Forged antiquities and art history

An 8 foot tall forged terracotta statue, alleged to have been Etruscan. Displayed at the Met for decades. Notice it cannot bear its own weight.

I cannot speak to broader trends among art curators but I think it is a mistake to blame broad trends in the field of art history for the existence of forgeries. They have always been present, and likely always will be in some form. Failing to conduct a rigorous study of the history of an object should have course be criticized, but that kind of unfortunate mistake should be contrasted when an object which might have a good history free of the potential of looting. This happens for antiquities, works of art, and many other objects. Some forgeries are made maliciously to fool, other works of art which are inauthentic appear absent any wrongdoing of the creator.

In fact the shaming of institutions which takes place when a forgery or fake surfaces has a number of unfortunate consequences.

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60 Minutes Reports on the Knoedler art fraud scandal

This forged work forgot to spell Jackson Pollock's last name with a 'c'
This forged work forgot to spell Jackson Pollock’s last name with a ‘c’

In case you haven’t seen it yet, 60 minutes examined the rapid fall of the Knoedler Art Gallery in 2011. The piece does a thorough job of giving background on the Knoedler Gallery, the role of the Cataloge Raisonne, and scientific testing.

I found particularly interesting this exchange between Anderson Cooper, and Domenico de Sole, one of the collectors, and the chairman of Sotheby’s which underscores the role of reputation and trust in the art market:

Anderson Cooper: Do you feel you did enough due diligence as a buyer?

Domenico de Sole: My due diligence was to go to the best, most prominent gallery in the United States dealing with a person with a stellar reputation, and pay a price that was reasonable, it was fair.

Domenico de Sole was the person who bought that $8 million fake Mark Rothko and told us he believes Knoedler Gallery and its President Ann Freedman either knew or should have known that this lucrative collection could not possibly be genuine. Greg Clarick is his attorney.

Greg Clarick: The red flags began with the notion that Glafira Rosales, who was an unknown person to Knoedler, who Knoedler never investigated, came in and she started delivering what turned out to be an endless stream of never-before-seen paintings was enough to raise a huge red flag.

Anderson Cooper: Strangers don’t walk off the street into a gallery saying that they have access to a never-before-seen collection of some of the greatest masterpieces

Greg Clarick: That’s right. Second, the works had no provenance.

Anderson Cooper: No chain, no history?

Greg Clarick: They had no history. They had no documents.

Anderson Cooper: So there was no evidence these paintings had ever been painted by the artists?

Greg Clarick: That’s correct.

Not only that, there were no bills of sale, no insurance records, no shipping documents, and no museum exhibitions for any of the paintings. Greg Clarick told us the gallery had motivation to overlook the paintings’ shortcomings.

Greg Clarick: Over the period of this fraud, Knoedler sold these paintings for about $67 million. Knoedler made over $40 million in profit from selling these paintings. And at the same time, Knoedler made essentially no money at all from selling other paintings.

Supermarket clerk or principessa? Leonardo or Greenhalgh?

"Profile of a Young Fiancee"  Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Profile_of_a_Young_Fiancee_-_da_Vinci.jpg#/media/File:Profile_of_a_Young_Fiancee_-_da_Vinci.jpg
“La Bella Principessa”

Scott Reyburn aptly summarizes the range of possibilities with respect to the controversial work of art known as “La Bella Principessa” in his report for the New York Times:

By various accounts, then, it would seem that “La Bella Principessa” is either a real Leonardo worth tens of millions; a 19th-century Italian Renaissance style drawing worth tens of thousands; or a modern fake worth hardly anything at all.

The Sunday Times has published a report that claims Shaun Greenhalgh, a prolific art forger who has fooled the Art Institute Chicago, the British Museum, and countless others may be the creator of this work. He claims he created the work in the 1970s, depicting a “bossy” supermarket clerk named Alison.

Doubts should now increase as to whether this is an authentic Leonardo da Vinci. It was purchased by a Canadian, Peter Silverman, who has been trying to demonstrate the authenticity of the work. It seems the work was made on vellum, but may have been done on the wrong side. The art critic Waldemar Januszczak, part of a consortium publishing a limited run of Greenhalgh’s memoirs, writes in the Sunday Times that Greenhalgh “bought an old land deed that had been written on vellum, and finding the ‘good’ side to be too ink stained to use turned it over and drew on the rough side instead, as Leonardo would never have done”.

For now Silverman will keep the work of art at the Geneva freeport. In an attempt to burnish the reputation of the work, he claims he will offer 10,000 pounds to Greenhalgh if he could reproduce the work on vellum, and criticized Januszczak as “shameless”.

  1. Scott Reyburn, An Art World Mystery Worthy of Leonardo, The New York Times, Dec. 4, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/12/07/arts/international/an-art-world-mystery-worthy-of-leonardo.html.
  2. Josh Boswell and Tim Rayment, “It”s not a da Vinci, it’s Sally from the Co-op’, The Sunday Times, Nov. 29, 2015, http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/news/uk_news/Arts/article1639169.ece .

A Polke Painting Discovered in Thrift Shop?

