Introductory Essay | Art Forgery: A Crime on the Rise?

An essay by Dr. Tom Flynn, London-based independent art historian, critic and specialist on art.

In this essay, Dr. Flynn, a lecturer in Arts Management at Kingston University, describes how the largely unregulated art market is susceptible to forgery.

 

In August this year, federal authorities in New York revealed that numerous multi-million dollar paintings sold over a fifteen-year period through the famous Knoedler Gallery, and purporting to be by major Abstract Expressionists such as Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, were likely to have been painted by an unknown artist working from a studio in Queens.[1] The works were supplied to Knoedler by the Long Island art dealer Glafira Rosales, who is about to stand trial. Many of the paintings had been accepted as genuine by connoisseurs and collectors and exhibited in prestigious museums around the world. [2]

This revelation served as further evidence, if any were needed, that as art prices rise, so art-related crime – and particularly forgery – appears to be on the increase. It would be naive to deny the possibility that the recent, widely publicised price of $250 million for Cézanne’s The Card Players might have been interpreted by some in the criminal fraternity as marking a meaningful shift in the risk-return ratio of art crime, whether in the form of forgery or theft (the diminished black-market value of stolen art notwithstanding).

Despite what we are frequently told by some commentators on art crime, there is no reliable statistical means of assessing the monetary value of what is now a global problem that embraces theft, forgery, looting from archaeological sites, and, more recently, various forms of money-laundering. A great deal of art theft, particularly of the domestic kind, goes unreported; many fakes and forgeries are never detected, even after the perpetrators are exposed, while the illicit traffic in cultural objects looted from archaeological sites is now arguably beyond the control of law enforcement agencies.[3]

A great deal of art theft, particularly of the domestic kind, goes unreported; many fakes and forgeries are never detected, even after the perpetrators are exposed, while the illicit traffic in cultural objects looted from archaeological sites is now arguably beyond the control of law enforcement agencies.

The largely unregulated, informal nature of the legitimate art market, a network of discreetly cultivated relationships with its own language and commercial rituals, makes it susceptible to manipulation on a range of levels, but particularly forgery. Circulating within the market’s social matrix is the art object itself – a unique, non-fungible, non-augmentable ‘commodity’ – the authenticity of which is often decided by a consensus built on what appears to outsiders to be the most fragile of foundations. It is that consensus – now harnessed more firmly than ever to the forces of global finance – that bestows economic value on the work of art.

Ever since the Renaissance, when art began to be liberated from its purely devotional function, works of art have been viewed as commercial “goods,” transacted within Europe’s thriving art markets of, inter alia, Antwerp, Paris, Berlin, London and New York. Concomitant with the development of those markets were the practices of copying and imitation of original works, either for educational and apprenticeship purposes or to deliberately mislead for commercial gain. However, despite the growth of the market, , art retained its parallel function as a symbolic object throughout the modern period, with the museum providing a nurturing environment in which the art work’s historical associations and numinous physical characteristics could resonate free of economic connotations. This begs the question, posed most recently by Belgian art theorist Thierry Lenain: “How could a practice that between the fifteenth century and the mid-eighteenth was considered without particular nervousness, and often with much enthusiasm, come to be perceived as an immediate danger and an object of virulent detestation?”[4] The available evidence would suggest that the virulent detestation to which Lenain refers is but one side of a coin, the obverse of which is a culture of enthralment in which the art forger is applauded and his work celebrated. The key to this cognitive dissonance can surely be traced to seismic changes in the global economy and the changing status of art within a new and ever more “financialized” art world.

Ever since the Renaissance, when art began to be liberated from its purely devotional function, works of art have been viewed as commercial “goods,” transacted within Europe’s thriving art markets of, inter alia, Antwerp, Paris, Berlin, London and New York.

