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AbEx fakes scandal silences the experts, situation “already as bad as it can get” amid lawsuits

In a time of increased importance on authentication, specialists are holding back in the hope of avoiding the worst.

The crisis around fake Abstract Expressionist works sold in New York—around 40 of which were handled by the now-defunct Knoedler Gallery—has sent shockwaves through the art market and is having a chilling effect on scholars. As well as a federal investigation, there has been a slew of civil lawsuits. Most recently, a suit filed last month by the former director of the Knoedler Gallery, Ann Freedman, claims—in an effort to show that she was not negligent—that numerous experts accepted the authenticity of the works.

Stakes are high

Among the people Freedman claims she consulted are the late art dealer Ernst Beyeler, senior curators (or former curators) at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, the Beyeler Foundation and the National Gallery of Washington, DC, Dean Sobel, the director of the Clyfford Still Museum, David Anfam, the author of the Rothko catalogue raisonné, leading academics such as Thomas Crow at New York University, and many others.

Freedman’s claims have yet to be examined in court and it is unclear whether anyone was formally asked for a detailed opinion, or about artists who are their specialist areas. What is clear is that, with the financial and legal stakes at a record high, experts—including some of those listed above—are more reluctant than ever to express their opinions freely. Most of those we contacted about the fall-out for scholarship—more than 60 people in total—were unwilling to speak on or even off the record. In a litigious art world, the fear of being dragged into court is real and growing (see box on Knoedler court cases, p8). One of those involved, who did not want to be named, says that the situation for experts is “already as bad as it can get”.

The silence will only serve to encourage forgers. Jack Flam, the president of the Dedalus Foundation, which represents the Motherwell estate, says: “If people were able to exchange opinions freely, cases like this would come to light much more quickly and you wouldn’t have a magnitude like this. Word would get out.”

The huge sums paid for Modern art make forgery more tempting than ever. More than $80m is reported in court papers to have changed hands for previously unknown works said to be by Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Lee Krasner, Robert Motherwell, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline and Barnett Newman. The disgraced Long Island art dealer Glafira Rosales had claimed that the works belonged to a businessman living in Mexico and Switzerland. Their emergence out of the blue was explained by a backstory that included an anonymous collector who bought the works through an intermediary from the artists, and then stored them for decades. Last month, Rosales pleaded guilty to conspiring to sell fake works of art, money-laundering and tax crimes. The forgeries were allegedly made by a Chinese painter living in Queens, New York.

There have been forgery scandals before; there are potentially hundreds of fakes in circulation painted by Wolfgang Beltracchi in Germany. Meanwhile, an unknown number of fake Russian avant-garde works flooded the market in the 1990s after the demise of the Soviet Union. “The latter-day tulip mania of the Modern and contemporary art market can’t help but lead to chicanery and the suspension of disbelief. The craft of forgery is much older than the first instance of an exuberant attribution,” says Maxwell Anderson, the director of the Dallas Museum of Art. But the Knoedler case strikes too close to home for many in New York.

Long-standing relationships have been shaken and reputations dented. The Museo Guggenheim Bilbao borrowed a fake Barnett Newman and the Fondation Beyeler a fake Rothko from the Rosales collection. “I could easily have been in the middle of one of these transactions,” says one leading art adviser. The dealer Thaddaeus Ropac says: “Before, there was a very casual, on-trust situation—people would show things to museum experts and ask their opinion. You don’t get this any more.”

At the heart of the problem is a reluctance among experts to say what they think, and a lack of certainty that, if they do, their verdict will be passed on in full. One says: “An expert may say that a work looks plausible but the provenance is absurd, or vice versa. Only the positive half of the comment is repeated. It is similar to promoting a movie on one bit of a mixed review.” As a result, the most knowledgeable experts are often not involved in authentications: another notes that, on Freedman’s list, for many of the artists, “the leading experts aren’t there”.

Samuel Sachs, the president of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, says that unless there is change in the legal system to protect art historians’ expert opinion—as with that of doctors, for example—“it’s going to be very dicey” to speak out. The New York State Bar Association has a committee working on getting legislation passed to achieve this, Flam says. David Anfam, an expert on Rothko, Clyfford Still and Abstract Expressionism, wants to see an organisation created within the art world with one aim: “To allow those who are recognised as prime authorities—I don’t mean just anybody—on an artist’s oeuvre to tackle authentications, attributions and forgeries in a risk-free environment. Otherwise, scholarship will linger in a perpetual limbo that is toxic for everyone.”

Impact on the market

Collectors’ confidence might have been shaken by recent forgery cases, but their appetite for Modern art remains strong. A dealer describes a collector caught up in the latest case as “feeling burned”. It will not deter him from buying art, “but he will find every legal possible way to dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s”. Another says that people are nervy: “Everyone wants things verified not once, but several times over.”

The Knoedler case has wider implications for the contemporary art market, where there is speculation about pieces by artists working in media that could easily be reproduced. “A lot of young artists don’t think about issuing certificates of authenticity,” says the art adviser Lisa Schiff. “As buyers of contemporary art, we are not in the habit of worrying about this stuff, but we should.”

Many of the people we spoke to stressed that buyers need to take more responsibility. “It takes two to tango,” says the Mexican contemporary art collector Eugenio López, whose Museo Jumex opens next month. “A willing collector and adviser are required to dance with the gallery or dealer offering the forgery. The less rigour, the more the chances of… an expensive and embarrassing ride.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'AbEx fakes scandal silences the experts'

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 250 October 2013