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A Case of Forgeries at the Herbert Hoover

Image taken of Sadigh Gallery courtesy of Manhattan District Attorney’s Office

By Alexis Redshaw

On Monday, April 8, 2019, less than a week before the new Rosetta Stone exhibit was due to open at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum (the Hoover), University of Iowa art history Professor Björn Anderson and graduate student Erin Daly went to preview the objects on display in preparation for the lectures they would deliver alongside the show. Once there, they both spent time walking around the exhibit and taking photos of relevant objects, all of which were on loan from the Origins Museum Institute based in El Paso, Texas.[1] The exhibit consisted of authentic objects and replicas, so Daly and Anderson recognized that there was a degree of ambiguity in the way that the exhibit described both the original objects and replicas on display.[2]

In a glass case showcasing seals, Daly started to notice something strange. One particular Old Babylonian stamp seal dated very precisely, from 1920 B.C., led her to do a closer examination. The seal appeared to have imagery from the Neo-Babylonian, rather than the Old Babylonian, period, making her suspicious of the date listed. Additional seals in the case seemed to have been carved in the same rough manner, which would be an improbable occurrence given the diverse artistry behind stamp and cylinder seals from the ancient Near East.[3] While Daly was examining the seals, Anderson examined smaller busts that he had never seen before. When analyzing their particularly early dates, he wondered how he was never made aware of these objects in textbooks or other scholarly work. If the objects were made during those periods, they would have most certainly been discussed in texts highlighting their origin and influence.[4]

IMG_0438 (1)

Image of fake Babylonian seal from “The Hoover” courtesy of Professor Björn Anderson

Later that day, as Daly described, she could not get the objects’ suspicious qualities out of her head. She began searching for more information using the date and key terms associated with the seal and landed on the website of Sadigh Gallery, established in 1978 and located on Fifth Avenue in New York.[5] This gallery seemed to be the source for the objects in the Rosetta Stone exhibit, perhaps indicating that Sadigh had sold these objects to the lending institution, the Origins Museum Institute. Daly found other seals on the Sadigh Gallery website that were rendered in the exact style she saw at the Hoover exhibit. The stylings and dates did not align with what is historically known about seals, and Daly realized that all of these factors put together suggested the items on display were not authentic. In addition, the notion that seals created in such a similar style were currently for sale only furthered her suspicion that someone was forging these works. She subsequently emailed Anderson her concerns that the works were neither authentic nor even replicas, but complete forgeries.[6]

In turn, Anderson took the exhibition catalogue provided at the Hoover and started going through the Sadigh Gallery’s website to make comparisons between the objects being displayed in the exhibit and the objects for sale by the Gallery. He was able to pair most of the exhibit’s objects to similar ones (some even identical) on the website that were offered for sale.[7] While the denoted replicas displayed were appropriate to show in the exhibit, Anderson “determined that 90 of the 125 pieces [were] either definite or very likely fakes.”[8] When surveying the website, he was able to see that one particular statue could be purchased in a variety of different colors and textures. Additionally, multiples of the same objects could be purchased at once with a quantity option included for each of the objects being sold.[9] These aspects clearly discredited the “rarity” the objects being shown in the exhibit were purported to have.

Next, Anderson drafted a letter to the director of the Hoover, Thomas Schwartz, disclosing the evidence he and Daly found regarding the nature of the objects. This letter was sent three days before the opening of the exhibit to the public, and shortly thereafter, the Museum decided to cancel the exhibit, to prevent the suspect objects from being presented to the community. In addition to making the Hoover aware of these fake objects, Anderson contacted the FBI to alert the authorities of the potential fraudulent activities of the Sadigh Gallery.[10]

Even though Anderson did notify the FBI early on in this case, he did not learn more information about their progress until the summer of 2021 when he was contacted by an agent from the New York County District Attorney’s Office Antiquities Trafficking Unit. Anderson was able to share with them the evidence he had compiled, and a few months later, he became aware that Michael, or Mehrdad, Sadigh, the owner of the Sadigh Gallery, had been arrested.[11]

According to the Indictment filed by Nassau County and the District Attorney, upon arrest Sadigh was charged with:

with one count of a Scheme to Defraud in the First Degree, Penal Law §190.65 (1)(b); two counts of Grand Larceny in the Third Degree, Penal Law §155.35(1); two counts of Criminal Possession of a Forged Instrument in the Second Degree, Penal Law §170.25; two counts of Forgery in the Second Degree, Penal Law §170.10(1); two counts of Criminal Simulation, Penal Law §170.45(2); and Conspiracy to commit the same crimes as defined under Penal Law 105.05(1).[12]

