How To Steal A Million (1966): The Obsession with Authenticity in the Art World

How To Steal A Million (1966), starring Audrey Hepburn and Peter O’Toole, is a wonderful movie about romance, adventure, art, and authenticity. The jokes are well-timed and O’Toole and Hepburn play together so well on-screen it’s a sheer joy to watch. What I like the best about the film though (other than the self-referential jokes about Hepburn’s Givenchy clothes), is that it got me thinking about some really interesting arguments around the issue of authenticity in the art world.

For those of you who have yet to experience the joy and glamour that is How To Steal A Million, here’s a quick plot sum-up: Hepburn’s father, Bonnet, owns a world-class, rare and expensive art collection — that is entirely comprised howtostealamilliongunof fakes that he or his grandfather forged. When he donates his grandfather’s supreme forgery of the Cellini Venus, the museum prepares to perform tests on it to determine its authenticty. In pops resourceful Hepburn, who hires O’Toole (whom she believes to be an art thief) to steal the Venus so that her family’s name is saved from falling into ill-repute in the art-world, because if the Venus were to be determined to be a fake, the Bonnet collection would become a disgrace. A regular comedy of errors with one of the most memorable romantic meetings I’ve ever watched on film.

Aside from that, what the film highlights is that the art world is obsessed with authenticity. I mean, obsessed. Owning an original Van Gogh bestows prestige because it is was touched by Van Gogh himself. It is the original, and everything that follows is just a copy, which cannot have the same prestige as the original. Okay, fair enough.

But here’s the catch: authenticity doesn’t, or shouldn’t, actually matter. In a large part, art has been regarded as a sacred practice, which is why the majority of art history focuses on religious paintings and works steeped in Roman Catholicism. It speaks to a time and a place that we cannot retrieve, while at the same time following Hegel’s idea that true aesthetics attempt to elucidate or evoke the an unattainable essence or quality. Art, in this vein, functions as a road to what we cannot ourselves grasp, and this is the motivating desire behind owning an authentic work of art: it’s a bridge to that artist. That, and it is profoundly vain (bragging rights, any one?)

Now, enter our contemporary society and the fact that we can create a seeming endless amount of copies and prints of any piece of art that ever existed. While this appears to be a sure way to deface the value of art, it actually brings with it complete democracy in criticism and creation. Art is no longer an elitist sacred object; it now belongs to everyone. It’s why we can study video games as art and talk about photography: once we get away from the notion of an art’s sacred aura (to use Benjamin’s word), the playing field becomes leveled.  And this is a good thing.

Think about it: the aura of a work is one that we project ourselves anyways. Everyone in the film reacts to the Venus as if it is the real thing. They have the same feelings, feel the same awe. But this would be destroyed if it were found out to be a fake. Why? It still instills the same feelings, inspires the same awe. The only thing that has changed is the perception of the creation. Even knowing it’s a fake, we can still enjoy the craft, the skill, the emotions evoked. Why else do people enjoy having prints of famous paintings in their homes? My mom had many classic Monet prints around the house when I was growing up, and it was because she admired the image and the calm it made her feel.

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Also, imitation is impressive. In all my practical studio art courses learning starts with imitation. Same with creative writing courses. And you know what? Forging a competent and believable imitation is a remarkable feat and one that requires an admirable amount of skill. To passably imitate a Van Gogh involves a level of skill, study, and knowledge that is extensive, calculated and rare. Don’t believe me? Think about the practice of restoration. Most of the notable classics have been touched up and restored, meaning another artist has been brought in and added their own element to the work. True authenticity is impossible and a goal we shouldn’t even be trying to achieve. Not anymore. What I love about art is that it can evoke a feeling, a thought, all to move the viewer, and this effect can happen even with prints and imitations. What about literature? We read copies, but that never changes our experience with the text and the sentiments behind it. So why is the visual different from the literary in this sense?

