Art Forgeries Kenneth Rendell

Don’t Get Fooled Again

Oh, how I love juicy art forgery stories! Those fabulous tales of deception and greed, peppered with mafioso and Nazis and dubious art world figures always add a sense of adventure to our otherwise sleepy industry. So, when I got word that Kenneth Rendell, one of the foremost authorities on and authenticators of historic documents—and the great spoiler of some of the most audacious forgeries ever—had released a book, I jumped at the chance for an interview.

Kenneth Rendell Safeguarding History

In his new memoir, Safeguarding History, Trailblazing Adventures Inside the Worlds of Collecting and Forging History, Rendell takes us behind the scenes as he debunks the Hitler diaries (here’s a fascinating article from the New Yorker you might enjoy), the Salamander Mormon letters and murders, the Jack the Ripper Diary hoax, and others, as well as how he meticulously curated renowned private and public libraries across the country, earning him the title, as Stephen Ambrose puts it, ‘the greatest collector in the world’. 

I talked with Rendell about his work in the field of historic documents, why he’s so passionate about setting the record straight, and what tips he has for collectors to help them avoid being hoodwinked.

I'm in a world where you have to be very careful about what you're doing. I always have to be vigilant.

As any serious collector of historic works from documents to fine art and antiques can tell you, the market is riddled with forgeries. In the world of collectible objects, the conditions that set the stage for forgers to succeed are numerous. But, when you know what you’re looking for, forgeries often reveal themselves as pretty bad knock-offs. And yet, even when all signs point to fakery, why do seasoned collectors fall prey to swindlers? According to Rendell, it often comes down to human behavior and wishful thinking.

How Badly Do You Want It

“I think the key to it is self-analysis,” Rendell says. He suggests collectors develop a healthy inner skeptic when considering the purchase of historic objects. Start by asking yourself what you want out of the purchase—are you hoping to make money or beat out the competition, for example—and then think about what factors will make you go through with the deal. “That’s where you’re vulnerable,” he says. “That’s where you’re not being careful enough.”

The Hitler diaries and Jack the Ripper diary are excellent examples. The bogus Hitler documents were brought to light by a reporter who wanted to break the story and who had ties with Nazis. The editors at Newsweek, who were about to publish the Hitler diaries, were thrilled they were beating out Time Magazine for the scoop. Similarly, with the Jack the Ripper diary hoax, Time Warner was focused on the prospect of selling hundreds of thousands of copies. “It blinded them” Rendell says. “Jack the Ripper was so wrong.”

Winning Lottery Ticket

As a keen observer, Rendell possesses the uncanny ability to cut through the hype and hone in on the troubling issues that are often painfully obvious. In the case of the Jack the Ripper diary, he offered the British publisher who bought the forged manuscript for a sum that he probably couldn’t have afforded, 25 forensic reason why the manuscript was a fraud. Then Rendell asked to talk to the person who first discovered the manuscript, to which the publisher responded, ‘Oh, he’s dead.’ “The critical person is always dead in these situations,” Rendell says and recalls how the publisher responded. “The publisher said to me, and he said it in a really sad way: ‘You don’t understand, this is my winning lottery ticket in life.’ That’s what he was grasping, his winning lottery ticket. The people doing the fraud contacted the right kind of person to get it into the marketplace; someone who would latch on to it as the greatest thing that could happen.”

Follow the Provenance Trail

Another critical component to authenticating historic works is provenance. Think of provenance as the paper trail of an object. This is where collectors really need to be weary. “I used to say to other dealers, always think about what you’re going to say to the FBI when they sit there and ask you how in the world you think you could have gotten title to this? What are you going to tell them?”

In other words, if it’s too good to be true…ask more questions. Rendell says to come right out and ask dealers how they know the object is genuine. And he recommends only working with people you can take to court if things go sideways.

Provenance, however, is getting trickier because forged documents have been slipped into libraries and collections and, over time, because no one questioned them, they have become accepted. “I just saw a forged Oscar Wilde manuscript—it was atrocious. I could have done a better job. It didn’t look anything like Oscar Wilde,” Rendell recalls of the manuscript that had been placed in a library’s collection in the 1920s. “Nobody really compared writing samples; that manuscript was slipped into the collection before people were intelligently looking at things. How many documents got into libraries, then somebody writes about it and subsequent researchers don’t look at the original material but base their research on what other people wrote.”

