The Curious Case of Karl Sim

If someone knowingly signs your name to a work that isn’t yours, and particularly if they gain an income from it, you have the law on your side.

Who is Karl Sim?

Potentially New Zealand’s most renowned art forger, Karl Sim from Mangaweka (6 Dec 1923 – 21 Oct 2013) was quite a character. When his work (copied from Master artists as an exercise) from art school was inadvertently sold as originals, he seized the opportunity and embarked on a life of forgery.

Sim forged at least 50 different artists, including many prominent New Zealand artists, Colin McCahon, Charles F Goldie, Rita Angus and Frances Hodgkins. In 1985, Sim was caught, tried, convicted, fined $1000 and punished by being made to paint the Foxton Town Hall and public toilets as part of 200 hours of community service.

It’s hard to know the financial impact his actions might have had on the value of works by the original artists, but it is likely significant, and the costs borne by any institution that would need to research and analyse one of Sim’s works to determine provenance would also be notable.

In the Copyright Act 1994, Section 102 “False Attribution” states:

A person has the right—

(a) not to have a literary, dramatic, musical, or artistic work falsely attributed to him or her as author; and

(b) not to have a film falsely attributed to him or her as director.

If someone knowingly signs your name to a work that isn’t yours, and particularly if they gain an income from it, you have the law on your side.

Sim’s life and work have inspired the wonderful Fakes and Forgeries Festival in Mangaweka, where all the work that is displayed are copycats with twists on original masterpieces, and at least two books on his life, so perhaps he, a bit of a folk hero and town celebrity, is having a posthumous laugh, while others have a chance to profit off his infamy - but legally - in the end.

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Written by Karen Workman, Kaiwhakahaere Whakapa | Creative Rights Educator

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