A detail from a painting which may be by Sigmar Polke, via ABC News
A detail from a painting which may be by Sigmar Polke, via ABC News

A thrift store called The Guild Shop in Houston may have sold an original work by Sigmar Polke in May. It had been sitting in the shop for 100 days until Ray Riley bought the work for $90.

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“Beltracchi’s forgeries have made the covers of Christie’s catalogs”

This work sold for 7 million euros in 2006, and is a fake
This work sold for 7 million euros in 2006, and is a fake

The art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi was the subject of a lengthy 60 minutes profile last night. It was a reminder of how little safeguards protect genuine works of art from  forgeries. Fakes defraud the public and dilute an artist’s body of work. When a staged photo counts as the ‘gold standard’ for provenance, the art trade is in serious trouble.

Beltracchi is reported to have been the most ‘successful’ art forger in recent history. He was caught and prosecuted by German authorities. Titanium White was able to do what the art trade could and would not: determine a fake from the real thing. Here’s an interview with forensic authenticator Jamie Martin:

Bob Simon: You actually take little pieces off of the painting?

Jamie Martin: We take very little pieces. We take only the minimum amount that’s required. Smaller than the width of a human hair.

He uses what is called Raman spectroscopy, which can help detect historically inaccurate pigments. That’s what cut Beltracchi’s career short.  He was sentenced to six years in a German prison. His wife, Helene, to four. But the chaos they wrought has not been undone.  Now, galleries and auction houses who vouched for his forgeries have been sued by the collectors who bought them.

Why then was Beltracchi so forthcoming to 60 minutes producers?

 And no one disputes that they are awfully good.  Beautiful. This $7 million dollar fake Max Ernst is being shipped back to New York.  Its owner decided to keep it even after it had been exposed as a fake. He said it’s one of the best Max Ernsts he’s ever seen.

Beltracchi spent a year and a half in this grim penitentiary, but is now allowed to spend many days at home, where he is launching a new career. Beltracchi is painting again and is signing his works Beltracchi.  He needs to get his name out there, which is probably why he agreed to talk to us. He’s lost everything is now facing multiple lawsuits totaling $27 million.

  1. Art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi’s multimillion dollar scam, http://www.cbsnews.com/news/art-forger-wolfgang-beltracchis-multimillion-dollar-scam/ (Feb 23, 2014).

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Sotheby’s Denies Chinese Scroll was Inauthentic

Signed Su Shi, this object sold at auction in September of 2013, it was billed at the sale as a masterpiece created over 1000 years ago
Signed Su Shi, this object sold at auction in September of 2013, it was billed at the sale as a masterpiece created over 1000 years ago

In September Sotheby’s sold this scroll for $8.2 million to a Shanghai businessman, Liu Yiqian. At the time of the sale the work was described as an important work which is over one-thousand years old. Perhaps one of the most important works of calligraphy, which bore seals indicated important historical figures had owned the piece.

Now it seems there are doubts. Researchers based in Shanghai have alleged that the scroll is in fact a 19th century creation. The claims of the researchers are widely reported in the Chinese press. Whether this qualifies it as a fake, a forgery, or a simple reproduction depends I suppose on the intent of the creator. Note I’ve hedged the question a bit in the title calling it ‘inauthentic’. This would have damaging consequences for Sotheby’s plans to step into the Asian art market. Reuters reports that the auction house “has sought to establish itself in China as a trustworthy seller of foreign and contemporary art, while avoiding the scandals that have hit the local auction industry. It held its first full China auction in December.”

Now Sotheby’s is aggressively defending against these allegations. No surprise given the devastating consequences this might have for the auction house just as it attempts to make strides the Asian art market, and move past the embarrassing dispute over the recently-returned looted Koh Ker statue from Cambodia.

David Barboza reports for the NY Times arts blog:

In a 14-page report, published in Chinese, Sotheby’s said it had found no evidence that the work, Gong Fu Tie, by the Song Dynasty poet Su Shi, was a forgery. The piece has long been considered one of the greatest works of calligraphy.

In a statement, Sotheby’s said it “firmly stands by” the piece as a work produced by Su Shi.

“We have published a detailed and comprehensive analysis rebutting each of the issues raised about the authenticity of the work,” the auction house said in a statement. “This report demonstrates that the brushwork of The Gong Fu Tie Calligraphy is inconsistent with that of a late copy or tracing as was alleged and is of such high quality that it could only have been created by a masterly hand using a soft brush.

Furthermore, we have established that both the seals and colophon are genuine, serving as further proof that the piece was created by Su Shi.”

The reports I have seen of Sotheby’s arguments focus on technical aspects of the object. The brushwork and other details. Nothing I have seen yet talks about the history of the object itself. Who owned it? What is the ownership history before the 19th century, if any? Those may of course be difficult or impossible questions to answer given the length of time. And yet those are the best possible arguments. They are ones that auction houses have been often unable to use, because they have too long been hesitant to look at this kind of deep history of objects, training their buyers instead on the aesthetic and other merits of objects as a means to generate value.