Tracking down the counterfeiters!

Dossier ~ Tuesday 30th March 2010
The Broken Ear (1937) - Page 57]

While he was weaving together elements of the art world with aspects of the criminal activity of counterfeiting, to create the plot for Tintin and Alph-Art, did Hergé ever imagine that his own work would one day fall victim to unscrupulous forgers? Although he was already addressing the issue of forgery as far back as 1935, with the story of the fake fetishes in The Broken Ear, the author was probably too modest to believe that his own work would one day be copied in this way. We now know that this is the case, so it is up to us to pick up the trail of the counterfeiters ourselves!

We are all looking forward to the next Hergé auction, organised by Piasa and Moulinsart at the Drouot auction house in Paris, which will take place on 29 May. Crowds of collectors are barely able to contain their excitement, and for good reason: plenty of rare pieces have been put up for sale. Thanks to Hergé, comic strips have made a bold move into the art world. Original work by the creator of Tintin now fetches higher prices than the canvases of many of the old masters. This evolution has sparked a change in the market for original comic strip art.

The arrival of speculators

Until recently, sales of original comic strip art were restricted to the relatively insular world of avid comic strip enthusiasts. Collectors bought pieces from specialist shops. Among the professional sellers there were those who opened galleries and became affiliated with a Franco-Belgian network of enthusiasts who bought and sold original drawings and pages. Some comic strip authors sold their work via this network of dealers. Things have changed. Certain artwork and objects have begun to reach such high prices in private sales and at auction that many collectors have been pushed out of the bidding. Today, purchasing an original Hergé is tantamount to a serious investment: buyers are hoping that original comic art will increase in value over the years.

Opportunity knocks for the art forgers

From the moment that artwork begins commanding serious money to the tune of hundreds of thousands of pounds, crooks begin to take notice. Thibaut Van Houte, an independent expert who works with Moulinsart, explains: 'Over the past three years forgeries have been on the increase, netting nearly a million euros [almost the same figure in pounds] from unsuspecting victims. While the rise of the internet has played an important part in the rapid growth of this criminal market, fakes have also been sold for staggering amounts  -  euros, dollars and pounds  -  in top auction houses. Forged original pages are only the tip of the iceberg in this illegal trade: when an artist sees the value of their work increase, anything they create becomes a target for unlawful profiteers. In the case of Hergé the market of forgeries extends to fake autographs and sketches in books or on blank pages, books spliced to give the impression of first editions, and all sorts of objects and merchandise.

Vente Hergé 2010 - Piasa
Hergé - ML 2010 L'Affaire Tournesol - Crayonné de la planche n°10 partiellement encrée
Hergé - ML 2010 Tintin au Congo - Dessin à l'encre de Chine de 1959
Hergé - ML 2010 Le Crabe aux pinces d'or - version de 1948
from unsuspecting victims. While the rise of the internet has played an important part in the rapid growth of this criminal market, fakes have also been sold for staggering amounts  -  euros, dollars and pounds  -  in top auction houses. Forged original pages are only the tip of the iceberg in this illegal trade: when an artist sees the value of their work increase, anything they create becomes a target for unlawful profiteers. In the case of Hergé the market of forgeries extends to fake autographs and sketches in books or on blank pages, books spliced to give the impression of first editions, and all sorts of objects and merchandise.

Vente Hergé 2010 - Piasa
Hergé - ML 2010 L'Affaire Tournesol - Crayonné de la planche n°10 partiellement encrée
Hergé - ML 2010 Tintin au Congo - Dessin à l'encre de Chine de 1959
Hergé - ML 2010 Le Crabe aux pinces d'or - version de 1948

A history of forgery

Dishonest people have created forgeries from the earliest times. The sculptures of the ancient Greeks were among the first objects to be imitated. Certain artists reached such a level of renown that their signature on a statue significantly raised its value. The Middle Ages became the golden age of forgery. The Catholic Church edited gospels and some saints must have had dozens of legs if all the leg bones now venerated as relics are real! Visitors to the Hergé Museum can see exhibits about the Orson Welles film, F for Fake, which inspired Hergé's narrative  -  set to the backdrop of the shady world of art forgery  -  for Tintin and Alph-Art. One of the goals of counterfeiters throughout history has been to create credible fake money. At the time when coins and notes did not yet exist, currency consisted of weights made out of precious and semi-precious metals such as copper. The way to abuse this system was to use metal that was not as pure as required or to tamper with weights and scales. In many cases it was the state itself that perpetuated the circulation of counterfeit currency.

