For the past dozen years, our annual “State of the Market” reports have repeatedly called attention to the impact of rising income inequality on the art market, correlating the decline of the American middle class with the erosion of the middle market. Last summer’s report described how a “winner-take-all” mentality has transformed some investors and art collectors into gamblers, creating a risky, high-stakes game at the market’s tiny top end. As a result, there is a pervasive sense that our economic system metes out rewards in ways that are at best unfairly arbitrary, and at worst deliberately rigged in favor of a select few. Within the art world, this combination of circumstances creates a situation in which the potential payoff for successful forgers has risen exponentially, while faith in the expertise that once safeguarded the integrity of the market has declined precipitously. Just when we need them most, art experts find themselves increasingly under attack.
Stories about art forgery have been much in the news lately. In October 2011, Wolfgang Beltracchi and three collaborators pleaded guilty in a German court to faking works in the styles of Derain, Léger, Pechstein, Kees van Dongen, Max Ernst and others that deceived a number of leading experts, dealers and auction houses. Scarcely a month later, America’s oldest gallery, Knoedler, ceased operations following allegations that its former president, Ann Freedman, had sold inauthentic works attributed to such artists as Jackson Pollock, Richard Diebenkorn and Robert Motherwell. Meanwhile, doubts circulate regarding a group of plaster casts said to have been created by Edgar Degas, and several hundred drawings supposedly given by Francis Bacon to an Italian lover, but few scholars have been willing to openly voice their negative views. A symposium on the purported Bacons, scheduled to take place at London’s Courtauld Institute in January, was cancelled due to fears of litigation.
“Anyone can say with impunity that a painting is an authentic work, based solely on personal opinion,” notes Jack Flam, who as president of the foundation overseeing Motherwell’s catalogue raisonné was among the first to go public about the alleged fakes sold by Knoedler. “But if a scholar who specializes in that artist’s work says the painting is not authentic, the threat of a lawsuit arises—even though the scholar’s opinion is right and is being offered gratis and in the public interest.” After spending years and nearly $7 million defending itself against a suit by the disgruntled owner of a questionable silkscreen, the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts recently announced that its authentication board would be dissolved. Plagued by similar lawsuits, the Pollock-Krasner Foundation suspended its authentication services in 1995. Last June, the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation did likewise. Though it has never been sued, the Lichtenstein Foundation felt that the risk of litigation and the cost of liability insurance constituted an unjustifiable drain on its resources.
Since its founding in 1939, the Galerie St. Etienne has assisted with the compilation of numerous catalogues raisonnés and produced five of its own (on Richard Gerstl, Grandma Moses, and on the paintings, prints and works on paper of Egon Schiele). Such scholarship was at one time considered the natural domain of dealers, who maintain professional ties to artists and their estates, and records of exhibitions and other transactions that are central to documenting an oeuvre. Dealers have long-term, in-depth exposure to the work of artists in whom they specialize and a vested interest in ascertaining the authenticity of what they sell. Furthermore, dealers are among the few people with the financial wherewithal and motivation to sustain the grueling and sometimes decades-long process of writing a catalogue raisonné.
Despite the illustrious tradition of dealer-sponsored catalogues raisonnés, there are those who believe that a dealer’s involvement in the marketplace compromises his or her objectivity. While this is no doubt an issue every dealer/authenticator must grapple with, no other catalogue raisonné model is entirely foolproof, either. Artists’ estates, like dealers, often have access to vital records and information about the artist’s working methods, but there is no guarantee that heirs will engage competently or judiciously with their inheritance. Estates and foundations that own art can also, like dealers, be accused of conflict of interest (or antitrust violations, as happened in the above-mentioned Warhol case). Independent scholars are sometimes offered a stake in the sales proceeds for authenticating dubious works. Scholarly committees are feasible only if the artist in question is sufficiently important to have inspired multiple well-versed experts. And of course well-meaning, knowledgeable scholars can disagree or make mistakes.
Consensus about the reliability of a given expert is reached within the art world gradually, based on performance over time. Art authentication is neither fun nor glamorous, and (even before factoring in possible legal costs) it is not especially lucrative. Becoming an expert requires a reasonably good eye, but most of all it demands years of conscientious immersion in the artist’s work. Every artist sets his or her own terms of study, based on the idiosyncratic manipulation of materials, unique processes and the developmental interconnections among disparate works. As works are systematically examined and catalogued, these stylistic nuances become clear, and as the dispersion of the oeuvre is tracked across the globe, patterns of ownership also make themselves known. While helpful in supplementing the physical evidence presented by an object, provenance is not in and of itself sufficient to authenticate a work. (Many prominent collectors have owned fakes.) Similarly, the identification of pigments unknown during an artist’s lifetime may be used to unmask a forgery, but the presence of historically appropriate materials does not necessarily prove authenticity. Although provenance and scientific testing can assist in the authentication process, they cannot substitute for connoisseurship.
The former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Hoving, described connoisseurship as an “ineffable sense.” “It is very largely a question of accumulated experience upon which your spirit sets unconsciously,” the Renaissance art expert Bernard Berenson explained. “When I see a picture, in most cases I recognize it at once as being or not being by the master it is ascribed to; the rest is merely a question of how to fish out the evidence that will make the conviction as plain to others as it is to me.” Though connoisseurship is founded on years of focused study, the ability to discern things not immediately visible to most people can make the expert seem like a person claiming to see ghosts. To those with an ax to grind, the expert’s judgment can appear offensively capricious, a situation that is not helped by the fact that attorneys often advise clients not to give reasoned opinions, under the assumption that this will only generate a bottomless quagmire of arguments and counter-arguments. Ultimately, authenticity does not hinge on any one or two factors, but rather on the way innumerable small, subtle details hang together.
