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London Museum Plants Fake in Its Collection

The Dulwich Picture Gallery in London (via Matt Lake's Flickrstream)
The Dulwich Picture Gallery in London (via Matt Lake’s Flickrstream)

Next month, The Dulwich Picture Gallery, a London museum known for its collection of works by Old Masters, will launch an interesting experiment: the gallery will hang a forged painting alongside its 270 authentic holdings, challenging gallery-goers to find the fake. The Gallery paid a mere £120 (~$181) for the reproduction, which it commissioned from a Chinese studio known for its artistic replicas. China has long boasted a booming forgery industry: The Guardian reports that studios in the Dafen Village alone create around five million fake paintings each year.

The museum’s Chief Curator Xavier Bray told Hyperallergic that the exhibition, Made in China, is “about looking, about re-engaging with the original.” He said that conceptual artist Doug Fishbone, who conceived of the project, hopes to interrogate “the role of the original in the digital age,” inquiring after “what happens to a replica when it enters the temple of art,” while he is more interested in assessing the ways in which the forgery interacts with the Dulwich’s collection.

A reproduction of Jacques-Louis David's "Coronation of Napoleon" (18??) for sale in Dafen Village (photo courtesy Cory Doctorow's Flickrstream)
A reproduction of Jacques-Louis David’s “the Coronation of Napoleon” (1807) for sale in Dafen Village (photo courtesy Cory Doctorow’s Flickrstream)

While museum-going is all too often an exercise in passive appreciation, with the burden of taste and discernment falling squarely on the curator, Made in China incites viewers to adopt an active role, assessing each painting with an eye to its aesthetic merits.

In addition to challenging us to distinguish falsity from authenticity, the project calls the validity of these categories into question: Why do we prize authenticity so highly if a forgery can be visually equivalent to an authentic artwork? Do we value the originality of an artist more than we value the aesthetics of a piece? Made in China can’t answer these questions, but it can raise them with especial eloquence and urgency.

Bray said he believes “there’s a magic when you look at a painting that was created by a certain individuality,” and that a replica cannot capture “the quality of originality, of individuality.” Nonetheless, he said, reproductions “can disseminate images,” bringing artworks to a broader audience. He also noted that 17th- and 18th-century painters made replicas of their own work so as to increase its distribution.

The identity of the fake at the Dulwich will be revealed in April, when it will be hung alongside the original so that viewers can contrast the two works. It will then take its place in a special exhibition comprised of Dulwich holdings once thought to be authentic and subsequently debunked.

Made in China: A Doug Fishbone Project opens February 10.

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