The Sin of Mislabeling

This article contains my thoughts on a quote I see from time to time in literature about forgeries. I offer my opinions about the merit and meaning of the quote and also my investigation into the history of the quote. If you have any information that I’m lacking, please send it my way by commenting on this article or sending me an email.

The Quote

“It is indeed an error to collect a forgery but it is a sin to stamp a genuine piece with the seal of falsehood!”
– maybe Max J. Friedländer


This quote was made in reference to curating an art collection but it can also be applied to the world of literature, which is where my interest mainly rests. Fundamentally it is commenting on the pitfalls of mislabeling. For some reason unknown to me, the author of the quote held labeling a genuine piece as a fake to be a more serious error than labeling a fake piece as genuine. Perhaps it is because a fake is meant to deceive, and so being deceived just means it served its purpose well. However, scholars are not suppose to label genuine pieces as fakes, and hence this is worse. In the end, these actions are incredibly similar. Both label something as that which it is not.


I think the idea of the quote here is to exercise caution when casting judgement on the authenticity of a piece of art or literature, or even interpretation. I think it’s meant to encourage people to be critical in their assessments, to not dismiss legitimate evidence away with the wave of a hand, and to be careful not to accept forgeries as authentic. This encouragement is valuable because accepting mislabeled specimens as if they were not mislabeled causes many issues, especially in historical investigation, understanding, and writing.


In the words of Wolfgang Felton, “…nichts ist leichter, als den zu verfuhren, der verzweifelt darauf wartet, verfuhrt zu werden” (“nothing is easier than to seduce those who are desperately waiting to be seduced”).[5, p.359] This is another good quote to keep in mind while engaging in literary studies. Many poorly executed literary forgeries have passed as authentic for no better reason than naivety on the part of those who accepted them. This isn’t to say that “playing hard to get” is a surefire way to avoid any or all unwanted interactions, but it can help provide a basis for discretion so as to not step on one of the many still concealed yet active landmines.


Oscar White Muscarella mentions this quote, albeit indirectly, during a critique of those who defend the purchasing of forgeries.[6, p.8] I think he argues that this idea was used to dismiss the seriousness of purchasing of, and hence supporting the creation of, forgeries. This being done so that the perpetuators of the idea could continue to more easily sell off their own forged creations.


The quote is often attributed to Max Friedländer but, in what I see as a bout of irony, doubts have been raised about this attribution. The contestant is Martin Lerner. Who really said it first? Or at all? I have explored some of the possible answers to these questions.

Bird’s Eye View

Here are some of the key figures relevant to this discussion accompanied by a chronology of the dispute.

Key Figures:

Max Friedländer (1867-1958) – possible originator

John Rewald (1912-1994) – possible translator from German to English

Thomas Hoving (1931-2009) – popularizer, claimed Max said it

Martin Lerner (1936-present?) – possible originator

Wolfgang Felton (alive?) – claimed Martin said it

1968: Hoving claimed Friedländer was the original source of the quote.

2004: Findlay claimed the English quote was Rewald’s translation of Friedländer’s original.

2009: Felton claimed Lerner was the original source of the quote.

The Dispute

Hoving (1968)

I currently don’t know where or when or if Max Friedländer ever said this. The earliest source I found for the quote is Thomas Hoving’s “The Game of Duplicity”, published in 1968.[1] This source is cited often but, unfortunately, no citation was given for anyone who might have wanted to know where Max said such a thing.

Findlay (2004)

I kept searching and found that in Chapter 5 of “The Expert Versus the Object”, published by Oxford University Press in 2004, Michael Findlay mentioned that the quote was John Rewald’s translation of what Max Friedländer had said, but again, no citation was provided. I tried to find where John said this but met no success. Michael appears to me to be the only person who has noted John as the translator so far.

I reached out to Michael to ask him where he learned this and he got back to me before the end of the night saying that he was fairly certain it was in Rewald’s “introduction to the Cezanne Watercolors catalogue raisonne” and that he could check tomorrow. Michael was very generous with his help and did end up checking and getting back to me the following day, but he said no citation was found. He ended up reviewing my investigation into this in the state it was in when I published it on May 18th, 2021 and he said that he was fascinated by how deep I had dug into this.