Subsequent information and images were released following Sadigh’s arrest, showing the internal workings of the Gallery’s fraud factory. These images suggest a repetitious, production-line quality of the seals, supporting Daly’s initial observation regarding the shared stylistic qualities of the seals on display at the Hoover. The photographs show shelves of objects with the tools and materials used in manipulating the appearance of the objects to look as though they were “ancient artifacts.”[13] Sadigh eventually pleaded guilty to seven felony counts, admitting to his manipulation of objects and deceit towards his customers.[14] After nearly forty years in business, on November 16, 2021, Michael Sadigh was sentenced to five years probation for his transgressions.[15]

In Article 2

Image taken of the Sadigh Gallery courtesy of the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office

If you see something say something: Lessons to be learned from the Hoover Story

Everyday countless decisions are made in professional and personal lives. In the setting of museums and educational institutions, what to put on display and why, where should the objects come from and who should comment on the content can be automatic or political. The Hoover has a mission to represent and protect the legacy of President Hoover, while engaging with the community through the variety of exhibitions organized each year.[16] The origins of the Rosetta Exhibit may be hard to define but the swift decision making on behalf of the museum administrators and the critical approach by Daly and Anderson led to the uncovery of a forgery ring.

In this particular case, the fake objects at the Hoover were loaned through an outside organization and not acquired by the institution itself. However, questions still surround what museums should do if they have acquired objects that turn out to be fake. The International Council of Museums states, “In disposing of a presumed forgery, [a] museum shall consider all related legal, curatorial and ethical consequences, and should avoid returning the object to the art market.”[17] Therefore, a museum can deaccession a fake object but should not try to resell the item or prioritize giving the object to another institution.[18] Even with the option to deaccess, a museum may not want to take that chance, as instances exist in which objects were deemed fake but then authenticated later, like in the case of a Velázquez owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.[19] The decision regarding deaccession could be even more regrettable if the institution decided to have the work destroyed, which is an option when a museum has no other means of discarding the item, and the authenticity of the object was affirmed.[20] However, some institutions see the destruction of fake works as a necessity in the prevention of further forgery, as was the case with a fake Marc Chagall work.[21] Especially with fakes having a tendency to return to the art market, the solution to stop the pattern of fraud might boil down to deaccession then destruction.[22]

In other situations, works may be prohibited from the deaccession process simply because they were donated to a museum as a smaller part of a larger collection. If the donors require that the gifted collection remain intact, a museum might be forced to keep the fake items within their collection by legal bounds unless they are given specific approval.[23] However, owning fake items can be a way for museums to educate and bring awareness towards these issues surrounding forged objects. The Museum Ludwig in Cologne, Germany actually created an exhibition displaying authentic Russian avant-garde works next to those that were deemed fake.[24] In doing so, the museum acknowledged their own struggles with instances of forgery, opening a dialogue around how these problems might be mitigated.[25]

Even though a clear-cut solution towards settling a museum’s ownership of forged artworks can be difficult to determine, the prevalence of these issues that institutions, like the Herbert Hoover, face indicate a need for continued honesty and discussion around fake objects. This case was of particular interest for its connection to the University of Iowa, which I currently attend, putting into perspective how prevalent these issues of authentication can be, especially when so close to home.

Additional Reading:

Parker Jones, “Decades-long scheme exposed: UI professor and grad student uncover forged antiquities,” The Daily Iowan (Sept. 2, 2021). Available at: https://dailyiowan.com/2021/09/02/decades-long-scheme-exposed-university-of-iowa-professor-and-grad-student-uncover-forged-antiquities/.

Eileen Kinsella, “New York Dealer Gets Busted for Selling Hundreds of Brazenly Fake ‘Cookie-Cutter’ Antiquities, Says Manhattan D.A.,” Artnet (Aug. 26, 2021). Available at: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/manhattan-dealer-busted-selling-hundreds-fake-cookie-cutter-antiquities-says-manhattan-d-2002850.

Wallace Ludel, “New York dealer arrested for selling ‘cookie cutter’ manufactured goods as authentic antiquities,” The Art Newspaper (Aug. 25, 2021). Available at: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/08/26/new-york-dealer-arrested-for-selling-cookie-cutter-manufactured-goods-as-authentic-antiquities.

Tom Mashberg, “Looking for a Stolen Idol? Visit the Museum of the Manhattan D.A.,” The New York Times (Nov. 22, 2021). Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/11/17/arts/design/antiquities-manhattan-da.html.

Colin Moynihan, “He Sold Antiquities for Decades, Many of Them Fake, Investigators Say,” The New York Times (Aug. 25, 2021). Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/25/arts/design/fake-antiquities-investigation.html.

Will Pavia, “Hoover Fakes dealer Mehrdad Sadigh sold trinkets as ancient artefacts,” The Times (Oct. 15 2021). Available at: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/hoover-fakes-dealer-mehrdad-sadigh-sold-trinkets-as-ancient-artefacts-xfctncg29.

