Infamous Piracy: How the Lucrative Market for Forgeries is Transforming the World of Fine Art

2014-07-30

By Emma Kleiner

Stories of art forgeries capture the public’s imagination in a singular way: fascination centers upon the art itself and the disbelief that collectors, galleries, and professionals could have been misled by a fraud. Today, the expanding and profitable international art market has a correspondingly lucrative market in art forgery. While there have always been ways for forgeries to enter the art market, today’s forgery market is enlarged by the ease of creating fake masterpieces coupled with the multitude of sites where fakes can be sold—at auction, through galleries, or online. The negative publicity generated by any involvement with fine art forgeries is usually enough to steer away potential buyers or admirers; however, in a small set of cases the hoaxes or forgeries themselves become well-known in their own right and take on an infamy of their own. While no centralized national or international system for analyzing how to best regulate the art market exists, the recent strands of art forgery cases around the globe offer policy considerations to help eliminate the market for forgeries.

The art market has rebounded almost to its 2008 pre-crisis level. In 2013, the international art market registered sales of $64.5 billion, which was “close to its highest ever recorded level.” However, buyers are wary of collecting unfamiliar artists, and art purchases have largely focused on household names such as Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol, and Yves Klein. The lucrative art market creates a market ripe for talented forgers, who view art forgery as a very profitable enterprise. Based on a number of recent incidents, it appears that successful art forgeries are easier than ever to execute, with wealthy collectors eager to believe in, and ready to fuel, the high prices commanded by art masterpieces. Just recall the now defunct Knoedler Gallery, which closed in 2011 following the discovery that the gallery had sold $63 million of fakes. Although Ann Freedman, the gallery’s former president, insisted that she had no knowledge that she was selling forged modern classics, there were basic elements that should have alerted her to that fact. In one painting the signature was visibly spelled incorrectly: the painting was signed “Pollok” instead of the correct spelling of “Pollock.” Even so, the painting, which was purchased by the gallery for $230,000, was eventually sold to a Wall Street executive for $2 million.

With the new era of online art retailers, the art forgery market is becoming even more decentralized and easily profitable. In June 2014, John Re, an East Hampton painter, was arrested after netting $1.9 million selling forged Jackson Pollock paintings to private collectors and online through eBay. This forger used shell bidders to drive up prices of the fakes on eBay while assuring bidders that his paintings were “real.” Similarly, British amateur artist Geoffrey Spilman was arrested last year after selling forged modern masterpieces on eBay. Consequently, Spilman was banned for life from eBay. These events highlight the issue that the art market is quickly moving online. Online buyers may present an easier target for forged artwork due to the lack of pre-auction previews, the absence of quality records, and the awareness that auction experts did not vet the pieces. This new area of selling and buying art necessitates strong guidelines for digital art markets.

The abundance of art forgeries sold at auction, online, through galleries, and by private collectors has created a ripple effect in the art market. The repercussions of buying and selling fakes are beginning to be reflected in the management and practices of artists’ reputations and foundations. A recent trend is the increasing reluctance of artist foundations to recognize any new or uncovered artwork as authentic. Artist foundations do not want to become targets for litigation if an authentication dispute flares up between individuals, and thus many foundations no longer offer authenticating services. The Andy Warhol Art Authentication Board, Inc., created in association with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, was dissolved in 2012. The authentication boards of the Keith Haring Foundation and the estate of Jean-Michel Basquiat were likewise dissolved in 2012. Such disassociation largely shields artist foundations from litigation alleging the foundation authenticated a forgery. However, this insulation not only affects buyers and sellers wishing to determine the authenticity of artwork, it also negatively affects art historical knowledge of these artists. Unauthenticated works cannot be included in official catalogues raisonnés and will remain unknown to future scholars and collectors. Therefore, if artist foundations refuse to analyze problematic artwork, then future scholarship will suffer. This larger impact of the forgery market is critical to appreciating the urgency with which the proliferation of fakes must be curbed. The forged art market affects not only buyers and sellers; it also affects the collective knowledge of future generations.

Usually, the public relations nightmare of being caught in an art forgery scandal is enough to destroy reputations, as demonstrated by the closing of the Knoedler Gallery. However, as mentioned above, the hoaxes themselves sometimes become famous in their own right due to the mastery of the forgery. For example, an exhibition is being planned for fake Amedeo Modigliani statues to be exhibited in Livorno, Italy, the artist’s hometown. Three carved heads were found in July 1984 as part of a hoax orchestrated by local students. Modigliani is famously a popular target for art forgers, and thus this episode become part of the legacy of Modigliani himself and his hometown of Livorno. Commenting on the plan for this exhibition, Livorno Culture Councilor Mario Tredici stated, “For a long time we have wanted to tell a story that was unique in the 20th century and is sure to be a tourist attraction.”

Today, there is no unified national or international approach to curbing the forged art market. The current debate in India, where the art market is currently encountering an unprecedented number of uncovered fakes, might be helpful to informing policy decisions in the United States, where cases concerning art forgeries are fractured across jurisdictions and courts. Art experts in India have called for contradictory safety measures. Some express favor for creating a national authentication body in charge of art sales. However, other scholars have expressed a less common alternative preference for deregulating the currently tightly regulated art market in India. In a recent Op-Ed, Girish Shahane, Artistic Director of the India Art Fair, explains how the tightly controlled national art market in India has stunted the development of the art market and encouraged the proliferation of fakes through the promise of great profit: “Expertise and transparency have been strangled by the Antiquities Act, which makes the owning and selling of antiquities difficult, their export illegal, and restricts trade in the work of a number of modern artists labeled national treasures . . . While there is no silver bullet solution for the problem of forgeries, partial fixes emerge as a natural consequence of trade.” This proposal suggests that greater cooperation and unified trade practices amongst art industry professionals around the globe would create mutual responsibility. The opaqueness of the art market is in part responsible for the circulation of forged artwork, and, instead of effectively shutting down the art market through the creation of regulatory bodies, perhaps it is time for the art world to acknowledge the damaging effects of fakes and open up new pathways to international discussion.

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About the author: Emma Kleiner is a second-year student at Stanford Law School.

Disclaimer: This and all articles are intended as general information, not legal advice, and offer no substitute for seeking representation.

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