Forging on, Roger Blackley

Good as Goldie: the amazing story of New Zealand’s most famous art forger
Karl F Sim (C F Goldie) and Tim Wilson
Hodder Moa Beckett, $35,
ISBN 1869589076

 

You know me as a forger, but I’ve had more lives than a cat. I’ve dug Abyssinian wells, and flogged black market eggs. I’ve had racehorses. I’ve also been a signwriter, winemaker, and real estate agent. I’m a communist, and I will be one till the day I die, mate.

Maybe you don’t trust me. Maybe you think I’m a bullshit artist, but I’ll tell you I’ve lived the life I say. How else can you tell your tale? I’m telling the truth. I never got in trouble as a kid for telling fibs. I was an honest boy. If you think I’m telling lies now, then tough! The trouble is that my reputation is that I’ve been a forger. So people will say, “How can you believe a word he says?”

 

Yeah, right. Readers of this entertaining New Zealand contribution to a familiar genre – the tell-all confessions of an unmasked forger – may remain among the sceptical. The garrulous yet engaging Karl Feodor Sim/C F Goldie, the country’s only convicted art forger, gives a circuitous recounting of an eventful life. The bowler-hatted, octogenarian C F Goldie – now his legal name – grins sardonically from the book’s lurid cover, as he puts the finishing touches to a pencil drawing of Te Aho. A (genuine) chromolithograph of the (genuine) C F Goldie’s 1905 painting of the bowler-hatted Te Aho looms in the background. These are the Aladdin’s cave-like precincts of Sim’s rural caravan, where his ghost, Tim Wilson, tape-recorded the Great Pretender.

In keeping with the genre, Sim lays claim to two main motives: a desire to fool “experts” and to wreak revenge on “modern” art. Faced with the assembled evidence, however, my guess is that readers will remain unconvinced that Karl Sim ever achieved basic competence as a forger. Few will realise that the reproductions derive not from his “original” works, but from Sim’s archive of photographs and photocopies. Yet even allowing for the truly appalling quality of many of the reproductions, it is difficult to believe that so many “experts” were duped by Sim’s productions – victims that included the National Art Gallery and the Government Art Historian.

The story unfolds on the Manawatu Plains, where the Sims were the only “commo” family in Himatangi. Karl’s father Leo scratched out a variety of livings:

He was a veterinary surgeon – not exactly qualified, he just picked it up along the way. All the Chinese market gardeners in the district had horses, and Leo was a great one for dishing out opium for these horses, except it often wasn’t just for the horses. Need I say more?

 

Other lines of work were chicken farming (extirpated rooster chicks, skinned like bananas and pan-fried by Mum for a school lunch) and – of relevance to the forgery theme – winemaking. The chook sheds became fruit wine manufactories and later, under Karl’s control, were where cheap grape wine from the Hawke’s Bay was blended with fruit flavours: “That wine never saw a blackberry in its bloody life. It was all a big con.”

Winetasting (“Drive In And Sample”) lubricated the more significant con operation, as “antiques” became the staple commodity both at Himatangi and at Sim’s subsequent Antique and Wine Store in Foxton. So many amazing bargains were discovered, works by C F Goldie, Frances Hodgkins, Rita Angus – unbelievably cheap and bundled enthusiastically into Range Rovers heading back from the ski-fields. Numerous events in Sim’s story are fuelled by alcohol, including an outrageous group contribution to the artificial ageing of paintings:

The most magical ingredient, though, was piss. We used to pee on them at times to give them a nice glow, depending on what we’d been drinking. We’d have a big party and I’d say to the boys, “Hey, there’s a couple of pictures out there, go and piss on them will you.” It worked beautifully.

 

No wonder the artefacts smelled so authentic!

Even piss-artist forgers need to do their homework. Sim maintains that foxing the experts required becoming something of an expert himself, listing a reference library (“what a swot I was”) that included at least one of Alister Taylor’s lavish books on Goldie’s oeuvre (“my work’s in it, though under the category: Dubious Origin”). While forgers have always been avid collectors of art-historical literature, and especially well-illustrated catalogues raisonnés, such a literature is rather thin on the ground in New Zealand. Sim instead became an enthusiastic consumer of periodicals such as the 1970s series New Zealand’s Heritage: The Making of a Nation, which prided itself on its colour reproductions of historical art, and of faded old sheets from the New Zealand Free Lance. In certain respects, Sim’s “research” collection has an uncanny parallel in the scrapbooks of clippings compiled by the “authentic” Goldie and now preserved in the Auckland Museum. One difference is that Sim’s collection is unlikely to be preserved.

