When Are Fakes As Good As Originals?

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Left: Albrecht Dürer, "St. Thomas," 1514 / Right: Johann Ladenspelder, "St. Thomas," circa 1535 – 1561 (Blanton Museum of Art, University of Texas at Austin)

What Differentiates Renaissance Copies, Fakes and Reproductions?

by Meilan Solly Smithsonian.com

Throughout art history, the lines between mimicry, reproduction and forgery have often been blurred. While forgery, defined as passing one’s work off as someone else’s, is fairly easy to differentiate, the boundaries of originality are harder to tease out. Take, for example, Andy Warhol’s Pop Art Brillo Boxes—which not only copied an existing commercial design, but also exist in such quantities that it is impossible to tell which were created directly by the artist versus his team of assistants and carpenters—or Marcel Duchamp’s “L.H.O.O.Q.,” a doctored, mass-produced version of da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa” indistinguishable from the original apart from hand-drawn facial hair and a string of letters inscribed below the portrait. Looking to ancient times, BBC Culture’s Jason Farago notes, the Romans considered their contemporary replicas on par with original Greek statues—a sentiment that persists to this day, with many museums spotlighting later copies of lost classics.

For Albrecht Dürer, a master painter and printmaker active during the Northern Renaissance, originality was a more straightforward concept. As he warned in the impassioned introduction to his 1511 “Life of the Virgin” series, “Beware, you envious thieves of the work and invention of others, keep your thoughtless hands from these works of ours.”

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