Why the fakes scandals at Knoedler and Beltracchi will not affect the market

Despite what one would initially believe


Everyone realises that in recent years, art prices have exploded—even into the nine figures. As paper money has proliferated to finance wars and grands projets, investment opportunities have vanished and interest rates declined. At a loss as to where to invest all this liquidity, and with the press reporting each new auction record, the public perceives art as an attractive investment. As each record price hits the press, more money is sucked into the market in search of bigger and bigger profits.

This has little to do with artistic merit, only the familiarity of names. As prices escalate, new buyers enter the market to impress people with their affluence. Scarcity is irrelevant; infrequent appearances on the market in fact limit prices (witness the low prices achieved for works by Yves Tanguy and Max Beckmann). Warhols, Basquiats and Richters are anything but scarce, which makes them eminently promotable and ever more expensive.

The more expensive an object, the more likely it is to excite the interest of forgers, and the more abstract it is, the easier it is to fake. It was inevitable that crazy prices in the Modern art market would spawn fakers. As art now makes news, so the fakes of Glafira Rosales in New York and Wolfgang Beltracchi in Berlin, with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake, have made headlines. But will the presence of fakes, and the fact that people were defrauded of millions of dollars, divert people from buying post-war and Modern works?

I have spoken to several active collectors, dealers and auctioneers in the post-war field. They all feel that these fakes will not affect the market; that sophisticated buyers will look to the provenances. The effect will obviously be a deeper inspection of provenances.

The Knoedler gallery changed hands several times in the past half-century. Knoedler was clearly not the impeccable source it had been over the previous century. Only the name remained intact. Knoedler and its clients clearly should have gone deeper into the provenance of works, and they failed. For many buyers, the Knoedler name was sufficient provenance.

The same thing happened in the Beltracchi affair. The “Jaeger” collection, from which Wolfgang Beltracchi claimed his forgeries came, never existed. The labels on the paintings were faked. Remarkably, the fake labels were crude, while the fake paintings—at least the Max Ernsts—were amazingly subtle. It’s puzzling: labels should be so much easier to fake than paintings.

I agree that in the short term, the market is unlikely to be affected. What will certainly emerge from this spate of fakery is a market analogous to that for antiquities, and for potentially plundered European art during the Nazi period (1935-45). The market—knowledgeable individuals, auction houses, museums—will demand clear provenance. Fully provenanced works may well command a premium: this has already happened in the antiquities market.

I also asked the auction houses not whether they themselves could be fooled by fakes, but whether they thought the public—less sophisticated bidders—might be put off. They also said they thought not; that they also would look to provenances.

But will fear of public reticence affect the level of guarantees the auctioneers offer? Will it affect the willingness of “third-party guarantors”, upon whom the auctioneers have increasingly come to depend? The fact is, of course, that, although it wasn’t publicised, some auctioneers were taken in by the Beltracchi fakes and are probably responsible to buyers for millions of dollars. At least buyers at the major auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, can look to the auction house for restitution.

The more significant fall-out of the fakes is the effect on the oracles of authenticity: artists’ estates and foundations, authorities, and authors of catalogues raisonnés. The Pollock, Motherwell and Warhol estates have already stopped authenticating, for fear of litigation. Werner Spies, the authority on the works of Max Ernst and the author of the artist’s five-volume catalogue raisonné, is himself being sued for unknowingly issuing authentications for fake Ernsts painted by Beltracchi.

Will prospective buyers be put off if they are unable to obtain certificates of authenticity? Probably. Will auctioneers hesitate to catalogue lots or make or obtain guarantees without such certificates? Probably. The result will certainly be increasing dependence on firm provenance—just as has been the case in the antiquities market—and dependence on the financial responsibility of vendors.

• Richard Feigen is the chairman of Richard L. Feigen & Co, New York

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as ‘Why the latest fakes will not affect the market'