Collector

Museum rewards donor with fake art to hang at home

After collector Henry Bloch donated an enviable group of impressionist artworks to the city’s Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the museum returned the favor, sort of.

The museum printed digital copies of each of Mr. Bloch’s 29 paintings—including examples by Edouard Manet, Vincent van Gogh and Henri Matisse—and delivered the framed replicas to his home two months ago so he could hang them in the exact same spots as the originals. Mr. Bloch said the copies are so realistic, he has to peer closely to discern the differences. “Every museum should be offering this service,” he said.

Art forgers aren’t the only ones using technology to produce ever-more-convincing fake paintings. Museums, in a rarely discussed practice, are churning them out as thank-you gifts to major donors. Curators say it’s mostly a taboo topic because the recipients don’t always like to admit they’ve got a glorified poster hanging in the place of a masterpiece, but Sotheby’s said auction houses have long gifted their major consignors with framed copies of big-ticket items. 

Julian Zugazagoitia, CEO and director of the Nelson-Atkins, said he initially considered the Bloch copies to be a fluky one-off, a gesture that could allow the museum to display Mr. Bloch’s art as part of its permanent collection when it reopens its renovated European art galleries March 11. Otherwise, it would have had to wait for the works to be given in a promised bequest as part of the 94-year-old collector’s estate. (Mr. Bloch’s foundation paid $12.7 million for the renovation.)

Yet as word spread of the museum’s unconventional offer, the director said his own trustees started reaching out, seeking prints for their art holdings. The director said going public about the potential perk could elicit gifts while donors are still alive. “The offer is becoming part of my tool kit now,” Mr. Zugazagoitia said.

Mr. Zugazagoitia said he is aware that such swapping could undermine one of the intangible factors that fuel an artwork’s value, namely the evidence of the artist’s own handiwork or at least the artist’s legitimising involvement. The museum itself will continue to display only original works, not copies. “We still believe in the aura of artists’ works,” he said. “People who come here need to see the originals.”The museum’s knockoffs are designed to look real—but only from the front so as not to dupe anyone long-term, said Steve Waterman, the museum’s director of design and experience. The fake canvases lack telltale brush strokes, and the backs of their frames lack gallery labels and other notations that appraisers and authenticators typically use to determine a work’s legitimacy.

Faking it: Does the forged Vermeer that fooled Goering belong in a museum?

There ain’t no way that’s a Caravaggio.

Let me pause and leave you with that thought, before we circle back to it.

So there I was this weekend, in the small Dutch town of Deventer for my best friend’s wedding. I walked past the enormous former cathedral, stripped to the bricks during the Reformation, en route to complete task number 1 in my duty as best man: buying a postcard and a pen. That’s when I passed a sign at the town’s museum: Een Echte van Meegeren. “An Original Van Meegeren.” What were the chances? My last book was an illustrated history of forgery, prominently featuring Han van Meegeren, Dutch art forger extraordinaire, and there happens to be a special exhibit of his forgeries a few paces from where my friend is about to get hitched? In I went.

And here’s the thing. Van Meegeren’s paintings may look nothing whatsoever like the work of Vermeer, and it remains extraordinary that the world’s leading specialists were so convinced that Van Meegeren’s forgeries were Vermeer originals — but they are extremely beautiful. They also fulfill Aristotle’s definition of what makes for great art: His paintings are good (they exhibit skill), they are beautiful (a subjective opinion, but a legitimate one) and they are interesting. Interesting not because they are some revolutionary new interpretation of art, but because of the story they embody, possibly the most dramatic of all known forgery cases. Van Meegeren was arrested after the Second World War for having sold Dutch cultural heritage (a Vermeer painting) to the enemy (Herman Göring, head of the Luftwaffe and a ravenous stolen art collector). This was considered high treason and, if found guilty, van Meegeren could have been executed. Oops. He rather frantically tried to explain his “recipe” for forging a Vermeer, but was not believed until he actually painted another one while incarcerated.

Looking at Van Meegeren’s paintings in person for the first time, I was struck by the thought: I’d love to own this.

I would love to be a forgery collector. The problem with forgeries is the whole being-duped thing. Buyers don’t want to feel that they’ve had the wool (expensively) pulled over their eyes. If you think you’ve bought a Tesla, paid Tesla prices, and it turned out that someone stuck a Tesla chassis on a Renault Zoe, you’d be pretty pissed. Same deal (but think in the millions rather than the tens of thousands), and you’ll understand the reaction of buyers who might have thought they were acquiring a Vermeer (worth tens of millions) but actually have a Van Meegeren (worth perhaps in the mid-five figures, largely because of the story behind his crime). But what if you know that it’s a Van Meegeren forgery of a Vermeer? Stripped of the fraud component, what you have is an extremely skillfully executed painting, beautiful and with a heck of an interesting story behind it. It becomes a relic of the story in which it featured, but it can also be admired for its aesthetic value.

