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October 4, 2015 | by  | in Features Splash |
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Foibles of a Foxton Forger

Sometimes for no particular reason, stories seem to find homes in the far recesses of your mind. Or maybe it’s in your imagination, and it’s being captured. Whatever the correct phraseology, there are certain stories that stick.

This isn’t a particularly profound story, but rather one that seems to have stuck with me. It’s a story about an art forger. About a man whose skill with the paintbrush matched his charm in selling. He took on many New Zealand Greats, including Frances Hodgkins, Colin McCahon, and Rita Angus. But he had a real penchant for forging the work of Charles Frederick Goldie, whose classical portraits of Māori dignitaries are some of the most valuable works in New Zealand. This man was born Karl Feodor Sim, and after being convicted for forgery he legally changed his name to Carl Feodor Goldie.

I heard about the C.F. Goldie forger for the first time when I was young, and my small child brain couldn’t quite process the story. How could somebody pretend to be someone else and use someone else’s name? My mum told me he lived in a caravan. For a long time, I filed the story away as a quirk of the small town we holidayed in, Orewa. It was perhaps one of those provincial stories that lose meaning when you take it beyond the limits of the town.

I encountered a new addition to this story a few weeks ago. I had asked to stop at “Junk ‘n’ Disorderly” in Foxton about every time we drove past it. I couldn’t resist the pun, or the opportunity to rummage. After trawling through their records and looking at the various china and retro wares, I had found some enamel plates I wanted. The walls of this shop were decorated with sketches, and sometimes letters. They were all of the same style—and all signed C.F. Goldie. One letter signs off “In praise of Stalin, Yours for the revolution. The Great Foxton original in the sky.” And several were addressed to C.F. Goldie, Orewa Post Office, Orewa Beach, North of Auckland. As I read the address I remembered we had seen him once. Mum had pointed him out as we left the supermarket in Orewa, walking ahead of us with his little dog at his feet. Mum said he always had a little dog with him, that’s how you knew it was him.

One letter signs off “In praise of Stalin, Yours for the revolution. The Great Foxton original in the sky.”

As I was buying my oh-so-rustic enamelware, I casually asked the shopkeeper about all the Goldie sketches. She told me it had been C.F. Goldie’s antique shop—C.F. Goldie the forger, of course, not the original artist—and that this shop had been the sight of many sales of his forgeries. Now the shopkeeper and her husband own the place, having bought it when it was faced with demolition. With the shop came a bountiful collection of his work and sketches, and the shop’s full name is now “Goldie’s Junk ’n’ Disorderly”, an homage to the “lovable rogue”. How did they catch wind of this story? I asked her, how did they know about the Goldie forger? She told me they first came to know of Goldie/Sim from their time in Orewa—where he spent his later life. He passed away in 2013 and the departure caused small ripples—his celebrity was enough to draw newspapers to recount it.

While he saw out his last years in Orewa, C.F. Goldie, or Karl Sim, spent most of his life in Foxton and Himitangi. Sim died in 2013 as New Zealand’s only convicted art forger. He’s an example of small town scandal, and a figure of a renegade. It’s that kind of New Zealand story that has people yarning. People would describe him as a “real character”. But in this instance, aside from the trite expression, he truly is a figure whose 15 minutes of fame has had a lasting presence in New Zealand history, perhaps because his sense of character abounds.

Journalist Tim Wilson talked with Goldie, and helped to write his book Good as Goldie. The book reads like a recorded conversation; it is true to the man’s language and follows his style of speech. It tells the story of his life—the beginnings, how he got into the business of forging, and how he managed to keep at it and active for 20 years. He recounts the drawn out trial, which ultimately saw him painting the Foxton toilets as retribution.

His childhood sounds like the kind that your crazy uncle would wax on about all night at Christmas; full of laments about the “good old days”, when rules were fast and loose, and consequences weren’t ever realised. He was a product of a different time and different New Zealand. He lived on a farm, which the family affectionately called “Chaos Farm”, which was first a chicken farm, and then later became a winery. He and his family were raised diehard and devout communists—or “commos” as he puts it again and again. Their mantel was a grotto of Stalin portraits and Hammer and Sickle paraphernalia. They called one other “Comrade” and saluted the Red Flag.  