Among the so-called Schieles regularly submitted to the Galerie St. Etienne for authentication, the vast majority—roughly 30 to 40 works a year—turn out to be fakes. Most of these are so bad as to be virtually harmless. Some are nothing more than innocent homages, copies of documented works that subsequently are unwittingly mistaken for the real thing. This sort of copy tends to be inept, but there are also exquisitely accurate copies that can get confused with the original (especially if its location is unknown or obscure). On occasion a copyist intentionally changes the picture’s date to throw people off the trail, suggesting that the copy is a study for, or later iteration of its prototype. A more creative forger may attempt a pastiche that combines elements from several genuine works. And then there is the not uncommon practice of appending a forged signature to a preexisting work by another artist. Very, very few forgers have the talent to create wholly original compositions similar enough in style to the work of a famous artist that they fool even moderately informed people, much less experts.
Most fakes enter the market at the bottom of the “food chain”: through yard sales, flea markets, thrift shops and eBay. “Antiques Roadshow” has encouraged people to believe that everyone has treasure in their attic, but in fact this is rarely the case. (In over three decades of authenticating Schieles, we have encountered exactly one genuine drawing that was acquired at a yard sale.) So long as the price is low, there is little danger in taking a chance on a flea-market “find.” These fakes are usually identified as such before they can enter the high-end art market.
Because it is unusual for a genuine work by a well-known artist to materialize out of nowhere, more ambitious forgeries frequently come with elaborate stories: reports by “experts” appointed by the owner, reams of meaningless scientific documentation, arcane invented provenances. In the 1970s, a Schiele forger had facsimiles of the Galerie St. Etienne’s letterhead printed so that he could produce false letters of authentication. (We got wind of the scheme because the forger neglected to pay the printer, who contacted us using the information on the stationery.) The Beltracchi gang concocted beautiful collection labels for the Weimar-era dealer Alfred Flechtheim. In addition to compiling impressive exhibition histories for his fakes, Beltracchi traced the works back to two fictitious collectors, “Werner Jägers” and “Wilhelm Knops.” The now-suspect works sold by Knoedler were all brokered by an obscure Long Island dealer named Glafira Rosales, who claimed to have gotten them from a mysterious “Mr. X, Jr.,” the son of the original owner. According to a recent article in Vanity Fair, Rosales said the identity of “Mr. X” had to be kept secret because he was a closeted homosexual who assembled his collection through gay contacts in the art world.
Successful forgeries are surprisingly seductive and can inspire passionate loyalty in their advocates, who become emotionally invested in the works. The temptations are not only financial; hubris also plays a role. While some fakes are battered by artificial aging, others are exceptionally fresh: brighter and more appealing than originals, which are marked by the exploratory complexities that are part of the creative process. As the artist Frank Stella said of the Knoedler/Rosales pictures, they appear “too good to be true.” (Stella nonetheless affirmed his belief in the authenticity of the collection as a whole.) The controversial Bacon collection includes pieces that are far larger and more colorful than any of the artist’s previously authenticated drawings, and that relate closely to his most famous (and pricey) paintings.
In many cases of contested authenticity, there is no way to achieve objective certainty. The legal system is not designed to adjudicate such matters. After a graphologist testified that the signatures on the disputed Bacon drawings are genuine (albeit possibly produced in a state of inebriation), an Italian court ruled that the works could not be called fakes. But the court did not say that the drawings are authentic, either, and the matter remains unresolved. Confronted by forensic test results indicating that a Pollock and several Motherwells acquired from Rosales contain pigments that did not exist at the time the works are purported to have been created, Knoedler’s ex-president suggested that the painters might have had access to experimental materials not yet in general circulation. A definitive scientific method of proof—the holy grail of authentication—seemed to be within reach when the Canadian forensics expert Peter Paul Biro announced that he had developed a process for identifying artists’ fingerprints on artworks. However, several fingerprint specialists interviewed for a 2010 New Yorker profile of Biro questioned the similarity of the fingerprints, suggesting they might have been applied by means of a rubber stamp. (Biro is presently suing The New Yorker’s parent company, Condé Nast, for libel.)
Biro’s best-known client is a former truck driver named Teri Horton, who in the early 1990s bought a large drip painting for $5.00 at a California thrift store. “Who the #$&% is Jackson Pollock,” Horton’s response when told the canvas might be by the master, became the title of a 2006 documentary tracing her and Biro’s crusade against art-world skeptics. With her spunky combination of ignorance and irreverence, Horton proved a perfect foil for dismissive experts like Thomas Hoving. The film, explained its director Harry Moses, is really “a story about class in America…a story about the art world looking down its nose at this woman with an eighth-grade education.” The film plays to the prevalent stereotype of the art world as “a secretive, clubby place” (in the words of a recent New York Times article), a “world of illusion” (in the words of Glafira Rosales’s lawyer). The belief that “smart and tricky art dealers” run a “racket” for their own benefit formed the basis of a landmark lawsuit against the dealer Joseph Duveen in 1920, and a version of this argument has surfaced in numerous subsequent attacks on authenticators, including the antitrust allegations made against the Warhol Foundation. After all, if the game is fixed, why shouldn’t the Teri Hortons of this world have their chance at the big prize?
The present crisis of the art expert arises from a confluence of populist anger at what is perceived as a self-serving wealthy elite, and the inherent subjectivity of the authentication process. Even as our economic system becomes less democratic, there is a push toward the democratization of expertise, in which everyone’s opinion is deemed equally valid, and anyone can find an “authority” to say whatever he or she wants. This leads to a free-for-all in which knowledge and truth are irrelevant, and winning is all that counts. Litigiousness infects all segments of American society, turning our legal system into a surrogate gambling casino, a forum for revenge or extortion. Without economic justice, justice in the larger sense is at risk.