling such work as by the master still goes on.
Then there are the outright forgers who copy the works of famous artists or (more cunningly) paint originals in their style and sell them intending to deceive, often with a mixture of motives at play — to prove they are as skilled as the artist they ape; to exact revenge on the market by fooling dealers and collectors; for their own entertainment; or purely to make a mint.
Names to Google include Han Van Meegeren, (Vermeers), Emlyr de Hory (Modiglianis), Tom Keating (Samuel Palmers) and David Stein (Chagalls).
I’ve been at the name game myself.
Some years ago I wrote an April Fool spoof that revealed that a painting by the 17th Century Netherlandish master Hertz Van Rental had turned up in an attic.
I received several e-mails seeking the artist’s biography, the whereabouts of his other works and where this particular painting could be viewed.
The whole business of proving a work is genuine — that is, created by whoever it is claimed to be by — is fraught with difficulties; especially when the style is easy to copy and the materials are as available now as they were when the piece was supposedly made.
Which brings us with a bump to theTingatinga paintings of Tanzania.
Here, attribution matters not so much for the enjoyment of the works but because of the pricing structure around them.
An admitted copy of a painting by the founder of the school, Eduardo Saidi Tingatinga, can be had for less than $1,000 while originals with a sound provenance can go for up to $9,000,as recent auction results have shown.
Tingatinga himself painted for only four years before being killed by a stray police bullet.
So brief was his career that there are said to be only around 800-1,000 paintings by the man himself.
Forgeries are now so prevalent that Yves Goscinny in his must-read book Tingatinga, the Popular Paintings from Tanzania devotes an entire page to reproductions of E.S. Tingatinga signatures he considers genuine and those he believes to be fakes.
Tingatinga’s style was so guileless and his materials so commonplace — 60cm by 60cm ceiling boards and enamel paints from hardware stores — that it was easy to imitate, which, noting his success in selling to expats and tourists, his friends and relatives quickly did.
The school developed rapidly purely to turn an honest coin as distinct from the current trend of exhibitions designed to save the whale, encourage good governance, or plant a tree.
Now Tingatinga paintings have become synonymous with Tanzanian folk art… as common as Makonde carvings and the more complicated style of Tingatinga’s contemporary George Lilanga and his followers, with their intertwined shetanis or devil figures.
The problems of attribution are freely addressed in a stunning exhibition of Tingatinga paintings at Red Hill Art Gallery (off the road from Nairobi to Limuru) which ends next Sunday.
It is called From Simply Genuine to Authentic Fake.
None of the work is for sale and as gallery directors Erica and Hellmuth Rossler-Musch, say, “The simplicity and beauty of the paintings prevails over the certainty of their authenticity.”
In other words, we are urged by these principled gallery owners and collectors to enjoy them for themselves, whoever they are by.
And there is much to enjoy.
Ten of the 12 first generation Tingatinga paintings are signed Eduardo Saidi Tingatinga. There is one by his cousin Kaspar Henrick Tedo, and another by Mandu Adeusi.
All of them are bursting with vitality. The compositions are instinctive, the creatures shown — an elephant, birds, snakes, a hyena and a buffalo among others — are utterly charming in their naiveté and their colouring. Some have faded to a delightfully muted patina, yet remain completely harmonious.
I derived less pleasure from the Lilangas, which I find rather fussy and repetitive, and the palette harsh (I much prefer his witty painted sculptures) but they have their followers and on another day I might have revelled in their energy.
Are these all genuine paintings by the men whose signatures appear on them?
Who really knows? And given that none of them is for sale and nothing is at stake other than the joy of looking at them, who really cares?