Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

November 23 2012

Image of Fakes, fakes everywhere? (ctd.)

Picture: Der Spiegel/Christie's. A fake Campendonk sold for EUR500,000 in 2006.

The Economist has an interesting article on how, in the modern art world, lawsuits and forgeries are making authenticity increasingly hard to prove:

Alas, plenty of other experts are now too scared of lawsuits to authenticate pictures, says Clare McAndrew, the founder of Arts Economics, a consultancy. Early this year the Andy Warhol Foundation dissolved its authentication board after spending $7m to fight a lawsuit from a disgruntled London collector. In September the Estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat and the Keith Haring Foundation stopped authenticating works by the two late artists. Last year the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation dissolved its authentication committee rather than “jeopardise our health and well-being”, says Jack Cowart, its director. In the past five years insurance policies taken out by art authenticators have more than doubled at Hiscox, an insurer.

Forgers nowadays typically favour 20th-century abstract and expressionist styles. Mimicking Jackson Pollock’s drip-and-splatter paintings is easier than faking old masters such as Rembrandt. Swamped with lawsuits, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation stopped authenticating works in 1996, four decades after Pollock’s death. Lawsuits continued anyway. A court even entertained a suit from a man with a painting signed “Pollack” (he lost).


Marc Restellini, a Parisian art historian, rejected as fake numerous works while preparing a catalogue raisonné of drawings by Amedeo Modigliani, an Italian artist who left little documentation when he died young in Paris in 1920. Told by phone in 1999 to leave the drawings alone or be killed, Mr Restellini cancelled the project because, as he puts it: “I’m not James Bond.” (Now head of the Pinacothèque de Paris, a private museum, he continues to work on a catalogue of Modigliani paintings, one of which fetched nearly $69m at a Sotheby’s auction two years ago.) Other Modigliani catalogues are incomplete or at least partially discredited—one French author was convicted for forgery.

An accountant who knows about these things once told me that art fraud (including the use of art for money laundering) is, financially, the third largest crime in the world. At this rate, with art forgery going almost totally unchallenged by law enforcement agencies, and hardly if ever spotted by auction houses, it may soon be number one. 

Update - my remark about fakes not being spotted by auctioneers was made slightly tongue in cheek, but quite rightly a reader takes me to task for such a bald accusation:

As a specialist in a Swedish auction house, I may think that the "[…] hardly if ever spotted by auction houses" is a bit unfair. We reject hundreds of fakes a year which are never to reach the auction public. This includes the entire spectrum from completely fraudulent newly-mades to manipulated signatures on otherwise genuine works of art. 

The problem, as hinted in the article, is when a work by a frequently faked or rarely sold artist is consigned for sale and there is none to ask for authenticity anymore. Important committees or senior experts that no longer provide their views leave the field open for scholars with a vague conscious that gladly authenticates almost everything on a photo for a thousand euros. (Not to mention the problems with the increasing field of faking letters of authenticity, or foundations/committees campaigning against each other for the right of the ultimate yea or nay.)

I agree that there has been some rather notable auction sales of high end fakes over the years (in which the auction house's role has been on the dubious side), but in the business of fakes, the cup of wishful thinking has been drunk by everyone…

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