Such has been the unprecedented wealth generation among the developing market economies in recent decades and so assertive the entrance of the financial classes into the art market, that art is now being steadily transformed into an “alternative asset.” This is not just a matter of nomenclature, but of utility also. The art object is ever more commonly treated as an investable commodity to be speculated upon, to provide a hedge against inflation, to act as a safe store of wealth or as a risk-reducing component within a judiciously diversified investment portfolio. Caught up in this maelstrom of changing attitudes and cultural values is the museum. Increasingly viewed as economically unsustainable, the great encyclopaedic museums and art galleries of the developed world are now being forced to consider the economic significance of their collections and the ways in which they might legitimately be “monetized” to safeguard the future of the institution itself. Meanwhile, few museums are able to reconcile the social and economic value of their collections with the levels of security required to protect them, the latter all too often exposed as inadequate to the task. The increasingly sophisticated methods adopted by art forgers add yet another layer of instability to this fragile edifice.

The convictions of the most recent high-profile art forgers – the Greenhalgh family, John Myatt and John Drewe, and Wolfgang Beltracchi, to name just three – failed to clarify the number of deceptions they successfully completed, which are still either circulating on the open market or have found their way into museums and private collections. Had the Greenhalgh operation not been exposed, for example, a terracotta sculpture of a faun purporting to be by Gauguin might still be enjoying pride of place in the Art Institute of Chicago, a Romano-British silver lanx, or tray, would be on display in the British Museum, while Burnley Museum and Art Gallery would still be boasting an “Egyptian” alabaster statuette known as the Amarna Princess. These may be but a fraction of the imposters originating from the Greenhalgh family’s garden shed that are still at large.

Given the rapid spread of free market economies since the fall of communism and the migration of labour concomitant with globalisation, it is perhaps not surprising that an opaque and largely unregulated art market is proving ever more vulnerable to criminal activity. Rarely remarked upon, however, are the ways in which the attitudes of the media and the art world itself serve to encourage art forgery and related crime. For an indication of this one might point to the way news agencies respond when such cases arise. The BBC’s website, for example, places high-profile art crimes under the category of “Entertainment,” while few major news publications seem capable of reporting major museum thefts without invoking mainstream Hollywood films such as The Thomas Crown Affair, or Dr. No.

The media’s reliance on popular films, many of which were in turn inspired by true crimes or contemporary perceptions of a rising art market, has its parallel in the way crime fiction is used by art crime commentators. For example, it is not uncommon for many of today’s self-appointed experts on art crime to deploy sensationalising imagery in their speeches and lectures, presenting major museum thefts as popular cloak-and-dagger entertainment. The outcome of this hyperbolic approach is a gradual erosion of the cultural significance of art crime among students and the general public.

Given the rapid spread of free market economies since the fall of communism and the migration of labour concomitant with globalisation, it is perhaps not surprising that an opaque and largely unregulated art market is proving ever more vulnerable to criminal activity. Rarely remarked upon, however, are the ways in which the attitudes of the media and the art world itself serve to encourage art forgery and related crime.

That conflicted attitude – whereby the criminal act is at once something to both condemn and celebrate – is also played out in the criminal justice system. If the punishment ought to fit the crime, what redress is appropriate for those crimes we subconsciously applaud for their romantic derring-do or for the lucrative cultural by-products of education and entertainment they consistently generate? The light sentences passed down to art forgers, to say nothing of the media contracts handed out on completion of their sentences, reveal much about prevailing social attitudes towards art forgery and may even indicate why it appears to be on the rise. Here again, the risk return ratio would appear to be in the forger’s favour – art is increasingly valuable in monetary terms and yet seemingly not valued enough to warrant more swingeing sentences when exposed. The convicted art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi was sentenced to just six years in an open prison, while John Drewe, who with John Mayatt was responsible for one of the most lucrative art forgery operations in British criminal history, was also sentenced to six years, but served only two. Myatt was jailed for just one year and since his release has made television programmes about his new career as a glamorous purveyor of ”legitimate fakes.”