I think he was referring to Rewald’s “Paul Cézanne : The Watercolors : A Catalogue Raisonné” (1983). If this is the proper reference, given its date (1983), and without further information, it is possible that John got the quote from Thomas (1968).

Rambach (2017)

In “Notes on the gold coinage of Aemilian”, published in 2017, Hadrien Rambach, in a footnote about Thomas Hoving’s 1968 quote, expressed his belief that this quote was most likely apocryphal, or, in other words, of doubtful authenticity. Hadrien gave a quote in German attributed to Martin Lerner and cited page 101 of Wolfgang Felton’s “Die Sammlerfalle” (2009). The quote he gave is:

“Es ist ein Kunstfehler, eine falsche Skulptur als echt zu akzeptieren, aber es ist eine Sünde, eine echte Skulptur als falsch zu bezeichnen.”

Hadrien did not present his argument as to why the quote was probably apocryphal or why it was probable that Martin was the true source.

Felton (2009)

This quote in German is basically the same as the English one in question. I got Wolfgang’s book on Kindle and confirmed the accuracy of Hadrian’s footnote (aside from the page number which I was not able to confirm because the page numbers on the Kindle version were an absolute mess, having the quote beginning on page 792 and continuing onto the next page that was marked as 809). Wolfgang provided more information about Martin’s quote by saying that it was originally made during a lecture on “Responsibility and Connoisseurship”. He also mentioned that mislabeling happens all too often and that there are a multitude of examples.

Final Comments

For Martin Lerner to have been the real source of the quote, his lecture must have been given before February of 1968, when Thomas Hoving’s work was published. This is within the realm of possibility. Martin got his postgraduate from the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University in 1965, was an assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara from 1965-1966, and was the assistant curator of Oriental Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art from 1966-1972.[3]

However, Max Friedländer already had an established career in the field of art before Martin was even born. Without knowing the context of Martin’s lecture, it is possible that he was quoting or paraphrasing Max’s original statement. Again, without more evidence, Wolfgang might have misremembered who gave the lecture, or the context in which the statement was delivered, as he published his book at least 50 years after the supposed event.

Wolfgang Felton (no clue on age) and Martin Lerner (1936-present?) could both still be alive but I have found close to nothing on either of them. I would reach out to them to see if they had more information on that lecture and the context of the quote. It’s possible that Martin told Wolfgang about the lecture because they did know each other and even published a book together in 1988, “Thai and Cambodian Sculpture From the 6th to the 14th Centuries”. Given that Wolfgang’s age is unknown, it’s possible that he could have attended the lecture himself.

Thomas Hoving (1931-2009) was Director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art from 1967-1977. Martin Lerner was reportedly the Vice Chairman in Charge of Far Eastern Art at the MET from 1972-1975. These dates overlap and so I would not be surprised if Thomas and Martin knew each other.

Given the state of this case, I think the originator of the quote is undetermined. Max and Martin are the two current suspects. It either originated with Max at an unspecified time prior to 1958 or with Martin during a lecture delivered at an unspecified time prior to 1968.

Also, something to keep in mind about this is how easy it is to cast doubt upon the origin of a quote. This one in question here is from about 50 years ago. I often wonder how much more difficult it is to determine the origins of quotes from hundreds of years ago.



[1] – Thomas P. F. Hoving. “The Game of Duplicity.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art Bulletin, vol. 26, no. 6, Feb., 1968, pp. 241–246. JSTOR, Accessed 17 May 2021.

[2] – Hadrien Rambach, « Notes on the gold coinage of Aemilian », in Bulletin du Cercle d’Etudes Numismatiques, vol. 54.3 (September-December 2017), pp. 2-33. Accessed 17 May 2021.

[3] – Prabook: Martin Lerner. Accessed 17 May 2021.

[4] – Vincent Noce. “The Cambodian art smuggling scandal that’s ready to erupt” (31 Aug. 2013). Accessed 17 May 2021.

[5] – Wolfgang Felton. “Die Sammlerfalle” (Munich, 2009). Accessed 17 May 2021.

[6] – Muscarella, Oscar White. The Lie Became Great (Studies in the Art and Archaeology of Antiquity). Brill, 2000. Accessed 27 May 2021.

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