Anyone who believes that works of art declared as forgery will simply fall out of favor or be destroyed should speak to Jane Kallir, the author of the catalog raisonné by the Austrian painter Egon Schiele. She was offered the same fake Schiele watercolor for authentication purposes, 10 times by 10 different collectors.
Or maybe chat with David L. Hall, the former federal attorney who used to work on cases developed by the FBI’s art crime team. He will tell you about a watercolor attributed to Andrew Wyeth that was released three times after Wyeth himself described it as a forgery.
A dealer paid $ 20,000 for it, and when he tried to sell it at auction in 2008, the curator of Wyeth’s collection recognized it and contacted the FBI, which confiscated it. The FBI eventually presented it to Hall as a token of appreciation for all the years he’d spent following the cases he’d developed.
“It’s on a shelf in my office,” said Hall, now in his own practice, in an interview. “When I got it, I wrote ‘fake’ in ink on the back.”
While it can be comforting to hear of forgeries being destroyed by judges or boldly labeled fraud, the reality is more complicated.
Works declared as counterfeits often enjoy a diverse afterlife in the view of law enforcement agencies, academic scholars, and veterans of the art market. Some are kept by universities as study instruments, some as bequests from well-meaning donors who lacked an expert eye. Some were used on an engraving by an undercover agent who hoped the feeling of wealth created by fancy paintings on a yacht would be a compelling part of his pose.
But many of the works, experts say, have a second life very similar to their first: as fakes that are recycled to unsuspecting buyers.
“We see things circulating back in the market – I think that happens routinely,” said Timothy Carpenter, the FBI’s supervisory special agent on art crime team.
Jack Flam, president and executive director of the Dedalus Foundation, which was founded by artist Robert Motherwell to promote understanding of modern art, said that when the foundation was compiling the catalog raisonné of Motherwell’s paintings and collages, the foundation told a collector his painting couldn’t be included because it was fake. A few years later, another collector emerged who had bought the painting from the start, only to be faced with the same disappointing news.
Kallir, the author of the Schiele catalog raisonné and president of the Kallir Research Institute, said she saw “on average” one fake per week.
“Sometimes the counterfeits keep coming back to different owners who weren’t told what we told the previous owner,” she said.
The matter is made more difficult by the fact that the finding that something is fake is often nothing more than an opinion – in many cases expert, in many cases reliable – but nonetheless an opinion. Owners of such items are not always ready to accept that they have been betrayed, especially when they have paid a lot for a discredited work.
“Sometimes expertise changes over generations,” said James Roundell, director of London-based dealer Dickinson who once headed the Impressionist and Modern Art division at Christie’s.
“If someone tells the owner of a collection that they have something that is not real, the collector does not want to tell the outside world that they have a fake.”
Carpenter said he recalled a case where a beginning collector bought about 300 prints, almost all of them counterfeit, and was turned away when he tried to sell them through an auction house.
Carpenter said the auction house called the FBI. “We confiscated all of these pieces,” he said, “but this guy didn’t like it. He thought the auction house didn’t know what they were doing. He thought we didn’t know what we were doing. He allowed us to keep about 40 that we confiscated but asked for the rest to be returned. We had. You are his property. “
The collector eventually put the prints in a warehouse from which they were stolen, Carpenter said. “These prints are almost certainly back on the market,” he said.
The decision to market a work with controversial attribution becomes much easier in cases where the forger’s hand has become apparent. These cases are not disagreements, they are fraud. Consider the case of the now defunct Galerie Knoedler & Company, which sold dozens of works attributed to modernist masters, all of which were forged.
The eclectic painter who created them all ultimately acknowledged his role in creating them, though he denied knowing they would be marketed as originals. The dealer who brought them to market through Knoedler eventually pleaded guilty to conspiracy, fraud and other crimes. The gallery and its director, Anne Freedman, were never charged, but they were sued, and after the lawsuits were settled, the owners of 10 of the discredited works were interested in keeping them, said Luke Nikas, a Freedman attorney.
Three more of the fakes, originally sold as the work of Mark Rothko, Jackson Pollock and Robert Motherwell, hang in Nikas’ office on loan from Freedman, who said she was tricked into buying several herself.
“They are important artifacts in legal and art history, which intersect here in a compelling story about culture, morality and psychology,” said Nikas.
While there are many in the art world who think that those fascinated by counterfeits overestimate their prevalence in the marketplace, there is no question that discredited works are a way to hang around.
