Counterfeit

Paintings were passed off as original artwork by Norman Cornish

Earlier this week conman Richard Pearson was arrested for distributing the forged artworks claiming to belong to Norman Cornish, who died in 2014. Northumbria Police released photographs of some of the paintings and drawings which fooled gallery owners.

They are not exact replicas of Cornish originals but are painted in the artist’s distinctive style, showing scenes of everyday life.

Newcastle Crown Court heard fraudster Richard Pearson convinced gallery owners he had access to a collection of Cornish’s artworks through inheritance and a friend who wanted to sell his personal collection. He passed off a series of 14 drawings and pictures. Four of the fakes were sold on to private collectors.

Can you spot the difference?

The art of forgery has progressed step by step with the evolution of art. Some forgers even create fake paper trails. Others are so accurate that even the experts can’t tell them apart, and then science must step in to analyse the paint, canvas or relative age of the work.

At the Piramal Museum of Art in Lower Parel, an exhibition titled Likeness Without Reference – The Cultures of Forgery, is putting the real and the counterfeit side by side to try and show viewers the scale of the problem, and teach them a little bit about how to tell real master art from forgery (signatures and markings play a key role, FYI).

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.

Artist Lee Ufan’s forgery scandal continues

Three people have been arrested for allegedly forging and selling copies of artist Lee Ufan’s paintings. A National Forensic Service investigation confirmed that the six works in question do not align with genuine pieces by Ufan. The artist, however, maintains that the 13 paintings in questions are his authentic works.

Following a tip-off last December, the police raided Seoul galleries suspected of selling fake artworks by Ufan. The following month the police said that the Certificate of Authenticity for his 1978 painting From Point No. 780217, which was sold for US$415,600 to a private collector at an auction last year, had been forged. Although the artwork itself was proven to be authentic, the incident raised further suspicions surrounding the authenticity of his paintings.

In May and July, the police arrested three art forgers for 55 fake pieces claimed to have been done by Ufan, and selling them through the same gallery implicated in the latest police discovery. With four of the 13 paintings seized by the police credited to this group and six paintings claimed to have been forged by the latest forgery ring, the source or sources of the remaining three seized paintings are still unknown.

Ufan has been steadfast in his claims that the paintings alleged to have been forged are in fact his works. “A person’s flow and rhythm are like one’s fingerprints, which cannot be imitated,” he said at a press conference in June, after examining 13 works the National Forensic Service seized and identified as fake. “They are undoubtedly mine.”

Franklin Pierce University professor tied to fake art scheme

A former Franklin Pierce University professor and her son have been accused of selling almost US$700,000 worth of counterfeit paintings to a well-known art collector, according to court documents.

A recently filed lawsuit alleges that Lorettann Gascard, a former art history professor at FPU and director of the university’s art gallery, and her son Nikolas, sold 24 counterfeit Leon Golub paintings to collector Andrew Hall over a two-year period. 

Hall, who collects postwar and contemporary art, began collecting the works of Leon Golub in 2003, according to court documents. He had acquired about 40 of his works by 2009.

His first experience with the Gascards was in September of 2009, when he purchased a piece through auction. At the time, the piece was said to have been “acquired directly from the artist by the present owner” and brought to auction by the Gascards. Hall purchased six more paintings from the Gascards via auction through March 2011. By January 2011, Hall began dealing directly with the Gascards. All in all, Hall purchased 24 paintings directly or through auction from the Gascards, according to court documents.

In November 2014, Hall, through the Hall Art Foundation, an organsation founded by Hall and his wife Christine, began to plan an exhibit of his Golub collection, which totaled over 60 paintings. When Hall’s foundation asked the provenance of the paintings, the Gascards said the works were either gifts or purchases from Golub, and that they had a personal relationship with the artist.

In preparation for the exhibit, which was due to open in early May of 2015, the Hall Foundation contacted Nancy Spero and Leon Golub Foundation for the Arts to confirm the dates and titles of the works that would be exhibited.

During this process, the Golub Foundation raised red flags about “virtually all” of the works acquired from the Gascards, as there was no record of the paintings in the Golub Foundation’s inventory.

Golub’s son, professor Stephen Golub, emailed the Hall Foundation on March 28, 2015, saying that in addition to the works being “problematic,” neither he nor his brother had a recollection of meeting or hearing of Gascard.

The complaint filed with the court alleges that the Hall Art Foundation began seeking Gascard’s assistance to prove the genuineness of the challenged works.

While a spokesperson at Franklin Pierce University has confirmed that Gascard is no longer employed with the school, no further information was provided. Gascard had been employed with the university from 1997 at least through December of 2014. In May of 2014, Gascard had filed a lawsuit against the university, alleging various forms of employment discrimination.