Their views were so extreme that his father was kicked out of the local communist chapter due to divergent opinions on their stance on war. Not a man to go quietly, his dad started a different group, The New Zealand Bolshevik Party. Sim helped his dad make and distribute the manifesto that accompanied the group, which was basically a call to arms, inciting a civil war. Extremism ran in their family; it was Karl’s nephew Marx Jones who flour bombed the pitch during the final game of the 1981 Springbok tour.

Sim followed in his father’s footsteps, spending his life falling into work and opportunities. “I did bits and pieces of things; that’s the way you worked in those days”. His time in the army taught him to “divine” and then make wells—there was a demand for this in the rural towns. There was also the wine shop the family had in Himitangi, which was left to Karl to run once his father died. Karl Sim got a Real Estate license, as well as a Second Hand Dealer license, and an Auctioneer’s license. Sim was a sort of living definition of a jack-of-all-trades. He never missed an opportunity to squeeze a little extra out of people, as long as it wasn’t hurting anyone. Even with his divining he was creative—“I used to charge so much a foot. I bent the truth a bit. I’d tell them I went down 50 feet, but might have gone down 25.”

Karl Sim’s political views were expressly against capitalism and commercialism, but like his father, he believed in working within the system and undermining it as much as possible along the way. His forgery was financial opportunism; but on another level, it worked to undercut the art institutions, which at the time were booming. The trade off, in his mind, is that he was generous, always lending and loaning money when people needed—and he accepted that sometimes he got paid back but mostly he didn’t.

Sim tried to make it as an artist himself; he had learnt to paint and draw at school. He wasn’t bad, I suppose, but not a natural. But no one was interested in work by Karl Sim.  

He was in his 40s when it all really kicked off. “I didn’t come to forging,” he said. “It came to me.” He told Wilson of how a catalogue appeared with several drawings he had done at school—except they were being passed off as early sketches belonging to artists such as C.F. Goldie and Velazquez. He was shocked; someone had pilfered a shoebox of drawings from his childhood and added fake signatures to sell them. Of course, none of them sold, but Sim now saw a perfect opportunity.

His operation lasted around two decades, working mostly out of the Foxton shop; it was a prime spot for those travelling to and fro along State Highway One. Those rich city slickers were his ideal customers, thanks to their eagerness to score a hidden gem from the ignorant dealers in the provinces. As a forger he was skilled enough, able to adopt stylistic traits, but through and through his work was nothing like the artists he was faking. However, he managed to convince enough people over a long period of time and had many returning clients. His approach was varied, from convincing sketches and drawings, to framed oil paintings. Sim managed to move quite a few works over the years, so something must have been working.

Those rich city slickers were his ideal customers, thanks to their eagerness to score a hidden gem from the ignorant dealers in the provinces.

But it wasn’t down to the painting alone. Sim knew that signatures were the most important detail. He bought a book of signatures to learn from—a book he says ought to be titled The Forger’s Bible. To untrained eyes, small stylistic inconsistencies can pass unobserved, but Sim knew that the signature is less forgiving.

Sim is firm in his position that “I never copied a work in my life… One rule I followed was that I would do works in the style of an artist rather than just repeat what they’d done.” This, I imagine, is Forgery 101. You can’t get away as easily with producing duplicates of existing art works, unless they have been missing.

As Roger Blackley, an associate professor of Art History at Victoria University, puts it, “[w]hat a work of art has to have, even if it’s been lost, is provenance… so you know these fake works of art have equally faked provenance”. Provenance is where the painting has come from—who owned it, who sold it, who did what with it. It’s like a living record of it. There are certain emblems of authenticity that you look for, as well as a connection to the artist’s life. Sim reckons that “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.” He would read up about the artist’s life, and would often draw or paint scenes of areas they visited, or portraits of people they may have encountered, and generate a story around how it made its way to him (perhaps it was gifted to someone’s Aunt and then sold to someone who passed it to him). It was a very important part of being convincing.

