‘I’d say business is booming,’ says David Henty, like a man who can’t believe his luck. ‘I got a commission for four paintings this morning and an inquiry for another one. A lot of them are Basquiats. I get a lot of Lowrys. I had to do a Manet for someone the other day. I’ve got about 15 Modiglianis on the go. There’s all sorts!’
Henty is an art forger — or, rather he used to be an art forger. As a child he displayed an unusual talent for drawing and copied out Hogarth prints for fun. ‘I didn’t think I was special — I just thought anyone could do it,’ he says. As a young man, he channelled his skills into counterfeiting passports, which earned him five years at HMP Downview from 1999. But he used his time well, honing his painting skills in prison and parcelling out fake Walter Sickerts, which his brothers sold at a nearby antiques market.
Now in his early 60s, Henty is perhaps the world’s leading art copyist. He paints dupes, replicas and remixes of masterworks and sells them to those of us who might not be able to stretch to say, $110.5 million, which was the price Jean-Michel Basquiat’s untitled 1982 skull painting fetched at Sotheby’s in 2017.
Henty’s dupe of the Basquiat skull is on sale at the Antique Modern Mix gallery in Chelsea for £10,000. A ‘little Lowry’ might go for £2,500. One of his Leonardo da Vinci canvases is currently available for £25,000. But most people don’t want Old Masters in their living rooms any more, so he mostly sticks to Basquiats. ‘Banksy won’t like it but I do a lot of Banksys, too. They’re pretty easy.’
Henty is a true one-off. He is also one of the more outlandish emanations of a peculiar shift — a shift that once you notice it, becomes harder to un-notice. We have entered the age of the dupe, which is, according to hundreds of fashion editorials, ‘the shopping trend of 2023’. The great mass of consumers don’t seem quite so worried about authenticity or provenance or even originality as we once were.
In art, fashion, beauty, scent, homewares, electronics, food, drink, design, media (obviously), we seem increasingly happy with dupes — but also even seemingly undupable experiences, like live music. Noticed how many fake Oasis acts and dupe Adeles there are on the regional theatre circuit? And hang on, isn’t the true artistic form of the age the meme: produced anonymously, remixed collectively, replicated infinitely?
Dupe in this sense is short for ‘duplicate’, though it also means to hoodwink — and you might wonder who is duping whom with these near-as-dammit replicas. Hopefully, no one buying Henty’s ersatz Banksys and pseudo Basquiats is under any illusion that they have the real thing. But do they conceal the fact from their house guests? From the person they’re giving it to as a birthday present? From themselves as they look on their mantelpiece? ‘That,’ admits Henty, ‘is an interesting question.’
Online, you can find millions of dupe enthusiasts taking pride in the idea that they’ve beaten the system, perhaps even short-circuited capitalism, because isn’t each of us constantly duped into buying things we don’t really want and desiring things we don’t really need? This is the guiding philosophy on TikTok, where the term #dupe has 5.9 billion views. Here you will find users helpfully sharing £6 Aldi face creams that are honestly almost exactly the same as £54 Estée Lauder face serums. There’s also a thriving sub-genre of investigations into the actual quality and provenance of various luxury goods.
On Instagram meanwhile (which increasingly resembles a TikTok dupe…) my own pet algorithm is constantly steering me towards scents that smell exactly like, say, Tom Ford’s Oud Wood, but for £19.99 as opposed to £220. Not so long ago, this might have seemed naff — like wearing a fake fox to church. But such elitism seems passé. And £220 is really expensive. And you don’t see a scent, you smell it — and when even the experts say that the dupes are indistinguishable from the real thing, why spend £200.01 on a fancy bottle?
Consider too the market for ‘superfake’ handbags. These are far from the laughable copies you’ll find at the cheap end of Oxford Street with ‘LOUSI VUTTONI’ stitched on the side. They are often made from the same templates and materials as the originals, by the same workers in the same Guangzhou textile factories — only they’re about £200 as opposed to £2,950. After parading a superfake Celine Triomphe around Paris Fashion Week earlier this year, Amy X Wang of The New York Times declared herself a convert. ‘There is a smug superiority that comes with luxury bags — that’s sort of the point — but to my surprise, I found that this was even more the case with superfakes.’ Replica ‘communities’, she noted, delighted in the idea that they had ‘hacked’ the luxury market and ‘democratised fashion’. A more sustainable hack might be to work on conquering our desire for buying these things in the first place. But still. Let’s be realistic.
