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Forgery and Fraud in the Art Market, As Usual

At the end of October, ArtInfo reported that “One of the world’s largest art forgery scandals” had ended in a Cologne courtroom when Wolfgant Beltracchi, leader of a forgery ring, was sentenced to six years in prison.

But putting Beltracchi behind bars has not put forgery in the art world to rest. On December 1, 2011, Pierre Lagrange filed suit against an already beleaguered Knoedler Gallery for selling a forged Pollock for $17 million. The Knoedler Gallery in New York came under fire for other forgery matters and closed in December 2011 after 165 years in the business. Lagrange alleges in his suit that the gallery sold him a forged Pollock in 2007 for $17 million.

According to The Art Newspaper, this case and others, as well as the Beltracchi investigation, “lay bare the inherent problems of authenticating works of art in an industry reliant on reputation and trust.”

A number of galleries and dealers have been caught unaware dealing forged works (see GalleristNY), including prominent New York dealer Richard Feigen. Feigen acted as an agent in the sale of a fake Max Ernst work, forged by Beltracchi himself. Although he has been reimbursed and has paid back his client, he is still trying to recover N.Y. sales tax of over $250,000.

Meanwhile, sympathy has been growing for the forgers. A November article from The Art Newspaper describes an almost admiration for the forgers.

“While the case has sent shockwaves through the art world, German newspaper Frankfurter Rundschau calls the group a “nice family of counterfeiters”, and most media outlets, from the local newspaper Badische Zeitung to the popular weekly magazine Der Spiegel, have been calling Beltracchi a filou, or rogue. Die Welt says that the “likeable” Beltracchi deserves our applause for his masterly forgeries, while an opinion piece in Die Zeit calls for an exhibition of the fakes. The Frankfurter Allgemeine (FAZ) says that Beltracchi “painted the best Campendonk that ever was.”

How does the law determine if a work is a fake? Shouldn’t the opinion of an art world expert matter more than that of a judge? Science, namely forensic examination, appears to trump either opinion. Indeed, the article in the Art Newspaper points out that the practice of authentication by experts is becoming less popular after a spate of recent high-profile lawsuits. This blog has posted about some of these lawsuits, including claims against the Andy Warhol Authentication Board and The Dedalus Foundation.

Jack Flam, of the Dedalus Foundation, told the Art Newspaper that the law should change: “Now is the time for legislation to protect free speech for scholars and writers of catalogues raisonnés. Without courage, honesty and open communication, forgeries will distort art history and pollute the market.” Should lawmakers be in control of the art market?

The Wall Street Journal reports another recent forgery case involving a real estate broker who moonlights in selling art. He bought forged Damien Hirst works and doctored appraisals before reselling them. There appears to be evidence demonstrating that the dealer genuinely believed the works to be genuine – but his belief clearly didn’t have much basis. He’s expected to be sentenced next week to 60 days in jail and ordered to pay restitution. Tongue in cheek, the Wall Street Journal also points out that Hirst himself has recently come under criticism – “for openly using assistants to create most of his canvases.”

Apparently, “real art” is hard to come by on the art market.

[Read more at The Art Newspaper]