Never forget David Bowie masterminded “the biggest art hoax in history”

Along with novelist William Boyd, Bowie fabricated an artist who never existed, the art world fell for it

On April Fools’ Day, 1998, the New York art scene’s crème de la crème gathered for a party at Jeff Koons’ studio. David Bowie played host, and while the art crowd’s Who’s Who mingled over sofas and cocktails, the mastermind behind what was (maybe over-zealously) dubbed “the greatest art hoax in history” prowled the party’s perimeters. It was the key event to launch an elaborate practical joke created by Bowie and his friend, the Scottish novelist William Boyd, the multi-award-winning author of numerous novels, most famously “Any Human Heart.” Bowie and Boyd met while the two members of the Modern Painters magazine’s editorial board met and hit it quickly. Both were outsiders in the sense that, as a rock star and a star novelist, they were art lovers but not directly involved in the art world. They bounced the idea of introducing a fictitious artist to the magazine after a meeting in 1998. Boyd developed a fictitious history of a “lost American artist” by Nat Tate’s name rolling with this idea.

Boyd developed a complete background for Tate with a novelist’s flair: An orphan born in New Jersey in 1928, adopted by a Long Island family, sent to an art school and established in Greenwich Village in the 1950s. Tate met Picasso and Braques in France, but rather than inspiration, this triggered self-doubt. When Tate returned to New York, he burned most of his work. Abuse of substances and depression led to his suicide on 12 January 1960, when he was only 31 years old. It was a dramatic story, but one in contact with art history, which unfortunately is full of tragic stories about early deaths, from Giorgione and Raphael to Basquiat and beyond. The lack of documentation about Tate’s life and the scarcity of surviving works also made it convenient. But it was easy to come up with the story. It was much more difficult to build physical evidence to support the story.

In a recent issue of “The Journal of Art Crime,” an article by Charlotte Rebecca Britton entitled “Forging a Double Life: Creating an Artist for the purpose of fraud” examined an unusual phenomenon: “An artist created for the purpose of promoting falsified art.” This is such an elaborate con that it has rarely been practiced, but her article (particularly impressive when one considers that she recently graduated from the ARCA Pos)

Bowie and Boyd decided to publish a lavish monograph about the artist in order to make the story truly credible. Going to Germany with a publisher made it more difficult for the English-speaking public to ask questions. The friends revealed the details, filled the book with plausible footnotes, and selected historical photographs of Nat Tate and his circle. Boyd, an amateur artist, even created some pieces that Nat Tate’s work features in the catalogue. Bowie and Boyd recruited some celebrity colleagues, including Gore Vidal and Picasso’s biographer John Richardson, who were on the joke to offer bonafides and blurbs for the book cover. Bowie also quoted: “The great sadness of this quiet and moving monograph is that the most profound fear of the artist -that God will make you an artist, but only a mediocre artist -did not apply to Nat Tate in retrospect.”

The April Fools’ Day party in 1998 was officially the launch of “Nat Tate: An American Artist, 1928-1960,” released as Bowie’s own publishing house’s first book, 21. Bowie read excerpts from the book and a British journalist, David Lister-who was also on the joke-moved among the guests and initiated talks about Tate, predicting his comments on the assumption that the party-goers had heard about Tate before that night. Some of them seemed to have -some guests could even remember attending Tate’s exhibits in the 1950s in New York. This is the suggestive power.

This event was so successful that a London book release party was scheduled for the following week, but Lister was a little too happy with the proceedings. He broke The Independent’s hoax story before the London art scene could pull the wool over his eyes.

This story of a “forged artist” is not suitable for crime history, as no crime has been committed. Nobody was defrauded-nobody lost money. It was an elaborate practical joke, but Boyd felt that it made a good point about the art world’s naïveté. The only kink in the scheme was Lister’s article, as Boyd and Bowie intended the hoax to be drawn out, perhaps with an exhibit of Tate’s remaining work in a major museum, and only to be revealed further down the line. “It’s a little fable,” he wrote, “particularly relevant now, when almost overnight, people become art celebrities.”

She notes in Britton’s essay that the practical joke of Nat Tate provides a useful roadmap for how some of the forgers of criminal artists falsified our impressions of history to profit. Appropriating quotes from famous figures gives the impression of veracity -if someone like John Richardson, Picasso’s leading authority, says Tate was a great artist, there is a lot of pressure from peers to agree. Seeing is believing, and the inclusion of photographs and actual works of art (whether they have anything to do with the subject) helps reassure readers, as does the presence of footnotes-which no one is concerned about checking whether a) they refer to real publications, or b) if they refer to real publications, whether the referenced sources have anything to do with the subject in question. Reference evidence seems to be sufficient to satisfy almost everyone, as few bother to check the evidence referenced, to see if it is actually related to the story at hand.

While Boyd and Bowie didn’t want to take advantage of their hoax, it catapulted Boyd from a well-considered, award-winning novelist into the status of a celebrity speaking show. And while they did not intend to make money from the works in question, a November 2011 auction at Sotheby’s London sold a “rare surviving drawing from Tate’s Bridge Series, Bridge No. 114, purchased for 7250 pounds. The profits went to a charity.

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