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.

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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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Back to the Future. New York sales a hint of things to come?

5 11 2010

In constrained economic times, it would be unsurprising to see art buyers swinging their attention to established artists from days of yore. Sure enough, in the latest series of fine art auctions held in New York, some surprising prices were realised for work by artists who were out of favour during the boom. Particularly notable was the sale of Lawrence Alma-Tadema’s The Finding of Moses, 1904 (pictured above). The painting was offered for sale with a pre-auction high-end estimate of US$5 million, and a flurry of bidding quickly pushed the price to $35.9 million, including buyer’s premium. The first session of Sotheby’s auction of 19th century European art realised a healthy $61.5 million and by my reckoning, based on Sotheby’s published results, they sold a healthy 75% or so of the lots on offer.

Christie’s Impressionist and Modernist auction results from 3 November are equally impressive, with a sale total of just under US$231.5 million, and a clearance rate of 80% of the lots on offer. A new record price was set for Henri Matisse for the monumental bronze Nu de dos, 4 état, acquired by über dealer Larry Gagosian on behalf of a private client (in the New York Times, Carol Vogel hints the monied collector in question may be hedge fund billionaire, Steven A. Cohen). The hunger for works by Italian sculptor, Alberto Giacometti, remains unsated, with Femme de Venise V selling for $10,274,500 to a private buyer. An important 1913 cubist painting by Juan Gris, Violon et Guitare, also set a new auction record for that artist when it sold for over $28.6 million to a private European collector. In its press release, Christie’s Americas Chair, Marc Porter, credits the success of the sale to “deep bidding from a diverse group of collectors representing North and South America, Europe and Asia.”

When Sotheby’s goes to auction on 23 November in Sydney, with an estimated sale range of A$3,879,000-5,292,000 and featured lots by artists Rupert Bunny, John Peter Russell, Arthur Streeton, Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan, the powers-that-be will undoubtedly have their collective fingers crossed that the trend back towards traditional and modernist masters has translated to the Antipodes. And, with 20 of the 94 lots on offer by sculptor Robert Klippel, let’s hope bronzes are all the rage here as well.





Art investment made easy, or, parking your loot in Picasso

6 05 2010

Picasso’s 1932 painting “Nu au Plateau de Sculpteur (Nude, Green Leaves and Bust).Picasso made some pretty extraordinary works of art. Nu au Plateau de Sculpteur, 1932, pictured at left, is not one of them. But, proving the old maxim that money and taste aren’t always found hand in hand, the aforementioned painting set a new record price for an artwork sold at auction when the hammer fell at Christie’s in New York on Tuesday night. The going price? US$106.5 million. The sale just narrowly pipped the previous record holder, Giacometti’s Walking Man I, which sold for US$104.3 million at Sotheby’s in London earlier this year (both these prices include buyers’ fees). While I’m at it – as wonderful as Giacometti’s work is, I’d really love to know why his work in particular has been going through the roof of late. Who has the greatest vested interest in seeing his prices go up? That’s not a rhetorical question. I’m genuinely interested in finding out. My inherent suspicion is always peaked when an artist’s market rallies in such a dramatic fashion, particularly when compared with the prices being paid at auction for equally well-regarded peers’ works of art.

But, back to Picasso. A price precedent has been set for large Picasso canvases for quite some time. Way back in the economic golden days of 2004, someone paid US$104.1 million for Boy with a Pipe, 1905 – in my opinion a far more powerful work than the latest record-breaker. For those fortunate people who managed to hold onto the odd pile of cash in the wake of the GFC, this means that a high-profile Picasso painting is a good place to park said cash while the stock market continues to buck and turn. With the economic and political situation in Europe looking ominous, it’s no surprise at all to find that secure material assets are finding favour amongst investors. Word is that much of this investment is coming from China.

The idea of art as material asset really took off in the post-war decades – in 1955, Fortune magazine declared art to be one of the most desirable international currencies. The art market as we know it today, particularly the auction trade, came into its own after then. Whereas previously auctions tended to be the purview of sombre and serious dealers and dedicated collectors, in the 1960s and beyond, they became social affairs as high society and the monied classes tussled over artworks that would bring them cachet and, if they were lucky, a secure way to invest a portion of their fortunes. No matter how unimpressed you are by Picasso’s market-topping painting, for whomever divested themselves of the equivalent of Greece’s national debt (ok – yes, an exaggeration) to acquire it can be pretty certain that their money is safe, as long as the art market status quo remains steady. And there are too many wealthy individuals and organisations heavily invested in said market for it to be undermined anytime soon.

