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How The Brain Tells Real From Fake: From Fine Art To Fine Wine

What motivates art forgers? And why are we so fascinated by them?
Vincenzo Pinto
AFP/Getty Images
What motivates art forgers? And why are we so fascinated by them?

"If I'm allowed to have a favorite forger, which I know sounds a little bit funny, it would be Eric Hebborn, who's really the prince of art forgers," Noah Charney says. "He's the only one of over sixty that I look at in my book who I think is at the same level as the artists he forged."

This week on Hidden Brain, Shankar Vedantam explores how we tell real from fake, when it comes to fine art and fine wine. As Noah Charney, author of The Art of Forgery explains, the primary motivation for many of the forgers he studied is not money, but revenge.

"[Hebborn] initially had been a failed artist; he couldn't get traction with his own original artworks, even though he had some serious talent," Charney says.

Hebborn had been at a flea market, and purchased some drawings that he thought might be worth something. He brought them to an art gallery in London, and sold them for a profit. But then he walked past the same gallery and saw the drawings on sale for much more than what he was paid.

"He felt that he had been essentially swindled by the gallery and decided to get revenge," Charney says. Thus he began his career as one of the greatest art forgers of all time.

"If he creates a drawing, and the experts think that it's by a great master, then he can convince himself that he must be as good as the master," Charney says. "But the second part is, that if he's able to fool these so-called experts, he demonstrates how foolish they are, and the implication is that they were foolish not to endorse his own original artwork."

Shankar found the figure of Eric Hebborn so compelling, and asked himself why we love stories about forgery. After all, Hebborn was a criminal. But perhaps art forgers are more like a Robin Hood type criminal: waging a populist war against the elitist world of art.

He discussed this idea with Baba Shiv, who teaches marketing at Stanford. He has done studies not about the world of fine art, but the world of fine wine, and has found something fascinating about why our Hidden Brain enjoys expensive wine more than cheap.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Kara McGuirk-Alison and Maggie Penman. Follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain,@karamcguirk and @maggiepenman, and listen for Hidden Brain stories every week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.