For me, the fascination of this book is of a social-historical nature. For a start, there is the family’s distinctive status as “mad keen communists”. Karl’s father Leo was the New Zealand delegate at the 1935 Seventh World Congress of the Communist International in Moscow, a period of stress and hardship for his wife and family remaining at the aptly named Chaos Farm. Leo then led a wartime dissident faction, the Bolshevik Party, that split from or were expelled by the communists. Where else could we learn that Lindsay Perrigo (Karl’s nephew) grew up in a milieu of “comrades” and the Red Front salute? Or find out that it was another of Karl’s nephews, Marx Jones, who was the aerial flour-bomber of the final Springbok test match in 1981 (for which he did time). There is a sizeable cast of art-world individuals who flit in and out of the story, the majority of whom are identified, and I imagine that some anxious eyes have already perused Good as Goldie. Among the personnel is the late Charlie Garmonsway, art restorer and Sim’s forging mentor, who claimed to be the naked teenage model for Gross’s bronze on the Auckland Domain gates.

The book presents an eccentric provincial forger’s perspective on the greedy 1980s, a period when the booming share-market induced a corresponding art-market inflation and an indiscriminate consumption of “named” artists. Plausibly linking investment opportunities to that greed was Sim’s particular talent. As he points out, “Provenances are easier to make than paintings”:

All you have to do is tell a story that has some truth and enough lies to include your painting in the life of the artist. So I’d stick in facts I knew from the artist’s history, or their friend’s lives [sic]. I’d chuck in props like fabricated letters and phoney receipts. I often used a recently deceased widow; one of those always helped a provenance no end. The icing on the cake was written authentication from an art expert.

 

One such gullible expert was Anthony Murray-Oliver of the Alexander Turnbull Library, who employed Turnbull letterhead to authenticate one of Sim’s Goldie drawings. Thanks to the miracle of photocopying, this authenticating letter accompanied dozens of fresh Goldie drawings.

Forgery is not only as old as the art market, it is an intrinsic part of that market. And in that market people often make mistakes. There’s a modest work acquired by the Auckland Art Gallery when I was a curator there, that I subsequently realised was a fake (though not one of Sim’s). This was when I began thinking about the issues surrounding the collection of forged works, for most museums’ collection policies make forgery one of the grounds for shedding a work. I now realise that such mistakes are routinely hidden, and thereby preserved; that it is normal for major art galleries to possess dubious artefacts – a kind of other national collection. But what does it mean when museums release such works on to the market? Is that preferable to outright destruction, proposed by certain purists? Either way, aren’t we losing important documents from the history of forgery in New Zealand and, in the case of fakes circulating in the marketplace, ensuring perpetual headaches for the “experts”? The history of forgery is closely related to the history of taste, for what is provided is what is most desired. That is why good fakes can take time to be unmasked, but also why, with the passage of time, they tend to become increasingly obvious.

Karl Sim is not so much a forger, as a performance artist of forgery. It is a role appropriate to the gregarious Sim, but totally at odds with the reticence that surrounds any “authentic” milieu of forgery. Sim revelled in the protracted forgery trial, sporting a flamboyant wardrobe and playing to the media. As C F Goldie he now chooses to live – like fellow eccentrics Sister Wendy and Galvin Macnamara – in a caravan. Inevitably, his Goldie parodies have become collectible in their own right and ensure his status within the mythology of New Zealand art. One can even imagine, at a future National Party garage sale, intense competition for his celebrated portrait of Robert Muldoon. But Sim’s real importance is the way he operates as a smokescreen, or cloud of sepia ink, for under his protective cover others – who successfully retain their anonymity – continue to augment the outputs of dead artists. Now, is that really a Colin McCahon over there?

 

Roger Blackley, author of Goldie and curator of the Auckland Art Gallery’s 1997 Goldie exhibition, teaches art history at Victoria University of Wellington. 

 

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Posted in Art, Autobiography, Non-fiction and Review
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