Monday, December 25, 2006


One item that made all the press in 2006 was the story of the counterfeit Norman Rockwell.

The Norman Rockwell Museum was embarrassed to discover that a painting they displayed as a masterful Rockwell was forged by a local cartoonist, Don Trachte.

According to the New York Times, Trachte purchased the original painting from Rockwell in 1960 but secretly painted a duplicate when he feared his estranged wife was going to take his beloved Rockwell in a bitter custody battle. Trachte hid the original behind a secret panel in his home and hung the fake in plain sight. Only after Trachte died did his family discover the genuine painting, which they promptly sold for $15.4 million.

There are lots of potential lessons from this episode. Some pundits had great fun taunting the "experts" who could not distinguish betweeen a Trachte and a Rockwell. Some were impressed by the skill of the unknown Trachte. Some focused on the detective work in uncovering the original, while others focused on the economics of the sale.

For me, the interesting part was Trachte's motivation. For 50 years, Trachte drew the dreary comic strip Henry-- a simple minded strip whose success was based on the fact that it took less effort to read than to skip over.

Year in, year out, Trachte was content to churn out these mediocre drawings. He was apparently never inspired by a beautiful sunset to find some higher purpose for his talent. He could not find sufficient motivation in money, pride, artistic integrity, or even sheer boredom to put aside the comic strip he inherited from its creator in 1948. But when it came to thwarting his ex-wife, the man found the inspiration to become another Norman Rockwell.

Many sublime works of art were inspired by petty rivalries, lusts and revenge rather than the glory of mankind. As a general rule, those who need to believe in the grandeur of the creative process would do well not to inquire too deeply into the source of artistic inspiration.


Mary Robinette Kowal said...

You draw an interesting conclusion, but I'm wondering, considering that Tracte made his living drawing a cartoon someone else originated, if he simply didn't have any artistic inspiration of his own. He might have been one of those unlucky souls who are gifted technicians, but not artists.

David Apatoff said...

You could be right, Mary. And even if Trachte had a creative spark at the beginning, I would be surprised if much of it survived 50 years of mindless work.

Nevertheless, duplicating a huge, realistic oil painting in a way that duped all the experts and conervators seems like a stunning achievement. Anyone who could do that should have found something better to do for a living.

Anonymous said...

John Howard Sanden spotted the picture hanging in the NRM as a fake years ago, and said so on his site. If you look at the "great" Vermeer forger, his work was obviously fake and yet he fooled the "experts" too. This should give anyone buying original artwork heartburn, thinking these so-called experts actually know what is real or fake so well.

As far as Trachte burying his inclinations to make money, well, what can you say? He's not much different from most people, even many so-called "artists" who paint for the market everyday (and some are quite famous in their fields, too).

You won't see or know who is doing the really good work nowadays until about 50-100 years from now. I'm sure the true painter gets little or no exposure in the current crass art market. Which, I'm sure, is bidding up the value of old Trachte strips because of this story. Notoriety equals value. Go figure.

David Apatoff said...

Brian, I was not familiar with John Howard Sanden's website but I just checked it out and I was very impressed by his courage in throwing down the gauntlet about the authenticity of the Rockwell.

I fear that most of us, when confronted with an inferior painting, would assume that Rockwell just had an off day. It is great to know that somebody was willing to say the emperor had no clothes. Thanks for writing.

Anonymous said...

David, a lot of fakes scream "fake" to a good painters' eye, especially works that aren't copied from the original, but which surface as "lost" works in the same style as the real artist. People should be a lot less reluctant about calling a spade a spade, as the money involved in the forgery business is huge. I mean, the Rockwell mentioned sold for $15 million! I'll bet you there are a LOT of fakes out there!

Sanden is just calling it like it is. At worst, he might be labelled a crank if he were wrong. But he's looking a lot more shiny now.

colin said...

It is pretty odd, given that the original was printed as a SEP cover and thus available for comparison, that more people didn't pick up on it earlier. Even in tiny web reproduction two pictures seem obviously different.

Irene Gallo said...

Hi David,

I love your candor!

I had heard that the Rockwell Museum was very close to taking that painting down on their own -- too much evidence was mounting against it. Too bad they weren't just a tad quicker about it....Although it must hurt to "lose" such a major work. Hopefully all the future reproductions will be replaced with the original. I imagine there are quite a few books, cards, and prints that are reproductions of the fake.

On another note: Happy Holidays! I have so much enjoyed discovering and reading your blog this year, not to mention running into you at ComicCon! Here's to great 2007 for everyone!


Anonymous said...

I have always assumed that those who paint/draw/sculpt or write, do so because they are unable not to. The rest of us, the ordinary and the unwashed, are not driven by angels and demons to create, so perhaps, do the equivelant of Tracte and draw or live a comic strip life. Now to be fair, I don't think we who are less creative (or productive anyway) are lesser folk, just, well, maybe more pedestrian. But I like us. Some are even really good friends of mine!

theory_of_me said...

"Many sublime works of art were inspired by petty rivalries, lusts and revenge rather than the glory of mankind."

What are you talking about? Petty rivalries, lusts and revenge are the glory of mankind.

David Apatoff said...

Theory of me, everybody knows that the two greatest glories of mankind are 1.) kissing, and 2.) watercolors. Anybody who thinks any different hasn't kissed the right person or seen the right watercolor. I wish both of them for you in 2007.

theory_of_me said...

Well, a happy new year to you as well... or not. Doesn't really matter, does it? :)

shara said...

I can't quite remember how I ended up here. I love when that happens. Will definitely be back to read some more, though.

David Apatoff said...

Diego frenetic, I think you know darn well.

chris miller said...

Crank that I am .. I think the more important question is "which version looks better" .. and if I had to pick, I'd prefer the version on the left (but the photos are so small -- its a close call)

I saw a Rockwell show about 10 years ago at the Chicago Historical Society -- and got the distinct impression that the pieces were made for photo reproduction -- i.e. they didn't have the close-up quality of good paintings - even if they did tell wonderful, charming stories.

Anonymous said...

Rockwell has a lot of nice draws (trace b/w). I love your series of people with deflux.
Simply a genius.

Anonymous said...

Nice blog.

I couldn't read no more of it... can you please stop using white fonts on a black background?

Greetings from Caracas,