Vernon Rapley Leaves the Metropolitan Police for the V&A

According to a report by the Art Newspaper, the V&A museum has hired Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley away from Scotland Yard’s art and antiques.  The V&A is a massive museum, which has been difficult to safely secure in the past.  Here’s to hoping he can continue to improve the V&A’s security.  From the Art Newspaper:

He joins the museum on 21 June, to take charge of security and visitor services. Before turning to art, Rapley investigated murder, paedophilia and child abuse at the Metropolitan Police. He really got to know the V&A in 2004, when there was a spate of thefts at major London museums. The V&A was hit three times, and 38 rooms had to be shut, many for years, while security was upgraded. Supported by the V&A, the Yard set up the London Museum Security Group. Rapley even took a turn as guest curator earlier this year, when he organised a Scotland Yard-curated display at the museum on fakes and forgeries, which spotlighted the case of the Greenhalgh family from Bolton, who created objects ranging from Egyptian antiquities to modern paintings.

  1. V&A gets its own personal detective | The Art Newspaper, (2010), http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/V&A-gets-its-own-personal-detective/21044 (last visited Jun 9, 2010).
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Barford on the Sale of Egyptian Antiquities

Archaeologist Paul Barford has an interesting post on the sale of antiquities in Egypt.  He’s had a number of interesting posts on his time on an excavation there, but I was really interested in his post Monday.  He talks about his quest for some fake antiquities, and was offered some shabtis.  These small funerary figurines were placed in graves, perhaps as servants meant to serve the deceased in the afterlife.  Pictured here are shabtis on display in the Louvre.  Barford states the “current modes of no-questions asked collecting are directly contributing to the creation of the market which is the motor behind the looting of archaeological sites for saleable objects.”  I think I agree with him that buyers are fueling the looting of sites.  But there are other contributing causes:  the paucity of resources in these areas for law enforcement; the desire by visitors and tourists to buy these objects; and the lack of site security when archaeologists leave.  The answer is responsible scrutiny of these transactions, but also the importance of outreach and education of these buyers and the local communities about the value of responsible stewardship of these sites and objects.       

Barford writes:

Last night in a Luxor sidestreet on my quest for the best or the most bizarre fake artefacts, in a grubby shop I’d overlooked before, I was offered several shabtis and shabti fragments which I am pretty sure were not fakes. All the dealer offered as provenance was “here and there”. After I had correctly identified the fakes he’d mixed in to test whether his customer knew his onions, he showed me a lot more. I told him that in his country there was a new law under discussion which would make merely having them in his shop punishable by up to twenty five years. I was not terribly surprised that he would not show me the “authentic scarabs” after that. Those suppliers “here and there” who sold them to him knew that these items were saleable to visiting foreigners.

The day before, I was walking across the palace site at Malkata, showing it to some colleagues, and had just replaced the cardboard “protecting” the wall paintings when a guy in a dark robe came running up. “Closed, closed, zis site he closed” he panted. He was presumably the “gafir” who was guarding this site for the SCA. Once he realised he could not make cash out of showing us the wall paintings which I’d just shown people, he then pulled out of his pocket a blue-painted sherd, the “Armarna ware” which I have seen on the Internet being sold at 300 dollars a piece and asked whether I would like to “see” it. It looked remarkably like the one I’d found there a few weeks earlier and put under a nearby bush to protect it from the sun and weather. I told him where he could put it. Interestingly this was after I had pulled out the photo-identity document issued by the SCA authorising me as an archaeologist to visit sites like this.

 . . .

What is interesing about this is Malkata is littered with pottery, tonnes of it. Most of it from the Eighteenth dynasty, including some nice red wares (lovely colours), slipped ware, fine bowls, burnished ware. Yet neither of the would-be vandors had picked any of this up, they knew their market, the blue-painted pottery is coveted by western collectors and that is what they were stealing from the site to make a bit of cash. . . . 

I’ve had similar experiences at ancient sites as I’m sure many of you have.  Pictured here is a man selling small stone ‘zapotec’ figurines at Monte Alban in Oaxaca Mexico this summer.  I don’t have the expertise required to tell if these are fakes or not.  I’ve always assumed, as Barford did, that these locals are selling fakes.  