Forgery stories pop up all the time. In recent months, suspicion has floated that there is a previously unknown master forger of Old Master paintings (or ring of cooperating forgers) whose works are bobbing to the surface. Extremely good, expert-fooling forgeries have been spotted only with great difficulty: a painting by Lucas Cranach, a Franz Hals, a stunning Orazio Gentileschi. Add to this the Caravaggio I mentioned at the start of this essay, supposedly found in a family’s attic in Toulouse. This makes for at least four extremely convincing works that divide scholars. A handful still contend that each is authentic (or at least that evidence has yet to be made public that proves otherwise). Others argue that these are recently-made forgeries. Then there is the third option: that they are copies after original works, made not with fraud in mind (and therefore not a proper forgery), but later misattributed as an original.

The idea that there is a “ring of forgers” is probably the least likely option, especially considering the works in question are skillfully executed, naturalistic works. One of only a few known proper forgery rings was in Siena in the 1930s, built up around Icilio Federico Joni, who specialized, along with his comrades, in Sienese Gothic altarpieces. But that is an outlier. Almost all known forgers have created alone (though many worked with others who functioned as front men and did the actual conning). There are some organized crime groups who dabble in forgery, but they tend to focus on far easier-to-produce, and often more valuable, modern works (like the Austrian/Slovenian gang just busted for trying to sell forged Picassos at 10 million Euros a pop). Abstract, minimalist work is artistically easier to produce than intricate, naturalistic paintings, but more than that, the materials are easier to get hold of (to resist forensic testing), and forgers do not have to replicate centuries of patina and craquelure if the work in question is only meant to be a few decades old.

So how do we know if these works are a) original, b) forgeries or c) copies that were misattributed as originals?

Forensic testing can only tell us so much. It can tell us the rough date that organic materials in a painting were made, and that’s pretty good. That should rule out a forgery, especially for Old Master works from the 16th or 17th centuries. But it can rarely guarantee authorship. Just because the Toulouse “Caravaggio” painting of Judith beheading Holofernes dates to circa 1610 does not make it a Caravaggio. Caravaggio’s work was so wildly popular that a wash of other artists sought to emulate his style (they are featured now in London’s National Gallery, at an exhibit called “Beyond Caravaggio.”) The original of this painting hangs in Rome at Palazzo Barberini, so this is necessarily either a copy by Caravaggio (and we have no historical record or precedence of him making an exact copy of one of his own paintings, as he altered them when asked to do multiple versions of a single subject, like his “David with the Head of Goliath” or “Supper at Emmaus” paintings), or a copy after Caravaggio. The latter is far more likely and, frankly, is what I thought immediately upon seeing a digital image of the Toulouse painting. It just doesn’t look good enough to be by Caravaggio himself. It looks like a solid, contemporary copy, likely by a 17th century painter who tried to learn Caravaggio’s best-selling style (which the artist fiercely guarded — he sued those who tried to ape him). It’s valuable. It’s interesting. I’d be delighted to have the work on my wall. But it ain’t no Caravaggio.

Which brings me to my point. Depending on the law of the country in question, some forged artworks proved as such in court must be destroyed (in France, for instance), a draconian move meant to make it impossible for forgers to profit from their crimes. Other nations keep forgeries for didactic purposes (Scotland Yard owns many wonderful forgeries from their successful investigations, and occasionally shows them in exhibitions) — when I taught a course on art crime at Yale, I was able to dip into recognized forgeries in the Yale Art Gallery’s storerooms and use them in hands-on seminars with my students. Forgeries should be noted as such, and it’s no good if they continue to fool people. Likewise, it probably is immoral, and should likely be illegal, for convicted forgers to profit from the sale of their art or image rights to them (this is why the blockbuster Scotland Yard exhibits at London’s V&A Museum never came with a catalogue — they would have had to pay the forgers for permission to use the images). But forgeries are beautiful, interesting, skillfully made objects that are a component of the history of art, culture and crime. As long as they no longer trick us, they are works that I, for one, would be delighted to collect.

JLT warns art dealers after £8.5 million painting forgery

Major broker Jardine Lloyd Thompson has warned art dealers against the impact of art forgeries after the painting An Unknown Man, thought to be by Dutch artist Frans Hals and sold for £8.5 million was recently declared fake. 

According to Sotheby’s, tests revealed that the painting was “undoubtedly” forged. The firm had “rescinded the sale and reimbursed the client in full.”

JLT warned that in many cases, collectors will not be able to claim against their insurance if they discover that their art pieces are forgeries. However, there are certain policies that cover these cases, according to Daniel Smith, a member of JLT’s Fine Art, Jewellery and Specie team.

“Although the take-up of this sort of policy is relatively low, I think we’ll start to see a significant increase as the possibilities of more forged Old Masters are uncovered,” he said.

Smith said dealers can purchase professional indemnity insurance to protect themselves from customers’ lawsuits resulting from art forgeries. However, most dealers don’t bother getting cover because of the costly nature of the policy, Smith noted.

“In light of this recent issue as well as a number of similar high-profile forgery cases this year, I would urge dealers to consider safeguarding themselves against the impact – both in terms of money and reputation – that cases such as these can have on their business,” Smith said.