Think twice then, before interpreting the self-satisfied smirk of the art forger as indicative of his triumph over snobbish art professionals – a common motive in the historiography of art crime. It is as likely to be generated by the knowledge that his ill-gotten gains are either safely squirreled away for future use or that once released from prison he will be accorded celebrity status by a breathless media dangling television contracts, book deals, and magazine interviews.[5]

One might assume that the art world itself would lobby for more severe sentences for art forgery, but this appears not to be the case. The art market is a web of social and economic interdependencies crafted from the complex relationship between art and economics and draws its very sustenance from the tenebrous boundary between the two. Forgery and the copying or touching up of original works has been a constituent part of the market for centuries. Rare is the dealer or auctioneer who has not transacted, inadvertently or otherwise, in works of doubtful integrity. This may go some way towards explaining the reticence of many art professionals when cases of forgery are discovered.[6]

One might assume that the art world itself would lobby for more severe sentences for art forgery, but this appears not to be the case. The art market is a web of social and economic interdependencies crafted from the complex relationship between art and economics and draws its very sustenance from the tenebrous boundary between the two.

The European and North American art markets have long employed their own techniques to decide “quality,” establish authenticity, and expose fakes and forgeries. Connoisseurship evolved to fulfil precisely those functions and until recently stood largely unchallenged. As late as 1948 Otto Kurz, in his classic book on fakes, was able to proclaim, “No available method of scientific analysis allows us to dispense with sound and unprejudiced judgment, based on comparison and experience and above all on the correct assessment of the artistic qualities of the picture in question.”[7] Times have changed, however, and expert opinion, often enshrined within an artist’s foundation – for so long regarded as the keystone of the catalogue raisonné (the comprehensive compendium of an artist’s known oeuvre) – is everywhere in retreat. Perhaps the clearest indication of the perceived increase in art forgery and its cultural impact in the context of inexorably rising prices is the growing reluctance of connoisseurs and experts to offer opinions for fear of litigation by disgruntled collectors.[8] The implications of having given a work the stamp of approval (occasionally after collecting a fee for doing so), only to see the work later exposed as a fake, are profound, as the art historian Werner Spies recently discovered. Having lent his imprimatur to numerous faked paintings by Wolfgang Beltracchi, Spies’s previously impeccable reputation as a leading scholar and expert on German Expressionist painting was irreparably damaged.[9]

A common trope within the historiography of art forgery is the bitterness and disappointment felt by the forger at having been passed over as a legitimate artist earlier in his career (art forgery is an almost entirely male-dominated criminal category).[10] This invariably manifests itself as a deep resentment towards members of the art market’s inner circle –dealers, auction house experts, connoisseurs, museum curators – who are anathematized as snobbish and venal. Forgery can thus be seen as an elaborate form of revenge, a settling of scores. Even if discovered, it at least has the apparent virtue of exposing the market’s ignorance and/or willingness to turn a blind eye to suspect works, thereby appearing to vindicate the original motive for the crime. Such was the case with most of the high-profile cases of the twentieth century, including notorious Vermeer-forger Han van Meegeren; Tom Keating, who produced fakes in the style of the nineteenth-century British landscape painter Samuel Palmer; Eric Hebborn, purveyor of fake Old Master drawings; Elmyr de Hory, forger of works after modern masters such as Modigliani, Derain, and Matisse; and John Myatt whose deceptions were in the style of just about everyone from Ben Nicholson to Alberto Giacometti. Each of these criminals later expressed chagrin at having failed as legitimate artists, but all of them delighted in thumbing their noses at the art establishment.

Some recent instances of art forgery may, however, need to be assessed in a different light from previous cases, given the background of an ever-rising art market and the deepening crisis in connoisseurship. The Beltracchi case, profoundly destabilising as it was, could have further repercussions as museums and private collectors look again at their acquisitions of German Expressionism. Meanwhile, the case of Glafira Rosales and New York’s Knoedler Gallery, although yet to reach court, has already generated a flurry of associated lawsuits.[11] These recent cases, which fed off “blue-chip” names from the pantheon of twentieth-century art, are likely to deepen a perception of the art market as a risk-intensive commercial realm.