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

César Baldaccini and the Definition of Art

One of the ways criminal defendants can often try to evade “art crime” offenses is by challenging the definitions of art.  The most recent example is the Piedoie brothers.  The two are accused of pawning off 130 of their own creations as genuine works by César Baldaccini Baldaccini.  Baldaccini died in 1998, and was known for his sculptures which were made by compressing consumer goods like cars or refrigerators into metallic blocks, like this one.

During a trial this week, the brothers will attempt to argue that made these César works as a kind of imitation, but not fakes.  In a report by a French magistrate, the “lack of seriousness” of several auction houses was blamed, and the French prosecutor has expressed dismay that the French art market has been “flooded” with these kinds of fakes since the artist’s death in 1998. 

The investigation into these forgeries began in 2001 by mistake:

Police in the south of France searching for stolen art works, including a Chagall and a Magritte, bugged several suspects in a world of high-living, cocaine-taking art lovers and dealers. They stumbled on evidence that Eric Piedoie was flooding the Côte d’Azur with fake Césars.

The appearance of so many unknown works enflamed feelings within César’s family and entourage. The artist’s wife Rosine Baldaccini and daughter Anna Puységur Baldaccini were disputing his inheritance with his mistress Stéphanie Busuttil. Each side accused the other of selling off works before the dispute was settled in court.
Mme Busuttil was allegedly approached by the Piedoie brothers to sign certificates of authentification for some of their works. She says she did so in good faith: a claim accepted by the prosecution.
In other words, both César’s own mistress and the art critic who catalogued his work could not tell authentic “compression” sculptures from fake ones knocked off in a garage. Awkward questions therefore arise. Were César’s “compression sculptures” really art? Are the Piedoie brothers con-artists or true, accidental artists themselves?

 

  1. On trial: the question of what is modern art, The Independent, December 1, 2009.
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Recovered Picasso a Fake?

The work of art recovered by Iraqi forces last week may be a fake.  This label on the back of the work has some spelling mistakes, and indicates the Louvre sold the work to the Kuwait Museum.  However the Louvre has said it has never had a Picasso. 

From the AP:

The London-based Art Loss Registry said it has no record of any paintings missing from the Kuwait National Museum, and no record of this particular painting as missing at all.  The Picasso Museum in Paris and France’s national museum were searching their archives for signs of the painting, which Iraqi forces seized Tuesday during a raid on a house near Hillah, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) south of Baghdad.  A local judge in Hillah, Aqeel al-Janabi, said Thursday the painting will be sent to Baghdad after an investigation but refused to provide details.  In a video released by the Hillah police, the man detained for trying to sell it, 33-year-old Maitham al-Issawi, said it belonged to his father, who gave it to him before his death. His father, al-Issawi, was an army officer who took part in the invasion of Kuwait, which led to the 1991 Gulf War.  In the video, officers hold up the canvas, which has fold marks on the front. Police have said the painting bears Picasso’s signature but would not comment further Thursday.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Art History is Pseudoscience?

So argues Jonathan Jones in a provocative article in the Guardian.  He says “the fear of fakes does far more harm than forgery itself”.  Art authentication is more art than science.  I’ve argued something similar with respect to the antiquities trade.  The impetus for Jones’ rebuke to art history is the recent criticism of the newfound “lost archive” of Frida Kahlo’s works soon to be published by Princeton Architectural Press.  Critics claim many of the works in the book are forgeries, and that causes Jones to ask if they know what they are speaking about.  As he says:      

Today’s art experts marshal techniques such as infrared photography to make their knowledge seem all the more scientific. This makes it harder than ever to question the voice from above. But when writing and thinking about art gets reduced to a lofty denunciation of fakes and the tedious analysis of provenance that is art scholarship’s meat and drink it just fills ordinary visitors to museums with fear and insecurity. Do I actually know enough to look at this painting, you might ask yourself in front of a Rembrandt? Am I qualified to see it? The general answer implied by modern art history from Berenson to his spectroscopically equipped modern successors is a chilly “No”.
The consolation is that secretly the fake-busters are going mad. An academic once told me he’d been called to an antiques shop to examine a drawing by the artist he specialises in. He judged it a fake and suspected he’d been deliberately set up by one of his rivals who hoped to catch him out. What a world. It seems like a scene from a strange Nabokovian novel.

