Only yesterday, the air in Sydney was filled with the fug of burning fakes. Yes – in fine Australian form, the three artworks that were determined to be fakes in a landmark Victorian Supreme Court case last month were tossed onto the barbie by artists Charles Blackman and Robert Dickerson and turned into so much worthless charcoal. But proving the popular wisdom that it’s not always just the cream that floats to the surface, yet another questionable painting has bobbed into view. In an article published in The Age today, journalist Gabriella Coslovich reveals that a painting by Brett Whiteley that would qualify as significant if it were authentic (above), may well be yet another example of what is often euphemistically described as ‘problematic’.
It is reported that Associate Professor Robyn Sloggett of the University of Melbourne was given the painting for testing by a Sydney collector who had been advised by Whiteley’s widow that she believed it to be a fake. The monumental painting measures 121 x 215 cms, and changed hands at a cost of $1.1 million, and according to the article, testing revealed that the paint used in the painting did not ‘behave’ like paint that was 22 years old. Although Victoria Police launched an investigation, the collector has subsequently withdrawn his complaint after receiving a full refund with interest and costs. No mention is made of the whereabouts of the painting now, and there is a suggestion that there are two other major Whiteley fakes/forgeries in the hands of collectors that came from the same source.
Robyn Sloggett has estimated that 10% of the paintings circulating in the art market, both in Australia and internationally, are misattributed. It’s important to note that this doesn’t necessarily mean all of these are forgeries… at which point I should offer a brief definition or two. A forgery is an artwork deliberately made with the intention of deceiving a buyer; a fake is a work of art that, somewhere along the way, has been misattributed to another artist. So if I were to source paper from the 1950s and put together a Blackman Schoolgirls charcoal drawing, sign it ‘Blackman’, and submit it for auction as a Blackman, that object is a forgery. But if an art student decided he or she wanted to learn from Blackman’s style, and produced a series of drawings that closely replicated the senior artist’s work, and at some point those drawings found themselves on the open market where a keen auction house representative innocently attributed them to Blackman and entered them in the catalogue as such, these would be fakes. This is why the painting at the NGV formerly attributed to Van Gogh is a fake, not a forgery. Whoever did make that painting did not intend for us to think it was by the Dutch master.
Of course, fakes can also become forgeries – for example, if an unscrupulous individual discoverers the folio of drawings in the style of Blackman, adds a Blackman signature, and then submits them to an auction house for sale as Blackmans, these become forgeries. This happens. In fact, it happened to me once. A small, unsigned drawing in the style of a very well-known Australian artist passed through a Leonard Joel weekly auction when I was running the art department. It was brought back to the auction house some time later, although this time it had a signature, and the seller wanted it offered for sale as an authentic work by that artist. And here’s a conundrum for you to contemplate – what if the small, unsigned drawing really was by said artist, which it could have been? What does the addition of a forged signature do to its authenticity?
The only reason the aforementioned drawing didn’t end up offered for sale as an authentic work was because I remembered it from the weekly auction. In an auction house, where specialists can see hundreds if not thousands of artworks a week, when dealing with relatively modest artworks at the low end of the market, it’s not financially viable to undertake exhaustive research to confirm that a $1,200 drawing has a secure provenance. It’s customary to take a seller’s representations about provenance and ownership at face value. Although there are slip-ups on the part of people trying to sell questionable artworks. My favourite example was when someone bought me a painting that was purported to be by the Melbourne painter, Bill Coleman. I took one, very quick, look at it and declared it a forgery. The would-be seller was indignant and asked me how I knew. I responded with some gobbledy-gook about stylistic inconsistencies because my gut told me that this person knew exactly what he was doing and I didn’t want to point out what was an obvious error that would, I hoped, be obvious to anyone else who looked at the artwork. The problem? ‘Coleman’ was spelt ‘Colleman’.
This highlights some big issues in the world of fakes/forgeries. For one thing, the market in dodgy artworks is not limited to the top end of the market. Even if it had been authentic, the Coleman painting would only have been worth $900 or so. Artworks at this end of the market are barely scrutinised under normal circumstances, whereas significant paintings are usually expected to have a secure provenance (exhibition history etc.). But the matter of greatest concern is that dodgy artworks generally are reabsorbed into the darkest depths of the market. The destruction of the Blackman and Dickerson fakes is, to date, an exception to the rule – even where a painting is determined beyond doubt to be inauthentic, after refunds and restitution are paid to the buyer, the original seller gets the artwork back. This is the case with the Whiteley Lavender Bay painting discussed in The Age today. The painting has been returned to the seller, and even if he or she never intends to offer it for sale, what happens in thirty years’ time when all this has been forgotten?
(image: ‘Orange Lavender Bay’, sold as a Brett Whiteley painting; via The Age)