Just as the number of fakes connected to German forger Wolfgang Beltracchi keeps growing (see below), the scandal that has engulfed the Knoedler gallery, and the doubts being cast over works by US abstract expressionists including Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, goes from bad to worse.
Last month, hedge fund manager Pierre Lagrange filed a complaint in a Manhattan federal court against the Knoedler gallery and its former director, Ann Freedman, alleging that the gallery sold him a forged Pollock painting for $17m in November 2007.
This follows the recent, highly public dispute between art dealer Marc Blondeau, Julian Weissman, a former associate director of the Knoedler gallery, and the Dedalus Foundation, which represents the Motherwell estate. Blondeau bought a work attributed to Motherwell entitled Spanish Elegy, dated 1953, from Weissman after the Dedalus Foundation had deemed it to be authentic. In 2009, after forensic analysis, the Dedalus Foundation changed its mind, which resulted in all three ending up in court. This was settled in October 2011: the work was stamped as a forgery (see box below) and both Blondeau and the Dedalus Foundation received compensation. The Lagrange case is ongoing, while a federal investigation into the possible forgeries of works by artists including Mark Rothko, Willem de Kooning, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Richard Diebenkorn and Barnett Newman, is under way.
Legal papers and testimonies also suggest a number of leading art galleries have unwittingly been caught up in the scandals. Timothy Taylor Gallery and art dealer Jaime Frankfurt are named in the Lagrange papers as intermediaries in the sale of the Pollock. Court papers filed by the Dedalus Foundation state that Haunch of Venison opened its New York space in 2008 with a show that “put [a] supposed Newman painting from the so-called David Herbert collection [see box] in place of honour”. The current whereabouts of this work is unclear.
Both cases and the Beltracchi investigation lay bare the inherent problems of authenticating works of art in an industry reliant on reputation and trust—and the apparent ease with which determined forgers can pass works through the system.
“This is very scary stuff,” says one prominent New York collector. “These are all people we know, and have been dealing with for years.” Blondeau, who was also a victim of Beltracchi, says that: “We are facing a very serious problem, especially because markets are so overheated—historically, when markets are strong, forgeries appear.” He adds of his own involvement: “I was fooled—the works were an incredible quality.”
He is not the only person to have been caught out. “This should act as an alarm for dealers working in the post-war field,” says prominent New York dealer Richard Feigen, who acted as an agent in the sale of a faked Max Ernst work produced by the Beltracchi gang. He has subsequently repaid his client, and was reimbursed himself, but is “still struggling to retrieve the sales tax from the state of New York, which is over $250,000”. Feigen says that his gallery is “very careful about who we deal with and always have been. I know Ernst’s work intimately, and the leading Ernst expert [Werner Spies] said it was the best fake he ever saw.”
Robert Mnuchin, the co-owner of L&M Arts, adds: “Most dealers are very careful about the provenance of works—it is standard operating procedure.” L&M Arts was formerly C&M Arts, which, according to the Motherwell papers, told the Dedalus Foundation about the existence of Spanish Elegy in 2002 (after it had passed “through several dealers”).
The legal cases have all turned to forensic examination: the Dedalus Foundation spent $136,000 on scientifically testing genuine Motherwell paintings to establish “a technical baseline for his artistic practice”, says Jack Flam, the president of the Dedalus Foundation. But testing is expensive and has, in the past, been potentially damaging to works. However, technology has improved: after being embroiled in the Beltracchi scam, the auctioneer Kunsthaus Lempertz has invested €70,000 in a Thermo Scientific Niton x-ray fluorescence analytic machine. “We must consider the possibility of routine use of these machines—I believe the market has to change,” says Henrik Hanstein, the owner of Kunsthaus Lempertz. But “they only help if the forger used the wrong pigments in terms of date, for example. In the end, you need to ask the experts.”
But following a spate of high-profile lawsuits against authentication boards (The Art Newspaper, December 2011, pp1, 8, 9), foundations, estates and other experts are increasingly hesitant to get involved in authentication. “I wish the world were a different place, but until it is, we politely opt out [of authentication],” said Jack Cowart, the executive director of the Roy Lichtenstein Foundation at a debate on the issue held at the International Foundation for Art Research last month.
“There is a basic asymmetry in the system. You can say with impunity that a work is by Motherwell and it is not actionable,” says Jack Flam of the Dedalus Foundation. “But, if I say it is not genuine, you can sue me. [Foundations and scholars] are even constrained from giving free opinions to colleagues about whether there have been problems with certain dealers.” Flam wants the law to change: “Now is the time for legislation to protect free speech for scholars and writers of catalogues raisonnés. Without courage, honesty and open communication, forgeries will distort art history and pollute the market.”