Despite having the means to own the original, one American multimillionaire has opted to hang a forged Renoir in his home while the real thing hangs prominently at a major museum. The man in question is not President Donald Trump, who recently made headlines with his claim of owning Renoir’s 1881 Two Sisters (On the Terrace), despite the painting being part of the Art Institute of Chicago’s permanent collection, but Henry Bloch, the Kansas City–based cofounder of tax preparation firm H&R Block.
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The history of the arts reveals instances of persons who have used forgery either to gain recognition of their own craftsmanship or to enjoy deceiving the critics who had rejected their genuine work. A legend told about Michelangelo illustrates this point. At the age of 21, he carved in marble a small sleeping Eros, or Cupid, based on ancient Roman works that he admired. Some time later this carving was sold as an antique to the well-known collector Cardinal Riario, who prized it highly. When Michelangelo stepped forward and claimed the work as his own he won immediate fame as a young man who could rival the work of the greatly venerated ancient sculptors.
In transactions of old wine with the potential of improving with age, the issue of provenance has a large bearing on the assessment of the contents of a bottle, both in terms of quality and the risk of wine fraud. A documented history of wine cellar conditions is valuable in estimating the quality of an older vintage due to the fragile nature of wine.
Clare Roth is an artist who ekes out a living making copies of Degas paintings and other masterpieces while she struggles to live down a mistake from her past. She enters into a complicated agreement with a powerful gallery owner to forge a stolen Degas painting in return for a show at his gallery. Things take a turn when she suspects that this stolen "masterpiece" is also a forgery.
Before addressing those questions, it is useful to consider how provenance is relevant to sales of art. Art litigation generally falls within one of three categories: disputes concerning ownership, disputes concerning authenticity, and, to a lesser extent, disputes concerning value. The provenance of a work may bear on each of those potential areas of dispute. Obviously, to the extent provenance represents a chain of title, it may bear quite directly on a dispute concerning ownership. (If “H.W. Göring, Berlin” is listed in the provenance, that is probably a red flag).3
The 20th-century art market has favored artists such as Salvador Dalí, Pablo Picasso, Klee and Matisse and works by these artists have commonly been targets of forgery. These forgeries are typically sold to art galleries and auction houses who cater to the tastes of art and antiquities collectors; at time of the occupation of France by German forces during World War II, the painting which fetched the highest price at Drouot, the main French auction house, was a fake Cézanne.
Provenance research, or the history of ownership of a work of art, is a regular part of museum practice. The goal of provenance research is to trace the history of an artwork through its owners and locations, from the moment of its creation until today. The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art conducts regular, ongoing provenance research on the artwork in its collection.
New England Glass Works (American, 1818-1888), Black-Amethyst Sinumbra Lamp, 1830-1835, Translucent dark amethyst glass appearing black, pressed, with patinated copper alloy (brass) fittings and iron alloy lamp mechanism, a blown transparent colorless glass shade, ground and wheel-cut, and a transparent blown glass chimney (replaced), 17 1/2 in., 2016.214.
Fraudulent misrepresentations are one thing, but do sellers who proudly “stand behind the works they sell” really intend to be strictly liable (i.e., without fault) for any error or omission in the provenance or exhibition history? Do sellers undertake to do independent investigations of the provenance, or do they just pass along the same information they received when the work was acquired? In practice, more sophisticated art market participants, such as the major auction houses, include disclaimers (in fine print) in their terms and conditions of sale, but when smaller galleries and dealers sell art they rarely incorporate such protections against liability for faulty or inaccurate information.
As with other members of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM), The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art is making a concerted effort to research Nazi-era provenance for the paintings, sculptures, decorative arts, Judaica and works on paper in its collection to determine past ownership and, if necessary, to make proper restitution to the owners or the heirs. Following the standards and guidelines issued by the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD) and AAM, the Museum is currently conducting research on works of art in its collection that were created before 1946 and acquired by the Museum after 1932* that changed hands, or might have changed hands, in continental Europe between 1933 and 1945, and/or could have been spoliated by the Nazis and not subsequently restituted to their rightful owners. In accordance with AAM and AAMD standards and guidelines, the Museum is prioritizing research on European paintings, sculpture, drawings and Judaica, though research will eventually cover all accessioned objects identified as containing Nazi-era provenance.
At times restoration of a piece is so extensive that the original is essentially replaced when new materials are used to supplement older ones. An art restorer may also add or remove details on a painting, in an attempt to make the painting more saleable on the contemporary art market. This, however, is not a modern phenomenon - historical painters often "retouched" other artist's works by repainting some of the background or details.
Despite those advances, the detection of fraudulent art remains a complex undertaking. It is particularly difficult to weed out forgeries in the work of modern artists whose large numbers of works and superstar statuses make them especially attractive to those who commit fraud. Pablo Picasso, for example, was a prolific artist, creating a huge number of works on canvas and on paper as well as sculptures and ceramics. Considering his vast output and the varying styles and media in which he worked, scholars have had difficulty establishing a definitive corpus for him. The prestige associated with owning a Picasso and the difficulty of attribution, especially for a drawing, made and continues to make fraudulent representations of his work hard to police.