On Wednesday evening at the National Arts Club in New York a screening this new documentary examining Elmyr de Hory will take place.
Here are the details:
Real Fake: The Art, Life and Crimes of Elmyr de Hory A Film By Jeff Oppenheim
Wednesday, February 5, 8:00 PM THE NATIONAL ARTS CLUB 15 Gramercy Park S, New York, NY 10003 Elmyr de Hory was one of the most notorious forgers. He is alleged to have painted thousands of “fakes,” many of which still hang in major museums and private collections worldwide. Having eluded prosecution from Interpol, Scotland Yard and other authorities, veteran filmmaker Jeff Oppenheim re-opens the case in this investigative caper that sheds new light on the depth of Elmyr’s crimes.
Provenance, the ownership history of an artifact or work of art, has become one of the primary mechanisms for determining the legal status and authenticity of a cultural object. Professional associations, including museum organizations, have adopted the “1970 standard” as a means to prevent the acquisition of an ancient object from promoting the looting of archaeological sites, which is driven by the economic gains realized through the international market. The Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD), one of the museum world’s most influential professional organizations, requires its members to list the ancient artworks and artifacts that they have acquired after 2008 that do not conform to the 1970 standard in an online object registry. The study presented here of the AAMD’s Object Registry for New Acquisitions of Archaeological Material and Works of Ancient Art analyzes the extent to which AAMD member museums do not comply with the 1970 standard and, perhaps of greater significance, the weaknesses in the provenance information on which they rely in acquiring such works. I argue that systematic recurrences of inadequate provenance certitude are symptomatic of the larger problem of methodology and standards of evidence in claiming documented provenance. A museum’s acceptance of possibly unverifiable provenance documentation and, therefore, its acquisition of an object that may have been recently looted, in turn, impose a negative externality on society through the loss of information about our past caused by the looting of archaeological sites.
Gerstenblith, P. (2019). Provenances: Real, Fake, and Questionable. International Journal of Cultural Property,26(3), 285-304. doi:10.1017/S0940739119000171
The Museum of the Bible, a private museum located in Washington D.C., has announced that some of its most heralded objects are likely forgeries. Five fragments, purported to be a part of the Dead Sea Scrolls, are actually fakes. In a statement the Museum of the Bible announced that the fragments “show characteristics inconsistent with ancient origin and therefore will no longer be displayed at the museum.”
The Museum of the Bible has generated controversy since it opened. In 2017 for example the Museum paid $3 million and returned thousands of objects illegally removed from Iraq. The Museum is the passion project of Steve Green, a billionaire and founder of the Hobby Lobby chain of craft stores.
Michael Press in a post for Hyperallergic does an excellent job pointing out the real cost of these forgeries. He references the work of Candida Moss and Joel Baden for a 2017 book Bible Nation, which reports the Green family uses a 3:1 tax deduction to purchase price ration. Meaning that for every dollar used to buy these objects, the tax write-off is triple the amount. We the american taxpayer are paying for the Green family to acquire this material, much of it either looted or fake.
Considering how the story has been told to date, it is a PR coup. More than that: based on the Greens’ 3:1 model for purchase and donation, and exorbitant purchase prices for the post-2002 Dead Sea Scroll fragments (tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars each), they have likely made millions of dollars in profit just from their “altruistic”donation of these 16 fragments. Given that this profit consists of public funds (in the form of tax breaks), the real losers, in this case, are us.
Sadly, that’s exactly right. We are paying for looting and forgery. Other museums certainly have acquired forged material in the past, but the Museum of the Bible in acquiring so much material so aggressively is bound to acquire looted and forged material.
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 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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.