Alleged fake work of eminent Vietnamese painter auctioned for US$102,000

Shortly after coming under the hammer for US$102,000 during a charitable auction in Ho Chi Minh City last week, Hanoi Old Quarter, a painting claimed to be by famous Vietnamese late painter Bui Xuan Phai has been called out as a counterfeit work.

Phai’s son Bui Thanh Phuong was among the most vocal accusers, saying his father had never painted such a work. “There are only five or six art collectors in Vietnam, so who is keeping whose paintings is a shared knowledge. There is no way a painting by my father that nobody including me has ever heard of just appears out of nowhere,” Phuong claimed.

Bui Quoc Chi, owner of Duc Minh Gallery which had put the painting up for auction, affirmed that the painting was authentic. “I will take full responsibility before the organisers [of the auction],” Chi said.

Despite Chi’s reassurance, many Vietnamese artists have weighed in their opinion on the matter with suspicion.“It does not take Bui Thanh Phuong’s words to know that the painting is a fake, as anybody who has decent knowledge in the field can tell apart the differences,” painter Nguyen Thanh Binh commented.

Binh’s comment was echoed by many other experts in the field, as they all found the painting lacking a sense of Phai-ness.

Their suspicion is founded, as Phai is perhaps the most copied artist in Vietnam, to the point that there’s a saying among insiders that goes “Phai paints more when he’s dead than alive”.

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.

New law to root out counterfeit artwork in Korea

The Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism announced Thursday that it will legislate a new law regarding artwork distribution in an effort to root out the distribution of counterfeit works, recover public trust in Korea’s art market, and establish a healthy trading platform for creative crafts. The law will be implemented in August 2017.

The new law will divide art distribution into three major categories: art galleries, which will be subject to a registration system; art auctions, to a permit system; and other sales of artworks, to a reporting system.

Currently, art galleries or art auction houses can operate with only a business license, and without official registration or approval, which led to criticism that they lacked transparency and engaged in unfair practices in their art distribution process.

With the new law, however, art galleries will have to submit plans to prevent counterfeit artworks as well as a list of all of their affiliate artists. Auction firms will also have to provide counterfeit prevention measures, while possessing certain qualifications including at least 200 million won in capital, an official auctioneer, and an auction house.

Furthermore, artwork distributors will be obliged to maintain records for each of their artworks, and issue an official warranty when they’re sold. Failure to do so will also be result in fines and cancelled business licenses.

The law will implement stronger punishment for counterfeit crimes as well, by stipulating that these types of crimes be punishable by up to five years in prison or 50 million won in fines. The ministry will also consider the potential implementation of special judicial police specific to artwork fraud.

Meanwhile, the ministry is to establish a national body for artwork authentication, which will function as the official agency responsible for developing new authentication technology and professionals in related fields.

“The institute will be operated not as a government agency but as a public one, and will help improve Korea’s art authentication technology, as well as aiding with crimes, investigations, and trials related to counterfeit artwork,” said Jung. “It will be staffed by professional researchers and appraisers.”

The full details of the law are to be revealed in the first half of 2017.

Artist Jogen Chowdhury collects his counterfeit works & labels them ‘fake’

Different artists have different ways of dealing with counterfeits of their works. Jogen Chowdhury simply collects them, strikes them out with ink and writes the word ‘fake’ on them. “I have more than 18 fake paintings of my work with me,” the 77-year-old Chowdhury says. “When people come for authentication of my work and it’s not authentic, I then tell them so. I keep the work and tell them to ask the people they procured the work from to meet me. They never come.”

Another Chun Kyung-ja painting suspected of forgery

A series of travel sketches of the late artist Chun Kyung-ja, submitted for Seoul Auction’s summer auction on June 29, was suspected of being counterfeit and pulled from the auction soon after. An art critic claimed that the sketches pieced together artworks in Chun’s catalogue published in 1995 titled “CHUN, KYUNG JA.”

Chun’s “Travel sketches” was composed of 16 drawings with an autograph letter. The auction explained that Chun gifted the sketches to an acquaintance named Mr. Park in 1983, in celebration of his 50th birthday.

An anonymous art critic told Yonhap News Sunday that the sketches are similar to multiple paintings and sketches in the catalogue, mainly created during Chun’s travels.

Chun sketches pulled from auction over forgery suspicion

Seoul Auction has withdrawn a book of sketches by Korean artist Chun Kyung-ja that was due to be auctioned Wednesday. The book of 16 drawings by Chun was removed from the list of artworks Tuesday, just one day before the auction, amid suspicion the sketches may be counterfeit.

Why is the Korean art market vulnerable to forgery?

Artist Lee Ufan will finally have a look at the paintings that the National Forensic Service confirmed as counterfeits of his works next Monday.

One of the largest art forgery cases in Korea seems to be nearing its end as a 66-year-old art forger surnamed Hyun, who allegedly created fake works of Lee Ufan, was arrested in May and has been put on trial. All 13 works seized by police from galleries accused of distributing the counterfeits were confirmed to be fake.