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Opposed to anything phony? Get real Essay: Imitation is the sincerest form of forgery. And we've got the papers to prove it.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Nobody likes a phony. At least people always say that -- and vehemently, too, as if to assert their own authenticity.

Yet many of those same people routinely choose the fake over the true, in matters large and small. They lace their coffee with ersatz sugar. They wear polyester shirts. They cover their houses with vinyl siding that's textured to look like wood.

Not all fakery is inimical. And as with most other things, fakery has its own range of quality. All the products mentioned above can claim some advantage over the materials they substitute for. They defeat fat, wrinkles in shirts and trousers, and banish the bother of painting the house.

Those are all advantages of convenience. That seems a safe assumption, since nobody ever tries to assert that Sweet 'n Low tastes better than sugar, or that polyester shirts and vinyl siding are more attractive than the real McCoy.

Convenience has a strong allure. It often overrides considerations of genuine pleasure, though, admittedly, for some people to be able to do something easily is a pleasure.

For instance, a neighbor recently bought a gas grill. Now he can cook his burgers in less than half the time it took when he used charcoal, and he likes that. They don't taste as good, but he won't admit it.

(Actually, nobody ever said gas grills make the food taste better, and many of the same people who gush over them today are those who used to go on and on about that special flavor charcoal imparted to what they were cooking. But they don't bring that up anymore.)

Some people can distinguish between artificial sweeteners and natural sugar, butter from even the best margarines, and it matters to them. They want the real.

Others don't care that vinyl siding will not weather and enhance the look of a house over the years the way wood can. For them, such aesthetic progressions are unimportant.

Then there are those who have persuaded themselves that merely having the inclination for the natural -- fibers, foods, etc. -- suggests an elevated appreciation of life, and that people who choose fake things are without taste. This kind of thinking has the aroma of snobbery about it.

Fakes can cost more, be more efficient, and even more artful than their corresponding originals. It depends on how you look at it. What is a still life? A rendering of a peach on a table that never rots. It is an imitation of something. But then bacteria do their work on the peach, and the picture becomes the original.

Some portraits, which are replicas of human beings, reveal more of the subject than the living person does. It depends on the artist.

Someone once said that all the products of civilization, since they are transformed from more elemental materials, are artificial. Thus, as an idea, a shirt made of madras isn't much different from one of polyester. Both are derived from materials that come from the earth: cotton and petroleum.

You choose which one you'd rather wear.

A late friend collected ancient ceramic art from Latin America. She had a rule that usually gave her a good idea whether an object was genuinely pre-Colombian or of more recent manufacture. The "real" piece, she said, was likely to cost less. The fake has in it an investment in labor that has to be recouped in the price.

"A found object doesn't have that," she said.

I once bought two inexpensive objects in a tiny shop. They were clay figures of angry looking little men. I had picked them out of a bin that contained many others like them, all jumbled together, covered with dust. I saw them as bookends.

As the proprietor was wrapping them in newspaper, I asked, on a whim: "They aren't real, are they?"

"Real? Of course they're real," he said. "Here they are."

"No, I mean old. Antiquities." Suddenly I felt that faint anticipatory sensation that greed often produces.

He reached under the counter and pulled up a piece of paper with a red seal on it. He wrote something on it, handed it to me, and said: "Your authentication."

Before leaving I looked over and saw a whole stack of such "authentications" under the counter.

Not so priceless

A few years later, in 1978, I went to a reception at the Baltimore Museum of Art for Vincent Price, the actor. About 25 years earlier, Price and his wife had donated six South American pre-Colombian clay vessels to the museum, and two ancient objects from North America. He was being honored for that. After a long time, one of the eight was found to be a 20th century reproduction. A fake. But in that tricky business, seven out of eight is pretty good, and little of the luster was lost from the Prices' donation.

You don't have to go far to find artful fakery. Baltimore is full of it, especially in its architecture. One of the better examples is Cardinal William Keeler's residence at Charles and Mulberry streets, behind the Basilica of the Assumption. If you think it is a dignified stone building, look closer. Actually, it is a dignified Formstone building, one of the best examples of that degraded technique so emblematic of Baltimore.

The entrance to the Polo Grill in the Colonnade Hotel on University Parkway is flanked by two columns of black marble. Only they are not of black marble: They are made of wood and painted to look like marble.

Some might think this deceitful, wood masquerading as marble. But in fact this "faux" painting, as it is called, is a traditional skill. You find it in the best of places. The Maryland Club, before it was burned out, had a lot of wooden doors with fake grain painted on. Actually, the only advantages marble and stone have over wood is they are hard and make better tombs.

Those who expect things to be as they appear will often be deceived -- but not necessarily disappointed. Such was my experience with the Belvedere Hotel.

The Belvedere is an ornament of Baltimore's skyline. Some think it is the most elegant large building in the city. The Belvedere suggests solidity and permanence. It has broad shoulders. It dominates its neighborhood. Its decoration is stylish and contributes to its presence and heft.

At least that's what I had always thought.

Some years back I was up on the Belvedere's 13th floor. This is one of the best places from which to see our town. It was a Sunday afternoon. A heavy snow had fallen the day before, but most of it had melted off the black rooftops that sweep in a jumble south toward the Washington Monument and Mount Vernon Square. The snow in the streets was no longer pristine. Charles and St. Paul were like putty-colored country roads where tractors had recently run.

Up there, looking out through the window cut into the slate of the Belvedere's sloping roof, I saw the sun shining off the carved stone pediments and frames of the great dormers, glistening on the horizontal and oblique stone moulding that runs across the top of the building and down its corners.

A common fraud

Only it wasn't stone. None of it. The paint was peeling from nearly all of these surfaces, revealing it to be tin. That's right -- tin painted and shaped to look like carved stone.

It was a disappointing discovery, and when I turned to an architect who had been involved in the building's restoration, he told me that nearly all the ornamentation above the lower levels of the building is made of ersatz materials.

He laughed, said it was typical of the architectural conventions in the early part of the century. It didn't seem to annoy him at all. But I was certain that from then on, as I drove to work down Maryland Avenue each morning, the pleasure I always took at the sight of that stately pile looming against the sky would be gone. It had been like an assurance that some things are deeply grounded in this world. Weighty. Real.

But then I had second thoughts. Then third thoughts. Before I realized it, my entire point of view had turned 180 degrees, and my appreciation of the Belvedere actually grew. It was still there, filling much of the sky. It was still a grand edifice, and an even grander artifice.

Pub Date: 8/05/96

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