'Counterfeit cash ruins real cash'

There was a saying at the time of the French King Philip II of France, a man with first-hand expertise in phoney money, that went: 'La fausse monnaie chasse la bonne' (Counterfeit cash ruins real cash). By this turn of phrase people meant that the value of real currency was undermined by the inflow of false money. ?It's the same thing in the world of the comic strip,' explains Thibaut Van Houte. 'Forgeries bring down the value of genuine works. There were recently auctions held in New York, in which there were some very crude copies put up for sale.' We should take a moment to distinguish between the different types of copying undertaken by forgers. Counterfeit goods are objects that are made to imitate certain brand-name items. All sorts of goods are copied in this way, such as figurines, badges, ties, clothing, perfume, etc. In 2007, on Reunion Island alone, police seized more than 2 million euros worth of counterfeit goods.A forgery, in the strict sense of the term, is something that is written or printed. It has been established that in 2009, a certain French forger made 300,000 euros out of selling fake Hergé autographs!

The true story of a fake

One story comes from 2006: a collector owned two busts of Tintin entitled ?Tintin wearing a handkerchief' (an allusion to the desert scene from The Crab with the Golden Claws). The collector became suspicious when he was offered a third bust, identical to the two he already had. He got in contact with the sculptor himself who confirmed that not only was the third bust a fake, but the other two that the collector already owned were duds as well! How did they determine the fact that the objects were fakes? Besides the poor quality of the sculpture and of some of the colours, none of the figurines had a certificate of authenticity or the copyright mark Hergé/Moulinsart.

Compte-rendus des conférences du journal Tintin
Hergé - ML 2010 L'Etoile mystérieuse - Edition originale de 1942
Les Aventures de Tintin Reporter du Petit Vingtième au Congo - Editions du Petit Vingtième. 1931 
Les Aventures de Tintin Reporter du Petit Vingtième au Congo - Editions du Petit Vingtième. 1931

Tips on how to spot a fake

Never buy a framed 'original' tucked away behind a layer of glass: take the time to examine the document itself. The paper can tell you a lot about a drawing. Was the paper commonly used at the time when the drawing should have been made? Inks have changed over the years as synthetic elements have been added. Hergé remained quite faithful to the particular brands of paper and ink that he used. If the work in question is a rough draft, it is worth bearing in mind that Hergé's notes spilled over onto the margins of the page and he often covered pages in sketches, memos and multiple attempts to catch the perfect line, which could cover the back of the page as well as the front. A specialist can easily identify Hergé's authentic style.

Tracing history

Anyone purchasing an original Hergé is primarily concerned with knowing about the origins of the document. Any authentic page or drawing belonged to Hergé at the outset! There may be a written account of the document or an old assistant of the author may be able to identify the piece. From this point you may be able to work backwards: did Hergé offer the drawing as a gift to a friend or acquaintance? What is the link between this person and the seller? Are they related or friends, or did the current owner come into possession of the piece through a simple transaction between collectors? There are also certain things that indicate that a piece may not be genuine: there was a time in the life of every famous artist when they simply didn't imagine that any of their work was destined to be worth a lot of money. Many original drawings were thrown in the dustbin or lost in piles of paper. If there is no wear and tear visible, or if there are no marks on a document which betray its journey through space and time, then one should be cautious! A work of art has its own history and family tree.

Hergé - ML 2010 Planches pour 75 et 76 du Sceptre d'Ottokar - Publiée dans Le Petit Vingtième de 1939
Hergé - ML 2010 Lithographie Objectif Lune
Hergé - ML 2010 Les Aventures de Tintin Reporter du Petit Vingtième en Amérique - Editions du Petit Vingtième
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