There is a lot of interesting food for thought here.  He concludes his piece by arguing the he would rather be fooled by a few fakes than reduce art to such “pedantry”.  In fact he argues “many people who spend their lives studying art in depth — and pride themselves on never being taken in by fakes fooled — find it all less rewarding than the visitor to da Vinci’s Last Supper whose only background reading is Dan Brown.”

Strong criticism indeed.  I wonder if much of the difficulty can be traced to efforts to equate the quality of a work of art with its monetary value?  Has all this money made us lose sight of the aesthetic experience?  I think the best way to answer that is with Orson Welles rhetorical question in “F for Fake”:

 

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

German Police Uncover Massive Art Forgery Network

Another day, another report of forged art.  From Deutsche Welle:

Police said they seized over 1,000 fake Alberto Giacometti bronzes and sculptures in the swoop.
The three arrested – a 59-year-old man from Frankfurt and a 61-year-old art dealer and his wife – face charges of collaborating since 2004 to sell the fake works on the international market.
Prosecutors in south-western Germany said in a statement that the sales are believed to have been worth tens of millions of dollars.
Genuine works by Giacometti have fetched sums in the millions, most notably a bronze which was purchased at an auction last year in New York for more than $27 million (19 million euros).
Prosecutors said the 61-year-old had been posing as a count who also worked as an artwork salesman. His 59-year-old colleague then pretended to be a friend of Giacometti’s brother, saying that he had found the statues in a secret cache after the artist’s death in 1966.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Forgeries of Russian avant-garde

File:Artwork by El Lissitzky 1919.jpgKonstantin Akinsha and Sylvia Hochfield report for ARTnews on the slew of Russian avant-garde paintings which were alleged to be fakes. An exhabition at the Château Museum in Tours, France was slated to exhibit 192 Russian avant-garde paintings was abruptly canceled in March, three days before its opening. Russian avant-garde is the body of modern art which was created roughly between 1890 and 1930. Pictured here is an authentic (I think) lithograph by El Lissitzky, Beat the white with the Red wedge (c. 1919).

It seems there is a slew of these forged works. Natalia Kournikova of the Kournikova Gallery in Moscow notes in the piece that “we can say that almost every artist whose prices have risen has become the victim of fake makers.” Alla Rosenfeld, curator of the Norton Dodge Collection of Soviet Nonconformist Art at Rutgers University from 1992 to 2006 and former vice president of the Russian art department at Sotheby’s New York says “There are more fakes than genuine pictures”:

Fake icons and “fauxbergé” trinkets have bedeviled the art market for generations, but the escalating demand for Russian art in the last two decades has led to more ingenious abuses. For a while, “Russified” pictures—minor 19th-century European landscapes or portraits doctored to look Russian—flooded galleries and antique dealerships in Moscow and made their way to the West, appearing even at major auctions. But it has been Russian modernism—art from the first three decades of the 20th century—that has attracted the most Western collectors and consequently the most forgeries.

Hundreds of works have appeared in recent years at auction houses and in galleries all over Europe, from Munich to Madrid. These works have very sketchy provenances in which certain assertions are repeated again and again: the works are said to have come from hitherto unknown private collections or to have been smuggled to Israel by immigrants in the ’70s or to have been deaccessioned by provincial museums in the former Soviet republics—although this practice was strictly forbidden—or to have been confiscated and hidden for a half century by the former KGB (the secret police), although experts say there is not a single documented case of avant-garde works emerging from KGB vaults.

