When is a fake not a fake?

18 01 2013

Sounds like a philosophical conundrum along the lines of “when a tree falls in a distant forest etc”, doesn’t it? But the answer is quite straight-forward. Context –  I was having a conversation with a very well-connected art-world friend yesterday, and we were bemoaning the misuse of terminology when people refer to questionable works of art.

It’s really simple.

‘Forgery’: a work of art made to deceive.

‘Fake’: a work of art which has been identified as misattributed (credited to the wrong artist), but not in a way that was deliberately intended to deceive.

So the terminology is very simple to grasp.

Image

Wolfgang Beltracchi with the forged Heinrich Campendonk painting sold at auction in 2006 for $3.6 million. (Image via Vanity Fair: http://www.vanityfair.com)

Example of a forgery: the paintings made by German forger Wolfgang Beltracchi in the manner of modern masters including Léger and Ernst. He fabricated two bogus collections – the ‘Knops’ and ‘Jägers’ – to give his forgeries a provenance and managed to dupe many prominent experts and collectors including comedian and writer, Steve Martin. Beltracchi was sentenced to six years in prison in October 2011 for forging fourteen paintings worth $45 million (the whole messy saga is documented in an extensive article in Vanity Fair, which you can find… here.)

No question at all that the paintings Beltracchi made – and it’s suspected that he may have made many thousands that have yet to be (and most likely will never be) detected – were forgeries.

Image

Gerard Vaughan, former Director of the NGV, with the Gallery’s fake Van Gogh painting. (Image via http://www.theage.com.au)

Example of a fake: I’m always pulling this one out as an example, but it’s so clear-cut it’s hard to resist. The National Gallery of Victoria’s painting-formally-known-as-Van-Gogh. It had been in the NGV collection as a work by the Dutch master since 1940, but in 2007, the Van Gogh Museum questioned its attribution, and declared it to have been made by hands other than Van Gogh’s. It was determined that it was made by one of his contemporaries, but that there was no intention to deceive by the misattribution. It was simply a case of mistaken identity. 

Sounds easy, right? Sadly, as is often the case in the art world, there are so many – certainly more than fifty! – shades of grey. Ponder the following:

  • The Picasso print I have seen that is an original. No doubt. But at some point in its history, some turkey has decided it needed a signature and edition number to make it more marketable (for that, read ‘more valuable’). So the print, which was issued without a signature or edition number, is, and remains authentic. But the pencil signature and edition number? Forged. What does that mean for the authenticity of the work of art as a whole? 
  • The lovely little unsigned ink drawing that passed through Leonard Joel’s weekly auction room while I was running the art department that may (or may not) have been an original Charles Blackman. But in the absence of any supporting evidence, and given the vendor’s unwillingness to spend any time or money researching further, we had to give it the very wishy-washy, but safe, attribution ‘Australian School’. The drawing sold. Then reappeared a year and a half later. With the initials ‘C.B.’ inscribed on it in pencil. So we have what may – may – have been an original artwork, with a signature that was forged. What do you do with something like thImageat?
  • What about the very common practice of restoring or repairing a work of art, or completing an unfinished work? How much is too much when it comes to ‘fixing’ an existing work of art? Rumours abound in the Australian art world about frequent and startlingly audacious ‘reworkings’ of paintings by some of the country’s best-known artists. But this practice is nothing new. Dealer Joseph Duveen, who was one of the grand-daddies of the modern art market, was notorious for ‘touching up’ the Old Master paintings he sold to his American clients. He did so to ‘prettify’ them and make them more appealing to late nineteenth and early twentieth-century sensibilities. Witness the image here – Sebastiano Mainardi’s Portrait of a lady. On the right is the original image as crafted by Mainardi. The image on the left shows the painting as it appeared when sold to Andrew Mellon. Original/authentic or not?

I could go on ad infinitum. But I shan’t. I’ve bored you enough already. Suffice it to say it is a very, very fraught area.

 

 

 

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What a pisser! Lazy post. Sorry.

7 01 2013
Image

Marcel Duchamp, ‘Fountain’. Image via tate.org.

More to come on more things. Soon. I promise. In the meantime, here’s a link to an article I wrote for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, ‘Expertise Goes Down the Drain’. Hope it’s good for what ails ye. Highlight for me? It gave the editors an excuse to publish a gigantic urinal across two pages in the Insight section of the paper.





One Moore questionable artwork withdrawn from auction.

9 02 2011

Oh, those puns just write themselves. In an article published in today’s Age, ‘Auction house fears sculpture may be less than a Moore’ (see what I mean?), Gabriella Coslovich reveals that a sculpture listed in Mossgreen’s latest catalogue as a work by acclaimed British sculptor, Henry Moore, may not be all that it seems. The image here, taken from The Age, shows the more Moore sculpture at left, and the less Moore sculpture on the right. Don’t worry. I’ll stop now.

Mossgreen is dispersing Melbourne-based painter Robert Doble’s collection of art, artefacts and ephemera on February 21. The sculpture formerly known as ‘Mother and Child‘, and now most likely referred to by Mossgreen staff as “that #*!*%!# piece of $#!*” was to have been the highlight of what is a very eclectic collection (have a peek at the online catalogue here). It has now been withdrawn from sale after revelations from an interested buyer that it may be a forgery. Coslovich refers to an article published in 1993 in The Independent that quotes the Henry Moore Foundation, which administers the artist’s estate; Julie Summers, deputy curator of the Foundation, says of the flood of Moore forgeries on the market: “It’s terrifying”.