Inside the Mind of a Criminal

Rendell does admit that his cautious nature has probably cost him the opportunity to buy a few authentic documents, but he says he prefers to err on the side of caution. “I don’t think I’m overly suspicious but honestly, I think it adds to the enjoyment; you have a much nicer relationship with people if you are really considering them.”

“The other thing,” he adds about the pursuit of collecting is that it’s an intellectual process and an escape from the horrible news that’s going on in the world today. “You go to a museum to look at paintings and it changes your mood. You read books and you feel good, so your guard is really down. These are places in which you don’t ever have to have your guard up.” Besides, most collectors are honest and would never think of defrauding someone. “It occurred to me, in the old days in New York when muggings were such a problem that good people are scared to death in a mugging, they’re the deer caught in the headlights. But the mugger is relaxed, they control the timing—they have an enormous advantage.”

“My whole life has been about the complexities of human nature—good and sometimes bad. Understanding the people on the other side of something is always so important. You need to think like them,” he says. “It doesn’t mean you become them.”

The World's Greatest Collector

Recently, at a dinner party, Rendell was asked to speak about his work. He began by saying, “You know what you learn from reading other people’s mail? Everyone’s teenagers are a pain in the ass.” The room lit up, of course, because most everyone could relate. “Dwight Eisenhower,” he continued, “wrote to his wife almost every other day during the war. He was talking about what’s happening with their son. His letters, they’re very human. It’s quite fantastic, everything is handwritten”

Rendell then told the dinner guests about a letter George Washington wrote to a friend confessing his fear that people had put him on a pedestal, that he didn’t win the war, the soldiers did, and that people were expecting so much of him, he could only fail. “Dwight Eisenhower,” Rendell says, “wrote out on presidential stationary that that is exactly how he felt: ‘everyone credited me with winning the war, which is just unfair. And they expect so much of me as president that I can never fulfill these ideas people have.’ ”

Though the sensational forgeries jump off the pages of his memoir, it is Rendell’s deep reverence and passion to preserve the words and deeds of historic figures that drive him. “My ultimate goal is for people to understand each other as human beings and to understand how much more we have in common. To get involved with my work, you have to be interested in something other than yourself. If more people would be open about their feelings, they would find out they’re not nuts. People would feel a bond. You can have different opinions and not see the other person as a villain. If you read letters of other people in history, you see them as real people.”

When his daughter was young, she asked if he believed in ghosts. “Now this is a question where you’re going to disagree,” Rendell recalls. “But I said, ‘yes, I do.’” Taken aback, his wife admonished him, but he stuck to his guns, explaining that his vast collection of historic documents and manuscripts was indeed filled with ghosts, their words, and deeds, and they spoke to him through time. “All those things are alive, and their spirit is alive today.”

Want More Good Reads, Check Out These Books

I Was Vermeer: The Rise and Fall of the Twentieth Century’s Greatest Art Forger, Frank Wynne, 2006. The tale of Hans van Meegeren the disillusioned Dutch painter who turned to forgery and caught the eye and won the patronage of Nazi leader Hermann Goring.

Provenance: How a Con Man and Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art, Laney Salsbury. One of the 20th century’s most audacious frauds, this book reads like a thriller as you follow along with the deception that allowed for hundreds of forged works to find their way into museums and private collections around the world.

Priceless: How I Went Undercover to Rescue the World’s Stolen Treasures, Robert K. Wittmann, founder, FBI Art Crime Team. A wild ride-along with the FBI agent who caught countless art thieves, scammers, and black-market traders and rescued some of history’s greatest treasures.

Caveat Emptor: The Secret Life of an American Art Forger, Ken Perenyi, 2013. Art forger Perenyi tells the story of his 30 year career forging fake paintings that went on to sell at both Christies and Sotheby’s until the FBI brought him down. Perenyi walks you through the steps he took to create near-detection proof work.

Forging History: The Detection of Fake Letters & Documents, Kenneth Rendell, University of Oklahoma Press. The standard reference book to help collectors understand forgery detection and educate themselves on the commonalities most forgeries share.

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Curator, writer, and strategist for artists and non-profits, Rose Fredrick has spent the last three decades producing exhibitions that have not only raised considerable funds for scholarships and education, but have also launched artists’ careers. Her writing has appeared in numerous publications and her essays and interviews have been used in workshops, college courses, and museum exhibitions. She has won the National Endowment for the Arts grant, Rock West Curator of the Year, Denver’s The Big Read, Best Multicultural Book from the New Mexico/Arizona Book Awards, and was a finalist for the Colorado Book Awards.

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