It can’t be entirely coincidental that this pandemic of duplication should have occurred in the same year that everyone has become terribly worked up about generative artificial intelligence — that is, computer programmes such as Dall-E, which can produce a picture of a Celine handbag as painted by Basquiat at the touch of a button, or ChatGPT, which will write you a sonnet about dropshipping in the style of Shakespeare. Henty has never heard of Dall-E but when I explain to him roughly how it works — by processing millions of images and millions of words to arrive at a decent approximation of a Basquiat — he declares: ‘But that’s exactly how we work! I’ll look through all my Basquiat books, watch all the Basquiat documentaries, take it all in subconsciously and then all of a sudden it comes out on the canvas. It’s funny isn’t it?’
And when I’m on Instagram, swiping past adverts for duped T-shirts from David Bowie’s Japanese tour of 1982, or fig leaf candles that smell just like the Diptyque ones, I often have the eerie feeling that the material and virtual worlds have converged. All it takes is two or three touches and in a couple of days these miraculously desirable items will appear in my home, as if by magic. A constellation of forces — surveillance capitalism, AI inventory management, a globalised labour force, just-in-time supply chains, print-on-demand technology, easy credit, touch ID, Chinese industrial policy, etc — have created a world in which thought becomes material almost without friction. It sometimes reminds me of the giddy rush of MP3s and BitTorrent in the early 2000s, when suddenly music, which had previously been rare and expensive, became infinitely replicable and almost free. Napster: but for things.
But perhaps I’m getting ahead of myself.
To be clear, actual counterfeiting is a crime — one that costs businesses billions each year and which can actually kill people. It is estimated, for example, that 30 per cent of all spirits sold in China are fake and they frequently contain dangerous levels of methanol, which is toxic. Everyone I speak to in the art world, moreover, tells me that forging is becoming harder, not easier, as everyone is so much more vigilant about it. ‘The value of art has increased tremendously over the past few years — particularly classic modern and impressionist pictures — so the risks of getting it wrong are much higher,’ says Paul Hewitt of the Society of London Art Dealers. Serious, insurmountable questions are asked when a painting turns up without the requisite provenance. ‘The onus to prove that something is what it claims to be is incredibly high.’
This only reflects art’s status as the ultimate luxury product. Superfake handbag enthusiasts like to point out that a Celine Triomphe is not a work of art. However high-quality the materials used, however revered the name of the designer, a handbag is still mass-produced — just like an Ikea bookcase or a chicken McNugget.
A Basquiat painting, on the other hand, is a true one-off. It’s one reason why art is such an attractive asset class. And it’s also why the value of a painting discovered to be a fake drops precipitously, explains Sacha Golob, philosopher of aesthetics at King’s College.
‘Suppose a work were in practice completely indistinguishable from the original,’ he says. ‘If we found out it was forged, that nevertheless still would tend to devalue it, monetarily and artistically. Why is this? One response is it’s just snobbery: there shouldn’t be any difference in value between works that you can’t distinguish. But a better response is there are properties of a work which aren’t simply visible. Originality is a good example. Van Meegeren is much less original than Vermeer precisely because he’s copying him so closely.’
So a Basquiat painted by Henty is not the same as a Basquiat painted by Basquiat, with all of the angst and passion and fury. How much is that difference worth? More than £90 million according to the market, the algorithm we use to put a figure on the world’s desires. But it is still better than a poster. It still gives aesthetic pleasure. And it still has something approaching life. ‘You’ve got to have spontaneity as an art forger,’ says Henty. ‘Say I’m copying your signature. If I’m hesitant, you can tell. What you’re trying to do is not have those stilted moments. You do that by being confident, spontaneous, standing in the artist’s shoes. That’s the difference between AI and the real thing. It’s got that spark in it.’