Unfortunately for Robert Doble, mother-and-child compositions are the most often faked. The telltale signs of a forgery that’s been cast from an original work? The base on a forgery will be cast with the sculpture, whereas with the original, the sculpture will be attached separately to the base. Also, as the casting process causes the bronze to shrink during cooling, the forgery will be slightly smaller.

The biggest concern with this for the art world in general? These works continue to circulate. Robert Doble has indicated that he intends to give it to a friend as a 50th birthday gift. Although it’s unlikely to find its way back onto the market anytime soon, what about in ten or fifteen years or so, when all the fuss has died down? When I was at Leonard Joel, I once saw the wonderful Treena Joel (granddaughter of Leonard) write ‘FAKE’ across the back of a canvas that had been submitted for sale at Joel’s, and categorically proven to be a fake or forgery. Although I’m fairly sure that defacing someone else’s property like that could get you in trouble, I appreciate the sentiment.

In France, authorities are permitted to remove signatures from fake works of art. Here? Most of the time, they end up back in private hands only to resurface on the market in the future. That’s why I toasted the incineration of the notorious Blackman and Dickerson forgeries last year. Burn them. Burn them all!

(Image: ‘The Age’ online)





High-risk occupations: Tightrope walker. Stunt driver. Art valuer.

12 08 2010

During the course of a discussion over a lovely long lunch at Cicciolina in St Kilda yesterday with one of my favourite art-world people, it occurred to me that the shape of the industry as we know it is set to undergo some pretty major changes.

What set me off was my dining companion’s announcement that she is no longer going to produce written valuations of artworks. Her not at all unreasonable decision is a response to the legal ramifications of Justice Vickery’s findings in the recent case against Peter Gant. Although the media hype around the case focussed on the prevalence of fakes and forgeries in the Australian art market, for the industry the issue of greatest immediate concern is a precedent that seems to place much greater levels of legal responsibility in the hands of those who value art.

It goes a little something like this – Peter Gant supplied a valuation for three artworks by Charles Blackman and Robert Dickerson. The authenticity of these artworks was challenged by the artists, and Blackman and Dickerson took action against Gant, claiming he had breached section 9 of the Fair Trading Act, which holds that: ‘A person must not, in trade or commerce, engage in conduct that is misleading or deceptive or is likely to mislead or deceive’ (the case is very nicely summarised in a recent article in Art + Law by Moira C. McKenzie).

Gant stated in court that he had produced the written valuations in good faith, without any intent to deceive or mislead, and that his attribution of the works to the hands of those artists was made as a matter of expert opinion. Justice Vickery found that the intent of Gant as valuer was irrelevant, but that: ‘it is open to conclude that the valuations also contained an implicit representation of fact that each of the works in contention were authentic works, each having been created by one of the Plaintiffs.’ Most ominously for all valuers of Australian art, Justice Vickery also found that it mattered little whether or not Gant knew that the works he was selling were fakes; he deemed the misattribution and sale of the works to be ‘serious’ breaches of the Fair Trading Act.

My dining companion, who shall remain anonymous, has determined that the risk to her business and reputation is too great. Because, no matter how wise we are after the event and how many of us marvel at how on earth anyone could possibly ever have imagined that something proven to be a forgery or fake was ever authentic, the reality is that a huge number of dodgy artworks are circulating in the marketplace unnoticed. How many other art valuers are going to decide that the legal and financial risks associated with endorsing the authorship of a fake/forgery by providing a valuation are too great?

(Image: http://photos.ibibo.com)





A Whiteley-Wash? Questions Asked About Yet Another Significant Australian Painting

19 07 2010

The suspected fake <i>Orange Lavender Bay</i>.

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)





Bonfire of the Vanities: Blackman and Dickerson artworks determined to be fake and ordered destroyed

1 06 2010

Street Scene with Schoolgirl, supposedly by Charles Blackman.A small but portentous victory for artists and art buyers alike today, with the ruling of Justice Peter Vickery that three works of art by Charles Blackman and Robert Dickerson are forgeries and must be destroyed. The artworks, one of which is illustrated at left, were sold by art dealer, Peter Gant, although the court found that Gant did not know the works were fakes or that he had acted improperly. The case was brought against Gant by Dickerson and Blackman in the Victorian Supreme Court, their lawyers claiming that the fake artworks damaged the artists’ reputations by “‘occasioning uncertainty in the market and damage to the financial value of the artistic works owned by each plaintiff.” Gant has spoken in the past about how easy it is for a dealer to be caught out by a dodgy artwork – in a 1999 Four Corners program, Rogue’s Gallery, (as an aside, the transcript makes fascinating reading) in response to the question “You’ve been caught with duds?”, Gant responded “Oh yeah, I don’t know any dealers that haven’t.” A trap for young players, it would seem.

This has major implications for the market as it gives great weight to the value of connoisseurship when determining whether or not a work of art is authentic. It also highlights something I’ve been banging on about for a while, and that is that the most successful forgeries are those that appear in the lower half of the art market. To attempt to fake a significant painting is difficult – catalogues and records from exhibitions during an artist’s lifetime can be reasonably easily accessed to determine whether or not a major work is authentic, and artists’ records and personal recollections will be fairly reliable when it comes to ‘hero’ artworks. But when it comes to minor pieces – such as the works soon to be incinerated – it’s another matter altogether. Two of the Blackman fakes were sold to a buyer for $13,500 – no small amount in a general sense, but small change in the art market. Sales at this level rarely attract the level of scrutiny dedicated to sales at the top end of the market.

Prepare for some pretty significant fall-out.

(image: http://www.theage.com.au)