  1. Zoom Interview with Björn Anderson, Associate Professor of Art History, and Erin Daly, Art History PhD Student, University of Iowa (Sept. 24, 2021) [hereinafter “Interview”]; “Marty Martin,” Linkedin (last visited Nov. 24, 2021). Available at: https://www.linkedin.com/in/marty-martin-1603b542/.

  2. Interview, supra note 1.

  3. Interview, supra note 1; The Archaeological Institute of America’s Iowa Society, AIA Iowa Society Talk: Bjorn Anderson and Erin Daly [10.11.2021], Youtube (Oct. 18, 2021). Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S1rFpNPg_tE.

  4. Interview, supra note 1.

  5. Interview, supra note 1; Wallace Ludel, “New York dealer arrested for selling ‘cookie cutter’ manufactured goods as authentic antiquities,” The Art Newspaper (Aug. 25, 2021). Available at: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/08/26/new-york-dealer-arrested-for-selling-cookie-cutter-manufactured-goods-as-authentic-antiquities.

  6. Interview, supra note 1.

  7. Interview, supra note 1.

  8. Gregory R. Norfleet, “Alleged forgeries here led to NY arrest,” West Branch Times (Sept. 1, 2021). Available at: https://westbranchtimes.com/article.php?viewID=18122.

  9. Interview, supra note 1.

  10. Interview, supra note 1.

  11. Interview, supra note 1.

  12. “Case Details-Charges,” New York State Unified Court System, https://iapps.courts.state.ny.us/webcrim_attorney/Detail?which=charge&docketNumber=MlaOiSETfRH0eUKaHkwuWQ==&countyId=ftUCLXxA/VgUxT4CDSVwBw==&docketId=eHtb5vwUAKlj35_PLUS_YpGh0Mw==&docketDseq=o6PDyKIx4BvSfbvyCgDnHw==&defendantName=Sadigh,+Mehrdad&court=New+York+Supreme+Court+-+Criminal+Term&courtType=S&recordType=C&recordNum=Wco7ruzPvj8WTsH1eIY24Q== (last visited Dec. 19, 2021)

  13. Albertson, supra note 11.

  14. Colin Moynihan, “Antiquities Dealer Admits Mass-Producing Fakes He Sold for Years,” The New York Times (Oct. 13, 2021). Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/10/13/arts/design/fake-antiquities-mehrdad-sadigh.html.

  15. Alastair Talbot, “Manhattan art dealer is sentenced to five years probation for fake Egyptian artifact factory where he sold spray-painted and varnished phony relics for up to $4k to unsuspected collectors for decades,” The Daily Mail (Nov. 16, 2021). Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-10209121/Manhattan-antiques-dealer-sentenced-five-years-probation-fake-artifacts-factory.html.

  16. “About Us,” Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum (last visited Nov. 23, 2021). Available at: https://hoover.archives.gov/about-us.

  17. ICOM Standing Committee for Ethics, “Guidelines on Deaccessioning of the International Council of Museums,” ICOM, September 2019, 2. Available at: https://icom.museum/wp-content/uploads/2019/10/Guidelines-on-Deaccessioning-of-the-International-Council-of-Museums.pdf.

  18. ICOM, supra note 14, 2-3.

  19. Leila Amineddoleh, “How Museums Handle Forgeries in Their Collections,” Artsy (May 10, 2018). Available at: https://www.artsy.net/article/artsy-editorial-museums-handle-forgeries-collections.

  20. ICOM, supra note 14, 3.

  21. “Fake £100,000 Marc Chagall painting ‘to be destroyed’,” BBC News (Feb. 2, 2014). Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-26000331.

  22. Milton Esterow, “Joining Plastic, Glass and Metal on the Recycle List: Fake Art,” The New York Times (Oct. 14, 2021). Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/01/arts/design/fake-art-recycled.html.

  23. Becca Watson, “Faking It: What do Museums do with Forged Artifacts?,” Oxbow Books (May 11, 2017). Available at: https://www.oxbowbooks.com/oxbow/blog/2017/05/11/faking-museums-forged-artifacts/.

  24. Catherine Hickley, “A Museum Puts Its Fakes on Show,” The New York Times (Sept. 30, 2020). Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/30/arts/design/museum-ludwig-fakes-russian-avant-garde.html.

  25. Hickley, supra note 18.

About the Author:

Alexis Redshaw is a senior at the University of Iowa studying ethics and public policy on the pre-law track with minors in art history and philosophy. Alexis is interested in pursuing a career in art law and working with issues around provenance and forgery, as well as advocating for artists in their navigation of the legal world. She is the Center for Art Law’s Undergraduate Intern for the Fall 2021 term.