Top collector Werner Bokelberg suing for over $1.7 million-worth of “vintage” Man Ray prints

Magnificent Man Rays turn out to be too good to be true, throwing doubt over other collections of his work



A tale of fake Man Rays has stunned the photography market. The photographer and collector Werner Bokelberg claims to have brought, for FFr10 million (around £1 million or $1.7 million), sixty-one photographs sold as “vintage” work of the 1920s and 1930s; scientific checks on the paper, however, show that the photographs are prints made in 1992-93, many years after the death of Man Ray in 1976. Bokelberg’s lawyer, Maître Jean-Marie Degueldre, has issued a writ.

Werner Bokelberg, who lives between Hamburg and Paris, is one of the most celebrated collectors of photography; his collection, from the nineteenth century to 1940, was exhibited at the Kunsthaus in Zurich in 1989. The collection is far from static, however, because Mr Bokelberg buys and sells “to improve the whole,” he claims. He has presented part of his collection of daguerreotypes to the Getty Museum.

On 16 November 1983 some “rare photographs of Man Ray” were advertised in a sale at Drouot. Mr Bokelberg describes how everyone was fascinated by the quality of the images. He bought two, “The Prayer” and “Transatlantic”. Eleven years passed. Then, on 15 October, 1994 Mr Bokelberg received a fax from a certain Benjamin Walter, who claimed to have got hold of his name from Drouot, the sale room. He offered him a work by Duchamp which Mr Bokelberg initially turned down. A second meeting at the Café de Flore followed. There Mr Walter offered him four “magnificent” vintage prints of the best known photographs by Man Ray: “Violin d’Ingres”, “La Tonsure”, “Kiki à la plage”, “James Joyce”, explaining to Mr Bokelberg that his father Lucien had become friendly with Man Ray after helping him to move to France.

Although Mr Bokelberg knew that prints by Man Ray were difficult to find he brought them for between FFr500,000 and 600,000, paying cash for them.

He acquired a total of sixty-one pictures and paid FFr10 million in all. “Walter always made the trip from Hamburg to Paris and back in a day. He would arrive at 1pm and take the 4pm plane back. In Paris he would give me the prints and then we would go together to my bank.”

In spite of this strange behaviour, Mr Bokelberg was convinced by the certificates Benjamin Walter produced signed by Drouot’s expert Gérard Lévy in 1983. One certificate states: “I know these photographs belonging to Monsieur Walter, whose father, a collector, was a friend of Man Ray’. Today Mr Lévy does not reject the certificates but he has requested to see the pictures that he verified again, implying that the pictures bought by Mr Bokelberg were not the same ones.

Werner Bokelberg experienced his first doubts in 1995. “I asked Walter for prints that I knew were unavailable, like the portrait of Duchamp; he told me he had them.” He showed some of his purchases to Maria Morris Hambourg, director of the department of photography at the Metropolitan Museum, who was preparing a Man Ray exhibition. Some people say he hoped to sell them to her.

After first admiring the prints she began to be suspicious of their provenance; when she inspected them more closely she voiced her doubts about the Agfa paper used and Mr Bokelberg decided to clear the matter up.

He sent some prints to Agfa in Leverkusen. In February 1997 the fatal report was made; the paper used was a “nostalgic” revival marketed between 1992 and 1993. The victim got in touch with the vendor and, that same month, Mr Bokelberg and Mr Walter signed an agreement whereby the prints were returned to Walter who paid FFr5,250,000 to Mr Bokelberg.

Mr Bokelberg agreed not to take legal action against Mr Walter. Now events are coming to a climax. The purchaser’s lawyer has lodged a complaint. The pictures have apparently been burned by Walter’s companion, Hélène Béguier (widow of Serge Béguier, Man Ray’s last printer). But Mr Bokelberg claims still to have sixteen in his possession. Who can have produced the prints and deceived a collector? What equipment was used? Are there any other fakes in public or private collections? The plot thickens, and certainly gives a double edge to the Man Ray exhibition in Paris until 29 June at the Grand Palais.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Magnificent Man Rays too good to be true'