And, as an aside, for anyone who questions why Christie’s closed its Australian branch and how Tim Goodman managed to secure what amounts to a Sotheby’s franchise Downunder, consider this – the price for the Picasso painting in Australian kangaroubles amounts to about $118 million. During the boom years 1999-2008, only once did the total… TOTAL … amount of art sold at auction in Australia exceed that amount. The approximate average for that ten year period was about A$90 million. In short? To say the Australian market is small change for the international auction leviathans is something of an understatement.

(image via nytimes.com)





Nothing new under the sun: lessons in appropriation 101

16 04 2010

Ever since Marcel Duchamp signed a (thankfully, factory-fresh) urinal ‘R.Mutt’ and presented it at the 1917 Society of Independent Artists’ exhibition in New York (illustrated at left), art has been as much about ideas as it has been about the objects that artists make. For many contemporary artists, the object itself is a by-product of the artistic process, and far less important, if not virtually irrelevant, to the action of making the artwork which for many artists is the principal artistic activity.

Artists like Sam Leach, whose Wynne prize-winning painting is attracting such controversy at the moment, appropriate other artists’ imagery under the very reasonable assumption that there is nothing new under the sun, and that the premise of ‘originality’ is something of a furphy in the world of art. For example, renowned American artist Sherrie Levine uses her own camera to take photos of famous works of art, and then signs and exhibits them as her own. Her best known series, one of which I reproduce below, is after the photographs of Depression-era photographer, Walker Evans. Levine took her photos from  a book in which the Evans photos were reproduced. So, she printed a photo she had taken from a print of a photo in a book which was printed from a photo of a photo… see what she’s doing there with your idea of what is original?

The most exciting contemporary artists make works of art that are a whole lot more than simply technically proficient visual representations of something else. After all, we’ve got photography to do that these days. Appropriation challenges our preconceptions about originality – what does an artist’s ‘signature’ really mean? For example – when Picasso’s Weeping Woman was stolen from the National Gallery of Victoria in 1986 by a group calling itself the Australian Cultural Terrorists, Juan Davila painted a perfect replica of the painting and presented it to the NGV. He wrote a letter to the gallery to accompany the painting, saying that he was presenting it ‘to allow you to have the same masterpiece at no cost’ and so that the gallery could ‘direct your attention to contemporary art in Australia and the plight of young artists, ignored for so long by your gallery.’ Needless to say, the NGV declined Davila’s gracious offer and, much to the gallery’s relief, the painting was returned intact.

The question of arts funding aside, it cuts to the heart of one of the issues that artists who appropriate other artists’ imagery have been wrestling with for decades – if it were an exact replica of Picasso’s painting, how would it diminish an audience’s experience if they were viewing the replica rather than the original? What is it that differentiates one from the other? If art really is about visual experiences, why should it matter if you stand in front of a faithful copy of a famous painting? In a physical sense, the object you are looking at differs in no way from the original. One of the ideas that these artists are playing with is that the very idea of  the ‘original’ and ‘authentic’ object is perpetuated simply because it serves the market’s best interests. For various reasons, I don’t totally agree with this – humankind’s propensity for worshipping genius as embodied in art objects goes back much further than that – but that’s for another day.

Sherrie Levine.jpg

In short – the argument that Sam Leach should be stripped of his prize because he has ‘copied’ another artist’s work is, to be polite, painfully simplistic (although, see yesterday’s post for my ponderings on the question of copyright, which is another issue altogether). It does still leave open the question I raised about whether or not he was eligible to enter the competition under the terms of the prize, however. But that’s one for the AGNSW trustees to figure out.

(images: Marcel Duchamp, ‘Fountain’, via: http://www.tcf.ua.edu; Sherrie Levine, ‘After Walker Evans’, 1981, copyright Sherrie Levine, via: www.artsjournal.com)