Gary Vikan, former director of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, said the museum had hundreds of fakes. “Most of these are Roman, Medieval, and Renaissance works that founder Henry Walters acquired in 1902,” said Vikan. “Some of the works had been sold to him as paintings by Michelangelo, Titian and Raphael.”
According to a spokesman, the Manhattan prosecutor has 14 fake Damien Hirst prints that were recovered from a forger’s apartment in 2016.
Universities with large collections of counterfeits are New York University and Harvard. They often use them as a teaching aid.
“We have approximately 1,000 items donated as counterfeits by dealers, collectors, and auction houses,” said Margaret Ellis, Eugene Thaw Professor Emeritus of Paper Conservation at the Conservation Center, New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. “But occasionally things are donated to universities and museums that are later found to be fakes.”
“The works range from forged ancient Greek bronzes and forged Rembrandts, Turners and van Goghs to contemporary prints,” Ellis said. “These help students know what they are seeing and can be very educational when placed alongside the actual work. Art history students discover that stylistic analysis needs to be supported by technical analysis. “
The Harvard Art Museums – consisting of the Fogg, Busch-Reisinger and Arthur M. Sackler museums – have about 250 forged paintings and drawings donated by collectors and dealers. Miriam Stewart, curator of the collection in the Department of European and American Art, said the works range from counterfeits by Daumier and Corot to Matisse and George Inness.
“Most of the works were accepted as fakes,” said Stewart. “We were known a long time ago as a kind of treasure trove for counterfeiting. But now we are not actively taking up counterfeits. We haven’t done that for decades. “
The FBI has confiscated thousands of counterfeits, which are usually not destroyed but are stored in many locations.
“I can’t give you an exact number, but it’s over 3,000 in total,” said Carpenter. “They are mainly prints by artists like Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Roy Lichtenstein, Andy Warhol and Joan Miró. I am not going to say that they are in every field office. It’s kind of scattered around, but most of it is in warehouses in New York, Miami, Chicago, Philadelphia, and Los Angeles. “
Rarely has the FBI issued any of its fakes. One exhibition, Caveat Emptor, was hosted by Fordham University in 2013 and included paintings once incorrectly attributed to Rembrandt, Gauguin, Renoir, Gris, Matisse and Chagall.
In one case, the FBI used counterfeit art that it had seized as part of an engraving operation.
Robert Wittman, former head of the FBI’s art crime team, said that in 2007, while posing as a seedy art dealer, he borrowed six counterfeit paintings allegedly from Dalí, Degas, Soutine, O’Keeffe, Klimt and Chagall an FBI warehouse in Miami to “prove to two French gangsters that I’m real”.
The gangsters knew him as Bob Clay. “By using my real first name,” he said, “I followed a basic rule of working undercover: keep lies to a minimum. The more lies you tell, the more you have to remember. “
The script asked Wittman to sell the works to a Colombian drug dealer on a yacht off the coast of Florida. The drug dealer as well as the captain, the steward and five women in bikini on board were FBI agents. The sale was completed with fake diamonds and an alleged bank transfer, but the gangsters eventually disappeared.
“The reason the art helped was because part of my legend as an undercover agent was dealing with stolen paintings,” said Wittmann. “That proved that I was involved in criminal activity.”
The United States Postal Inspection Service, the Postal Service’s law enforcement arm, also has a small collection of counterfeits that were confiscated in an undercover sting in 1991 led by Jack Ellis, a Postal Service inspector who helped find 100,000 counterfeit goods To retrieve prints that are said to be of Dalí, Picasso, Miró, Chagall and others.
Several of the fake Mirós and Chagalls hang on the walls of the Inspection Service headquarters in Washington, DC. Others are occasionally on display in the Inspection Service’s training academy and in an exhibit in the National Postal Museum.
Most of the confiscated prints were destroyed on the orders of a judge, but the Post Office requested that some be rescued. “The inspectors also found several sheets of paper on which the forger was practicing forging Dalí signatures,” said James Tendick, a former colleague of Ellis.
As fascinating and convincing as counterfeits may be, they certainly lose value when exposed. Kallir, the Schiele expert, said she witnessed it first hand.
“I have three fake Schiele oils and about 20 fake Schiele works on paper, most of which were left behind by people who originally brought them for authentication,” she said. “After we gave them our opinion, they didn’t want her back.”