WYWH: Forgeries and Fakes from “Fakes, Forgeries and Looted and Stolen Art”

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Ken Perenyi’s autobiographical keynote. NYUSCE program June 2015. Copyright Center for Art Law.

By Lindsay Dekter*

Following a multi-year investigation between 2011 and 2014, East Hampton art forger John Re was sentenced in May 2015 to five years in prison after nearly a decade of defrauding art collectors. Re passed off more than 60 paintings attributed to artists such as Jackson Pollock and Willem de Kooning, amounting in a combined loss of roughly $2 million by his victims. Shortly after Re’s sentencing, New York University’s School of Professional Studies held its 2nd annual Art Crime and Cultural Heritage Conference in New York, dedicating one of the three days to the issue of art forgery.

One speaker, Meredith Savona, discussed the Re phenomenon and how people fall victim to these con artists. Others speakers addressed current issues regarding expert witness testimony and expert immunity, while New York State Senator, Betty Little, discussed an amendment to the New York Arts and Cultural Affairs Law that aims to strengthen legal protections for authenticators. The NYU program, co-organized by Jane C. H. Jacob of Jacob Fine Art, Inc. and the Art Recovery Group, included a controversial keynote address entitled Art Crime Scene: Forger Talks about Forgery, delivered by Ken Perenyi. Perenyi’s presentation included images of major auction house catalogues containing his forged landscapes, still lives, and period paintings, and was followed by a bemused round of applause. Questions and comments from the audience, particularly art lawyer John Cahill of Cahill Partners LLP, and art expert James Martin of Orion Analytical LLC, expressed outrage with the damage forgeries inflict on the art market and art historical scholarship. Cahill went so far as to offer pro bono services to those with possible and plausible Perenyi claims. Martin indicated that while stylistically Perenyi’s work is very strong, chemical analysis of his materials is an easy way to identify his work as inauthentic.

Although nothing new to the art world, both Re’s case and NYU’s conference highlight the damage art forgery causes, both to commerce and the historical record. Speakers at the NYU conference, like Meredith Savona, the FBI agent who filed the June 2014 complaint against Re, impressed upon the audience the importance of vigilance in preventing and identifying these crimes.

About the Author: Lindsay Dekter, Center for Art Law Intern (Fall 2015), is a graduate student at New York University in the Program in Museum Studies. She holds a BA in Cultural Geography and an MS in Historic Preservation. Her current studies focus on museums and legal issues, cultural heritage policy and preservation, ethics, provenance research, and restitution.

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