The desire to own authentic pieces comes off as a silly obsession in the film, too. When O’Toole offers to sell the Cellini Venus to Leland after it became public knowledge that it was stolen property, he asks: “Why do you want to own something you can’t ever display?” Leland, with what can only be described as hilariously exaggerated lust in his eyes, says that he wants it to take out and look at by himself, for his own pleasure and knowledge. It is portrayed as a covetous and foolish desire, a desire so profound that Leland calls off his engagement to Hepburn — all because of the idea of the aura of art. What’s notable with this example, too, is that the aura can be falsified: it doesn’t matter that it’s not really Cellini’s Venus, because Leland just has to be told it is to feel so deeply for it. Without any outstanding differences, what’s the damage?

I mean this in all earnest: what is the harm? Yes, Leland is duped, but O’Toole doesn’t actually make him pay for it. All Leland has to do is break off his engagement with Hepburn, which he does all too willingly, showing he’s not even the right kind of husband for her, am I right? Leland gets to bask in the Venus’s aura, which is what he really wants. Literally everyone in the film is happy. But it’s essentially this basking that is proved to be foolish in the film, not the act of forgery itself. Bonnet is portrayed as quite comical also, but we feel sympathy for him: we don’t want him to be exposed, not really.

The movie concludes with O’Toole informing Bonnet that one of them is retiring: either O’Toole is no longer going to expose fakes or Bonnet is going to stop forging and committing fraud in the art world. The father indicates his obligation to quit forging, and contents himself to see his daughter happy and in love. For about three whole minutes. The movie ends with Bonnet receiving a visitor, with the music and the knowing looks exchanged between O’Toole and Hepburn indicating that Bonnet will never give up his tricks. O’Toole seemingly accepts this as he drives off with the love of his life, showing that his pursuit of true authenticity in the art world isn’t worth it to lose love. Because other than basking in the self-perceived aura of the work the idea of authenticity is one predicated on elitism and a false notion of connection between object and creator.

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Now, don’t get me wrong. I love art galleries and getting to see a Dali painting in person at the Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow was definitely one of the highlights of my life as an art student. But that was because I was able to see the brush strokes and connect with the painting on a technical level. The emotions, thoughts, and reactions I had to Dali’s work was the same as when I saw his prints. In fact, I actually connect more with prints than I do with originals, because I’m always too caught up in the moment. I fall victim to my own perceptions of the connection with the artist, but I also realize that this all internal and based on my own desires, rather than being inherent to the painting.

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2 Comments on “How To Steal A Million (1966): The Obsession with Authenticity in the Art World”

  1. I’ve seen this movie floating around in Netflix Instant, guess I’ll need to give it a shot.

    No doubt there is an over-valuing of precious original art works, but I do understand that high-level collectors are in it for the investment just as much as the love of the work. That said, I think the danger of devaluation that you mention is real, and has wide consequences. I’m mainly referring to digital art reproduction that removes physicality from the equation. At least a print of a painting still has its own unique relationship to the body of the viewer, though potentially different than the original, especially if you know the print is a copy. The print is, after all, lying to you on a material level.

    Speaking more toward contemporary art, I consume the majority of artwork that I see through digital images of installation shots of artworks. In many ways (having documented my own work) it’s way easier to make an installation shot look impressive that it is to make an impressive physical thing. The ability to view images of exhibitions all around the world is a great democratizing power, yes, but if that experience goes on to substitute in-person patronage on the local level then then that is a type of experience that is lost.

    It’s dangerous because copies are another step removed from their creators and toward cheap commodifcation. For famous historical art pieces, this isn’t an issue (except maybe for the super-rich), but for contemporary artists the image of the work is king, nevermind the original object or the human being behind it. To make a name for yourself as an artist, you may need to be a good painter, but you have to be a great photographer (or have the money/connections to pay for one).

  2. loudlysilent says:

    This is one of my favorite movies of all time! It really showcased Audrey Hepburn’s brilliance as an actress in her later years. I sympathize with the psychology of wanting to own originals, even if unable to display them. There’s definitely a joy in the possession that is distinct from the joy of others knowing about it.


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