Sotheby’s

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.

Grandchildren of Matisse's muse sue National Gallery for reclaim of 'stolen' portrait

The National Gallery in London is being sued by the grandchildren of Matisse’s muse over a painting they claim was stolen from their family in the aftermath of WW II.

The three grandchildren – Oliver Williams, from Kent; his cousin Margaret Green, who lives in East Yorkshire, and a third Germany-based cousin, Iris Filmer – accuse the National Gallery of displaying a painting that rightfully belongs to them.

The trio, through their lawyer, claim that a film last year, Woman In Gold – detailing the struggle of Maria Altmann, played by Helen Mirren, to reclaim family possessions that were seized by the Nazis – shows that such cases are legally sound.

On Wednesday they launched legal proceedings in a federal court in Manhattan, after five years of wrangling over the ownership of the painting. The case was brought in New York because, the plaintiffs argue, the National Gallery has commercial interests in the US and has profited from the work.

The trio want the painting returned, or $30 million in compensation.

The celebrated 1908 oil painting shows their trio’s grandmother, Greta Moll – who sat for Matisse in Paris. Moll’s husband Oskar had bought the painting in 1908, and the couple returned to Germany.

Considered a masterpiece of Matisse’s fauve period, it was deemed so significant that it was shipped to New York for a 1931 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, in Manhattan.But the Nazis were fiercely critical of the Molls’ art work, labelling it degenerate and bourgeois. From 1933 on, Oskar and Greta Moll were prohibited by the Nazis from exhibiting their art in Germany. Articles in newspapers and art reviews defamed them as degenerate and bolshevist artists. They lived in Berlin until 1943, when the city became subject to massive bombing attacks. On their return, after the War, they found to their delight that the painting had survived. But, given the looting and chaos in the aftermath, they accepted an offer from a former student of Oskar Moll, Gertrud Djamarani, to take the painting to Switzerland and leave it with an art dealer for safekeeping. Djamarani, who was preparing to emigrate to Iran, then sold the painting, kept the proceeds, and left for the Middle East, according to the suit.

When Greta Moll died in 1977, she had no idea what had happened to it.

“Unfortunately, because of its refusal to return the portrait to the Moll heirs, the National Gallery has left the Moll family no other choice than to file suit to recover this lost family heirloom.”

From Switzerland, painting was imported to the US in 1949 by Knoedler & Co in New York City – a now defunct gallery, which in February settled a $25 million case for selling a fake Mark Rothko to the chairman of Sotheby’s.

The painting of Moll was then sold to a private collector, Lee Blaffer, in Texas, before being bought by the Lefevre gallery in London - who finally sold it to the National Gallery in 1979.

The GSA goes after another painting

Collector Myron Kaplan paid US$57,500 for Abstraction #6 by Ad Reinhardt (1913-1967) at Sotheby’s on November 20, 1997. The work was estimated at US$15,000/20,000, and the provenance in the catalogue noted that it was “acquired directly from the artist.”

In May 2016—almost 20 years after he bought it—Kaplan received a letter from the General Services Administration (GSA) stating that the painting was produced under the New Deal and remains the property of the U.S. government. The letter noted, “the last possessor of the painting [indicated] that the painting was retrieved approximately 50 years ago from the Port Richmond High School in Staten Island. The painting was discarded due to a renovation of the school building and recovered by their [sic] relation, a school staff member.”

Reinhardt was involved with the federal art program administered by the Works Progress Administration. He worked in the Easel Division of the Federal Art Project. The GSA claims that all works created under the various New Deal art projects are government property, and when the works are found, the GSA demands their return.

Kaplan’s attorney, Debra A. Mayer, contacted Sotheby’s and the GSA in an attempt to confirm the painting’s provenance from before the auction. Sotheby’s refused to provide any information about the consignor without a subpoena; the GSA also refused to provide Mayer with any information, she states in court papers. The GSA is demanding immediate possession and has threatened to refer the matter to the U.S. Attorney for criminal prosecution, Mayer claims.

Mayer, on behalf of Kaplan, has filed a motion in court seeking a subpoena to compel Sotheby’s to provide complete records of the consignment in 1997 and all documents provided by Sotheby’s to the GSA “pursuant to its December 2015 subpoena to Sotheby’s concerning this matter.