The means with which these forged works are given clean histories are familiar: publication in academic works or exhibition catalogs; previous owners who have suddenly disappeared or are unavailable to corroborate their story; questionable certification by Russian art historians, and a general lack of sufficient documentation. Again, it appears as if a segment of the art trade continues to skirt the rules. As I’ve argued elsewhere, we need a renewed emphasis on the means by which buyers of art acquire good faith status.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Art Forgery in Australia

Australia’s Four Corners has aired a piece on art forgery in Australia today titled “FAKE!“: 

Reporter Quentin McDermott tells how up to ten per cent of art that’s resold across Australia could be problematic. This crisis of confidence has led art lovers to demand that any fake unfairly traded should be destroyed or registered, to avoid it being traded again. 
It’s a practice as old as art itself. A gifted painter takes a major artwork and reproduces it, or a variation on it. No harm in that, provided it’s clear that it’s not the real thing. Unfortunately some of these paintings find their way into the mainstream art market. Right now it’s clear that certain individuals are prepared to place fakes for sale, making handsome profits.
Alone this would be of concern, but Four Corners reporter Quentin McDermott investigates the role of gallery owners in the marketing and sale of fakes. It’s now clear that, either knowingly or unknowingly, a number of high profile gallery owners have been responsible for selling paintings worth thousands of dollars, with a question mark over their authenticity.
 . . .  

None of this is good news for art lovers. It’s now clear consumers have to be very careful who they deal with, what kind of paintings they buy and who has authenticated them.
This crisis of confidence has led some artists to demand any work sold under false pretences to be destroyed. Others believe there should be an art register of forged works, once they are detected, that could then be accessed by dealers and the general public.
“FAKE!” will be broadcast at 8.30pm on Monday 8 June on ABC1. It is replayed at 11.35pm on Tuesday 9 June.
Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

More on Looted Antiquities on Ebay

Mike Boehm has a piece in the LA Times which does a good job following up with Charles Stanish, author of the recent piece in Archaology Magazine discussing looted antiquities on EBay which I discussed earlier here.  Stanish argues that the internet is not quite the haven for looted antiquities some may have feared, but instead a substantial amount of the antiquities for sale online are likely fakes. The piece offers a counter to many of Stanish’s assertions, including:

Usher Lieberman, a spokesperson with Ebay:

“We take very seriously any claims that items sold on the site aren’t genuine. . . . This isn’t something we’re hearing a lot about.”

Oscar White Muscarella, an archaeologist:

“The guy who has money and a lust for antiquities is going to buy them . . .  What’s going to decrease plundering is not forgeries, it’s only if governments take more action.”

Finally, Jerome M. Eisenberg,owner of the Royal Athena Galleries in New York is quoted in the piece:

“[A]nybody with a decent amount of intelligence isn’t going to buy on EBay unless they know who they’re dealing with.”

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

Fakes Uncovered in Russia

John Varoli for Bloomberg has the story of this work, sold by Christie’s International for $3 million which may be a fake.  The work, purportedly made to appear as a work by Boris Kustodiev is included in a list of 100 alleged fakes by Russian masters which have been sold over the past decade.

For the past 18 months, Russia’s art market has faced its worst crisis of confidence in the post-Soviet era as five volumes of “The Catalog of Fraudulent Art Works” were published, said dealers. Some experts say that fakes now comprise the majority of artworks they are asked to evaluate. 

“Every month I’m asked to look at 10 paintings and nine are fakes,” said London-based Russian art dealer James Butterwick. “Many Russian collectors buy without asking competent experts. If a work is credible then it has a provenance that can be easily checked out.” 

Prices have also tumbled as the financial crisis cuts collectors’ appetite for art. Combined sales at Russian art auctions in New York at Sotheby’s and Christie’s in April were about 40 percent of the volume sold in 2008.
Rosokhran-Kultura, the government’s cultural watchdog, released the latest issue of the fakes catalog last month. It contained the most expensive item sold at Christie’s November 2005 auction of Russian paintings in London. It was listed as “Odalisque,” painted in 1919 by Kustodiev. 

“There’s no doubt ‘Odalisque’ is a fake, and that’s why we included it,” said the catalogue’s co-author Vladimir Roschin.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com