Art world scandal is catnip for journalists and fraud has dominated the headlines as of late, cutting across both the public and the private spheres. In the public and institutional context, no story has been quite as sensational as the rejection by the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam of what was claimed to be a long-lost sketchbook by Van Gogh, previously ‘authenticated’ by two leading experts: British academic Ronald Pickvance, and Professor Emeritus of the University of Toronto Bogomila Welsh-Ovcharov. The former declared the sketchbook “the most revolutionary discovery in the entire history of Van Gogh’s oeuvre.” Their formal testimonies led to the official attempt for it to be included in the extensive catalogue raisonné of Van Gogh’s body of work on the 15th of November. Total and extensive denial of authenticity was the Museum’s (highly convincing) response to the submission.
But the authenticity of the arbiters of authenticity can also come under scrutiny; one wonders, when refuting claims, whether the Van Gogh Museum considers the fate of the Andy Warhol Foundation’s Art Authentication Board, which was dissolved in 2012. The most notable of the lawsuits brought against the Board (there were more than ten in total, the costs they accrued being cited as reasons for the closure) was pursued by Joe Simon-Whelan, a filmmaker who claimed to have an authentic Warhol self-portrait, which he had purchased in 1989. When it was deemed as inauthentic twice by the Warhol board Simon-Whelan went on to accuse the Foundation of “conduct[ing] a twenty year conspiracy to inflate the prices by denying the authenticity of a certain number as a way to create artificial scarcity.” Although, obviously, a foundation is unlike a museum, one does question whether public and private institutions would even have the capacity and financial backing to be in a position to authenticate works by artists that they represent.
The most drawn-out and convoluted of art world legal cases is indisputably the series of Knoedler art trials (ten in total), culminating in the closure in 2011 of what was perhaps the world’s oldest gallery, established in 1846 by Bavarian-born Michel Knoedler as a frame, print and art supplies store in New York. From its beginnings under a founder who began by dabbling in Old Masters the 1990’s Knoedler was led by the magnetic director Ann Freedman, who focused the gallery’s efforts upon contemporaries such as Richard Diebenkorn, Barnett Newman, and Sean Scully. After its closure in 2011 under mounting accusations of fraud, Knoedler witnessed five lawsuits brought against it (five were settled outside of court). These included one settled by the hedge fund manager Pierre LaGrange for (confidentially; thus allegedly) $6.4 million; LaGrange claimed that he had purchased a fake Pollock from Knoedler for $17 million. But the most significant case of all was brought about by Eleanore and Domenico De Sole, the former president and CEO of Gucci Group and current chairman of Tom Ford International and Sotheby’s, which was just settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. They had been seeking $25 million in damages.
The details of these cases could have been lifted from a Umberto Eco novel – it was alleged that Knoedler & Company knowingly sold some $60 million in forged works falsely attributed to major Abstract Expressionists including Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, and Willem de Kooning. The paintings themselves were actually completed by an unknown Chinese artist based in Queens named Pei-Shen Qian (who fled prosecution to China) at the behest of an unscrupulous art dealer Glafira Rosales. Rosales claimed to have been granted access to these works by an esoteric Swiss gentleman, dubbed Mr X in the trials, who was embedded in the 1960s New York gay art scene. The De Soles’ claim dates back to 2004 when they failed to authenticate a Rothko (‘Untitled, 1956’) that they bought from Freedman for $8.3 million and for which they filed lawsuit in 2012, this year reaching a settlement. Rosales has since plead guilty to charges of wire fraud, money laundering and tax evasion and has yet to be sentenced although she faces up to ninety-nine years in prison.
This trial is significant for a number of reasons, first for the issues it raises relating to accountability, and second to where the burden of due diligence and authentication falls. As some of these disputes make clear, conflict may arise even amongst experts and paintwork analysts; the buyer sometimes has to decide whose opinion carries greater weight – a serious decision considering the monetary values at play. With the Knoedler case in particular the expectation is that the buyers themselves are to be considered ‘experts’ to an extent – De Sole’s previous purchasing history was exploited by Freedman’s lawyer, Luke Nikas. Furthermore, although the dealer Rosales was indeed facing incarceration, plausible deniability and ‘acting in good faith’ protected Freedman from the same fate. In fact, Freeman opened her eponymous gallery on the Upper East Side in 2011 and has been operating there since, selling artists such as Frank Stella. The crux of each lawsuit concerned the figure of the final settlement, creating parallels with the limited extent to the persecution of financial representatives and bankers who knowingly contributed towards the 2008 economic crash. Above all else, these cases are symptomatic of one of the greatest issues with the art world – its utter opacity. The art world functions on handshakes, reputations, and the corroboration of statements by leading ‘experts’, dealers and assorted dignitaries. Although this is unlikely to alter anytime soon, one would hope that these incidents provoke the sensibilities of those buyers who are typically careless when it comes to provenance, scientific analysis and catalogues raisonnés. Caveat emptor.