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
Leila Alexandra Amineddoleh has posted an abstract of her latest piece, which appeared in the Spring issue of the Cardozo Arts & Entertainment Law Journal. Amineddoleh, as many readers likely know, teaches art and cultural heritage law as an adjunct Professor at a good portion of New York’s law schools, including I think recently with St. John’s and Fordham. She also is a Partner and co-founder of her own art and cultural heritage law firm, Galuzzo & Amineddoleh.
The authorship of artwork greatly affects its value. For this reason, authentication in art is a complex and sometimes contentious process. This paper examines the history of art authentication, due diligence to ensure that purchasers are not buying forgeries, complex cases without clear-cut answers, and legal tools available to buyers after a forgery has been purchased.
Amineddoleh, Leila Alexandra. “Are You Faux Real? An Examination of Art Forgery and the Legal Tools Protecting Art Collectors.” SSRN Scholarly Paper, May 26, 2015. http://papers.ssrn.com/abstract=2784963.
I’ve posted a draft of a forthcoming work on art authentication on SSRN. The piece is scheduled for publication in the Mississippi Law Journal in the fall. I probably enjoyed writing this piece more than I should have. Our appetite for stories about art forgery and art authentication are indeed boundless, and in researching the piece, they’ve been boundless for a long time. Criminologists were studying art forgery as early as the 1960s. From the abstract:
The determination of a work of art as authentic (or not) makes a tremendous difference in the value of a work of art. Owing to the millions of dollars which can be added, or subtracted, to a work of art when an authentication opinion is made, lawsuits will often be the last resort of those unhappy with an authentication. Determining with absolute certainty, the authenticity of a work of art takes the combined expertise of art historians, scientists, and art connoisseurs. Previous examinations of the problem of art fraud and counterfeit art have focused on criminal offenses, pointed to market failures, and even argued that we should not care too much about fake art at all if nobody notices. These examinations all fail to give sufficient weight to the sheer difficulty of the task. It takes tremendous expertise required to correctly determine the artist who created a work of art, and the period in which the object was fashioned. The pages which follow argue art authentication and the experts who make them have gotten a bad reputation. Instead, their analysis should be properly valued as expert testimony in court in art authentication disputes, and should be protected from vexatious litigation.
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”.
We might forgive the casual observer’s relaxed views of art forgers. Perhaps because many of us, on some level, love an outlaw. Tales of art forgers have been popular: Clifford Irving’s Fake! (1969) examined the life of notorious art faker Elmyr de Höry. Orson Welles’ documentary examination of creation and storytelling F for Fake (1973) still cuts to the heart of what it means to make art. Done well, portrayals of art forgery force us to question the aesthetic experience. Yet many fail to acknowledge the underlying wrongdoing. Putting aside their colorful stories and backgrounds, all art counterfeiters are creating an elaborate lie. These individuals defraud our collective cultural heritage by distorting the body of work that artists have created. Prof. John Henry Merryman has called art counterfeiters “cultural vandals”. Those who watch the new documentary, Art and Craft, will first want to mark its subject as a vandal, but by the end may feel differently about him.
The documentary offers a terrific examination of the complicated predicament Landis gifted to at least 46 museums in 20 States. And does so by allowing the museum staff and Landis himself to tell us how he was able to fool so many for so long.
Landis would forge works with skill, such skill that he was able to use surprisingly inexpensive materials. But rather than sell his works, he would pose as a donor and give away his forged work. Most recently he impersonated a Jesuit priest. In the past he would pretend to come from old money. He would arrive at mostly small to mid-size art museums in his deceased mother’s cadillac and give his forged creations away. The documentary film, directed by Sam Cullman and Jennifer Grausman, with Mark Becker co-directing, gives us a first-hand view of how Landis creates forgeries and shows him giving them away. Viewers will come away with different impressions of the man. Landis battles anxiety, schizophrenia, and other mental illnesses. In scenes where he describes his day-to-day well-being to doctors and caregivers, he’s asked how he stays busy, how he engages with the world.
Landis forges with simple materials: instant coffee, cheap frames, plywood, photocopies, some paint and most of all clever technique. His materials are purchased from chain hobby and home improvement stores. The man who finally caught Landis was Mat Leininger, a former Registrar at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art The filmmakers hint at but don’t quite dive in to the tricky question of whether Leinenger’s pursuit of Landis and his forgeries made his employers at the Cincinnati Art Museum uncomfortable, or if there were other reasons for his dismissal. But for much of the film Leininger offer’s Prof. Merryman’s position, basically pointing out Landis’s wrongdoing, and expressing frustration at how difficult it can be to convince some museum staff that they have been fooled. Special praise should go to those curators who were willing to be filmed on camera after having been fooled.
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.