The Art World Is Rotten, Part 1: Giacometti Forger Tells All

Published on Spiegel Online International, by Michael Sontheimer, April 10, 2013 (Photo Gallery).

Robert Driessen is one of the most successful art forgers in the world. Over his 30 years of work, he came to specialize in creating forgeries of Swiss artist Alberto Giacometti. Now living in Thailand, out of the reach of European authorities, Driessen wants his story told … //

… The Most Expensive Sculptor: 

Alberto Giacometti was one of the great artists of the 20thcentury, and today, 47 years after his death, he is the world’s most expensive sculptor. Three years ago, the widow of a Lebanese banker bought his sculpture “L’Homme qui marche” at a Sotheby’s auction for the equivalent of €74 million. Exhibitions of Giacometti sculptures, like the one currently underway in Hamburg, are always a guaranteed popular success.

Giacometti went from his native Bergell, Switzerland to Paris when he was 20. He was a friend of Max Ernst, Joan Miró and Pablo Picasso, of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, of André Breton and Man Ray, and of Samuel Beckett, Jean Genet and Igor Stravinsky. A portrait of Giacometti, with large eyes, a wild shock of dark hair and a face furrowed with wrinkles, graces Switzerland’s 100-franc note today. He was a member of the Paris avant-garde, a man obsessed with his art, a Bohemian whose breakfast, at noon, consisted of hard-boiled eggs and copious amounts of black coffee, along with several unfiltered cigarettes. He created an oeuvre of strange figures, delicate, elongated, emaciated, desperate-looking creatures, as recognizable as a Coca-Cola bottle.

The artist is believed to have produced no more than 500 unique pieces, although no one knows exactly how many there were. Even the Fondation Alberto et Annette Giacometti in Paris, established by his widow, struggles with the task of bringing order into the chaos of Giacometti’s life of an artist. He often had different foundries produce bronzes from the same design, after apparently losing track of which of his plaster models he had cast and which ones he had destroyed because he didn’t like them. There is no catalogue of his oeuvre, only an incomplete database with images of his works on the Internet. He was a great artist who created a great body of work, leaving behind even greater disorder. In this sense, Giacometti made things very easy for Robert Driessen.

It was also relatively easy from a technical perspective. “Long, thin figures, and an amorphous, crumbly surface,” says Driessen. “It isn’t difficult to make Giacomettis.” After a while, he says, he “literally had Giacometti in my fingers.” According to Driessen, it took him 30 to 40 minutes for the small figures. But they weren’t simply recast versions of the originals. Instead, Driessen just added to Giacometti’s body of work. He made his own models, had them cast and stamped them with the stamps of the foundries Giacometti had used.

Driessen is a Dutch citizen from Arnhem in the eastern Netherlands, but he speaks fluent German. At 16, he left home and dropped out of school, and began painting for a living: windmills, canals, anglers, boats and the sea. He churned out typical Dutch scenes, 30 by 40 centimeters (about 12 by 16 inches), which were especially popular in Germany. The dealer who sold his paintings eventually asked him if he could copy the works of the Dutch Romantic painters: Paul Gabriel, Johan Hendrik Weissenbruch, Hendrick Willem Mesdag. Driessen bought old paintings at flea markets, removed the paint from the canvas and got started.

No one was interested in his own paintings. After two or three years, Driessen began painting variations on the works of Expressionists like Emil Nolde, August Macke, Wassily Kandinsky and Karl Schmidt-Rottluff. Sometimes he simply painted mirrored versions of originals, and sometimes he created a new painting from several others — an old forgers’ technique.

Business Booms: … //

… Moving on to Sculpture:

In 1987 he began casting sculptures, a craft he had learned from Roel Maaskant, a caster in Brummen, near Arnhem. Bronze sculptures are expensive and complex, and the path from a wax or plaster figure through a latex mold to the finished sculpture is a long one. “You never know if it’s going to work,” says Driessen. “It’s exciting.”

The market for sculpture is even shadier than the market for paintings, because recasting is easier than painting. Cases have repeatedly come to light in which heirs have had castings made after the sculptor’s death. For instance, there are 80 castings of a famous sculpture by Berlin artist Georg Kolbe. It is difficult to verify how many castings of a sculpture exist, partly because foundries often make copies or cast more sculptures than the artist commissioned. As a result, there are real and fake originals that are indistinguishable from one another.

Dirk Grosman in Arnhem is considered the best bronze caster in Arnhem. Driessen bought a number of latex molds from Grosman, which he had used to produce bronzes by artists like Degas, Rodin, Matisse, Lehmbruck, Barlach and Kollwitz — in fact, by almost every well-known, modern sculptor. For instance, the purchase included a mold for the Ernst Barlach sculpture “Kussgruppe” (Kissing Group) and Käthe Kollwitz’s relief “The Complaint.” Driessen recast the bronzes and took them to Berlin, to the deeply traditional Hermann Noack foundry, which had worked for Barlach and Kollwitz in the 1920s and 30s, and where he was told that the recast bronzes were authentic. Driessen sold the pieces for a total of 17,000 Dutch guilders (about €7,700) to an art dealer in The Hague.
It was much more difficult to forge bronzes when no mold or casting was available. Driessen went to Duisburg more than 10 times to take more than 200 photos of Wilhelm Lehmbruck’s famous “Kneeling Woman” in front of the Lehmbruck Museum there. To sell the finished bronze, which weighed 150 kilos (330 lbs.), he bought an ad in the art journal Weltkunst. The first prospective buyer arrived in Arnhem by helicopter.

The second was Cologne art dealer Michael Werner, one of Germany’s great gallery owners, who represents artists like A.R. Penck, Markus Lüpertz and Jörg Immendorff. Werner drove up in a Jaguar and paid €42,500 for the Lehmbruck copy. Today it stands in the garden of the Werner Gallery in Trebbin, south of Berlin. Werner was very enthusiastic about the piece at the time, says Driessen, but today Werner calls it an “atrocious forgery.”
(full text).

Part 2: Choosing Giacometti to Build a Brand.

Comments are closed.