Caveat emptor: why the art world is a legal landmine

It is a privilege afforded to lawyers to observe the problems faced by individuals, families and trustees in respect of their assets and seek to find solutions. Disputes concerning art, antiquities and cultural assets – sometimes more colourful and interesting than the object in question – can be particularly emotive.

One aspect that differentiates the market for art and antiquities from the trade in other valuable assets is that it is largely unregulated; anyone can buy and sell freely without having to comply with any prescribed formal requirements. As the value of such assets increase and the stakes get higher, so does the potential for things to go wrong. This can lead to interesting issues concerning, provenance, attribution, legal title and forgeries (to name a few examples).

The provenance and attribution of an artwork or antiquity are often key considerations. A connection to a well-known historic collection, or authorship by a renowned artist or maker can enhance desirability and thus add significant value. Of course, the reverse is also true in cases where the provenance or attribution turn out to be incorrect.

One can imagine the disappointment of finding out, as one of our client’s did, that artworks, which had been sold as being by a highly regarded artist whose works were in a European royal collection, were actually by a minor artist of no significance and worth many times less than the price paid.

Navigating between fact and ‘sales puff’ can often be a challenge. Does a statement that an artwork is of exceptional quality mean that it is unusually good, or is this just a statement of opinion by the seller? Buyers of art have to be cautious about readily accepting statements made about it. Even pre-eminent experts can sometimes have differing opinions. Matters such as attribution, and the physical condition of an artwork can be difficult to assess when restoration and underlying issues are not always visible to the untrained eye.

The case of Thwaytes v Sotheby’s provides a noteworthy example. Mr Thwaytes consigned a painting, The Cardsharps, to Sotheby’s for sale by auction, putting them on notice that it may be a work by the renowned old master, Caravaggio. Sotheby’s experts examined the painting, but took the view that it was a copy by an unknown artist. The picture could, of course, have sold for many multiples of the sale price had it been sold as a work by Caravaggio.

The buyer, a renowned art scholar, later identified the picture as being an autograph copy by Caravaggio himself. Mr Thwaytes sued Sotheby’s for negligence, but was unsuccessful; the court found that Sotheby’s had not breached their duty since there was nothing that would have been visible on a visual inspection that should have counteracted Sotheby’s view that the painting did not have Caravaggio ‘potential’. The case illustrates just how subjective authenticating a work of art can be.

Unscrupulous sellers - of which, unfortunately, there are a few around - will often make grandiose statements about the artworks/antiquities they are selling in order to secure a sale. It is, therefore, vital for any buyer to make sure that the object being sold is what it purports to be, or at least ensure that there is adequate protection in place should things go wrong.

Tagsmart at the Art Business Conference

Now in it’s third year, The Art Business Conference is a one-day conference held in central London, for art market professionals.

If you’re involved in buying, selling or caring for fine art or antiques – whether you are a gallery owner, manager, art advisor, auctioneer, private collector or professional advisor, this conference will explore the key issues affecting the international art market today.

Through presentations, Q&As, panel discussions, and workshops, industry experts will share advice and insights on many of the key factors in running a commercial art or antique business or collection – including the the latest updates in legislation.

Want a live demo of Tagsmart Certify? Join us at the Art Tech Pavilion to learn more about this completely unique approach to artwork security.

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Tagsmart offers smart, secure solutions for the 21st century art world, designed for the creators, sellers and buyers of art. A new standard for authenticity, Tagsmart Certify tackles the issue of buyers’ confidence head on. Providing an unique solution for art authentication and enabling the creation of a complete artwork provenance history, our products can be used individually or collectively, from physical smart tags featuring the latest DNA and inorganic taggants, to uncopiable Certificates of Authenticity and Digital Certificates which become passports over time. Tagsmart Certify has already been endorsed by leading contemporary artists including Marc Quinn, Mat Collishaw, Gary Hume and Idris Khan.

What we learned from the Knoedler fakes scandal

Are collectors “stupid” to spend millions of dollars on a work of art without personally investigating its authenticity? This is what Robert Storr, the former dean of Yale University School of Art argues.

Storr was speaking at a panel hosted by Ifar (International Foundation for Art Research) in New York in July about the issues raised by the Knoedler fakes scandal, which resulted in the illustrious New York gallery’s closure. Knoedler and its former director claim they were duped by the forgeries of paintings by Rothko, Motherwell and Pollock, among others, as much as their customers were.

The question of who should investigate authenticity remains hotly contested. “If you’re dealing with a reputable dealer and getting… promises and information, you should be able to rely on that,” said John Cahill, who represented two Knoedler plaintiffs, at the event. Adam Sheffer, the president of the Art Dealers Association of America, believes that the buyers of the Knoedler fakes could have done more. “They could have worked with the gallery to ask questions… Everyone needs to take responsibility,” he said.

Halidonto's Cyborgs are invading Tagsmart!

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As a Tagsmart Certify artist, Hallidonto now protects his work from being faked or forged and gives his buyers 21st-century peace of mind. Our smart DNA tags attached to his artworks act as a seal of authenticity and our uncopiable physical and digital Certificates of Authenticity provide irrefutable proof of provenance and ownership for his buyers.

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