The rarefied, high-ticket auction sector of the market is now driven by ever more opaque and exotic instruments such as guarantees and “irrevocable bids’.”These are invariably arranged behind closed doors between the auction houses, private consultants and so-called Ultra High Net Worth Individuals (UHNWIs), who thrive on art-finance risk and the handsome returns it offers.[12] The work of the skilled art forger throws another imponderable into the equation, although whether it will have the effect of dampening enthusiasm for art as an investable commodity remains to be seen.

Times have changed, however, and expert opinion, often enshrined within an artist’s foundation – for so long regarded as the keystone of the catalogue raisonné (the comprehensive compendium of an artist’s known oeuvre) – is everywhere in retreat.

 

Dr. Tom Flynn’s Biography

Dr. Tom Flynn is a London-based independent art historian, critic and specialist on art and business. He has written on the art market, contemporary art, museums and art crime for a broad range of international publications including the Art Newspaper, Art & Auction, Art Review, Apollo, Art News, Museum Journal, The Spectator, and many others. He is a visiting lecturer in the art market at Kingston University, London; at Christie’s Master course in Art & Business; at the London-based Masters courses in Art & Business run by the Institut des Études Supérieures des Arts (IESA) in Paris; and on the Postgraduate Certificate in Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Protection run by the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art (ARCA) in Amelia, Umbria. His books include The Body in Sculpture (1998); Colonialism and the Object: Empire, Material Culture and the Museum (1998, co –edited with Dr. Tim Barringer), The Paintings of Clive Head (2000), Jedd Novatt (2008), Sean Henry (2009) and The Sculpture of Terence Coventry (Pangolin Editions, October 2012).

Endnotes

[1] Patricia Cohen and William K. Rashbaum, “One Queens Painter Created Forgeries That Sold For Millions, U.S. Says,” The New York Times, August 15, 2013.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Neil Brodie. “It is No Surprise that the Looting Continues,” SAFE/ Saving Antiquities for Everyone, August 6, 2013.

[4] Thierry Lenain, Art Forgery: The History of a Modern Obsession (London: Reaktion, 2011), 8.

[5] Wolfgang Beltracchi, interview by Lothar Gorris and Sven Röbel , “Spiegel Interview with Wolfgang Beltracchi: Confessions of a Genius Art Forger.” Spiegel Online International, March 9, 2012. German art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi is said to have earned around €16 million ($21 million) from the faking of just 14 paintings. He refused to divulge how many paintings in total he had forged (“I can’t tell you that, or else my attorney would have a fit.”)

[6] David Sox, Unmasking the Forger: The Dossena Deception (London: Unwin, 1987), 4-5. See, for example, the experience of David Sox while researching the case of Alceo Dossena.

[7] Otto Kurz, Fakes: A Handbook for Collectors and Students (London: Faber & Faber), 23.

[8] ”Collectors, Artists and Lawyers: Fear of Litigation is Hobbling the Art Market,” The Economist, November 24, 2012. For an example of the contentious and occasionally embittered atmosphere surrounding some catalogue raisonné projects, see Marc Spiegler, “Modigliani: The Experts Battle,” ARTnews, January 2004, 124-129.

[9] Spies, formerly a respected expert on Max Ernst and German Expressionism, is alleged to have been paid “8 to 9 percent of the selling price” for appraising fake works produced by Wolfgang Beltracchi. See Gorris and Röbel, “Spiegel Interview with Wolfgang Beltracchi.”

[10] Ibid. Women have tended to fulfil support roles in these crimes, as in the case of Helene Beltracchi, wife of Wolfgang Beltracchi, who helped produce fake provenance for some of the works he forged. Patricia Cohen, “Knoedler Gallery Again Accused of Fraud in New Lawsuit,” The New York Times, August 13, 2013. See also the case of Glafira Rosales, the Long Island art dealer about to stand trial in a New York court on money-laundering and tax evasion charges in a multi-million dollar art forgery scam.

[11] Patricia Cohen,”Knoedler Gallery Again Accused of Fraud in New Lawsuit,” The New York Times, January 30, 2013.

[12] “A Passion That Knows No Bounds,” The Economist, November 19, 2010.