In many ways, his proliferation of forged works was down to how convincing he could be in person. There was an ease to his charm, perhaps, or maybe people are more ready to believe and trust a mad commie who is selling antiques in Himitangi or Foxton.

The other important aspect to the grand scheme was wine. Sim’s shop in Foxton doubled as a wine store, where he sold wine that had been made at their Himitangi farm, and it gave the whole occasion an injection of fluidity. Turns out, it was also useful for the artwork themselves.

“The most magical ingredient… was piss,” Sim said. “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.”

Along with the piss, he would ensure the paint he used was old and not acrylic. And sometimes, the artworks would spend a day or two in the sun to get cracks through the paint. Selling piss-soaked works would have made the con all the sweeter.

When I think of the moments Sim caught customers in a web of lies, I imagine his way of speaking in earnest colloquialisms and trusting intelligence. I picture him punching his fist in the air when customers walked out with one of his fakes, and perhaps evening saluting a picture of Stalin. It was a game of fools—the customers thinking “how is it so cheap, he mustn’t realise the worth” and Sim thinking “suckers” as they scored their “deal”.

“He didn’t do it for money or anything,” his brother told The New Zealand Herald in 2013, after Sim’s death. “He did it to beat the establishment—because arty people can get a bit snooty. But beating them was his main aim.”

By the 1980s, the whole operation began to catch up with itself. There had been an over-saturation—too many New Zealand greats had had unheard-of art works turn up in Foxton. As he would have said, the bloody demons were onto me.

“He didn’t do it for money or anything. He did it to beat the establishment—because arty people can get a bit snooty. But beating them was his main aim.”

The courts gathered exhaustive evidence and witnesses to convict him; his lawyer’s defence was that the law was made for “documents”, and therefore did not include artworks. The trial dragged out over a year or so. He writes, in his book, that during the whole thing he only felt bad once: when his mate’s sister took to the stand, recalling how they had scraped together money to buy pieces off Sim. “I felt responsible… she was understandably rather bitter towards me.”

Despite Sim’s lack of intentional ill-will, it is the very nature of forgery that people will fall victim to the con. And not intending to commit certain illegal acts can only forgive you so far. For some, the works they purchased from Sim, under the guise of authenticity, had been imbued with significance. Blackley recalls one piece of evidence in the trial—a portrait by Sim impersonating a Goldie, depicting “the ancestor of some people who had raised money and welcomed this drawing onto the Marae”. The piece was then seized by the police as evidence; the importance it had garnered was corrupted.

The trial resulted in a guilty verdict. Sim was ordered to pay a fine, and carry out several hours of community service—including painting the Foxton public toilets, where his artwork still remains. The day after he was convicted, he changed his name by deed poll to Carl Feodor Goldie, allowing him to continue signing as C.F. Goldie.

Even after Goldie was exposed, many of those who bought from him may not have cared about the authenticity of the work. Who else would know it was a fake? They’re as much a part of the con as Goldie. But for some, it must have carried a heavier sting. Think of his mate’s sister, and how hard she’d worked to get it, only to discover it wasn’t what was promised. In this instance, the subversive scheme had hit the wrong target.

Roger Blackley sort of rolls his eyes when talking about the conviction. “He is the only convicted art forger, but whether or not he was a forger in a sense is up for debate,” Blackley told me. “I think he’s more a performance artist of forgery… His celebrity based status as a forger is totally out of sync with the modus operandi of a successful forger.”

As it happens there is a lot of space in the market for “fakes”. Each work that Sim forged, whether as Goldie, or as Frances Hodgkins, or Charles Heaphy, now carries a different weighting and worth. It’s a work of the only convicted art forger in New Zealand, and could be worth a pretty penny. But his work now exists in a paradox—its value derives from Sim’s role as a forger, an identity undone simply by knowing it. It’s an impossibility—the “known forger”.

I tried to get in touch with the owners of Goldie’s Junk ’n’ Disorderly again, to hear more from their side and tap into the Foxton rumour mill. But they directed me to the book. I can understand why; the book reads like a conversation, like sitting with him for an afternoon at the local pub and hearing his life story. The tale of a man whose life fell into place, and who always had a penchant for sticking it to The Man, whichever man it may have been at the time.

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