Our current market, geared toward the ultra-wealthy, is helping few and hurting many. It stomps down all the emerging and midlevel dealers, artists, curators and even collectors who can’t play in the big-money game. It’s also hurting all the art lovers, current and future, who deserve work that’s conceived to address artistic issues, not to sell well to robber barons. If forgers can help burst our art bubble, blessings be upon them.
Glafira Rosales, an obscure Long Island art dealer, her boyfriend, and his brother enlisted Pei-Shen Qian, a Chinese artist in Queens, to paint Abstract Expressionist canvases in the style of such masters as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and others. The venerable Knoedler gallery, which closed in 2011 as the forgeries came to light, still claims they believed Rosales’s story that the works were part of an undocumented collection sold directly by the artists to an anonymous “Mr. X.”
On the night of St Patrick's Day in 1990 when the attention of Boston was focused elsewhere, thieves entered the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum and made off with art valued at $500 million, including three Rembrandts, one of only 34 known paintings by Vermeer, and works by Manet and Degas. Because the eccentric Isabella insisted in her will that nothing be changed in the museum (nothing!), the empty frames remain on the walls as a sad reminder of what has been lost.
A monumental sculptural forgery was a copy based on a Greek bronze statuette of a warrior of 470 bc, only five inches high and located in the Antikenabteilung, Berlin. The forgers made an eight-foot-high reproduction of it in terra-cotta and offered it as an Etruscan masterpiece. The resemblance was noted by the experts, who thought it to be an example of an Etruscan artist borrowing a Greek design motif. In 1961, after it had been in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for 40 years, an analysis was made of the black glaze that covered the figure. It was found that the glaze contained as a colouring agent manganese, which never was used for this purpose in ancient times. Finally, Alfredo Adolfo Fioravanti confessed that he was the sole survivor of the three forgers.
The Art Loss Register (ALR), founded in 1991, grew out of the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR: founded 1969), a not-for-profit organization that initiated and maintained (until 1997) an international database of stolen works of art, antiques, and collectables. After 1998 ALR assumed maintenance, although IFAR retains ownership, and the two organizations work closely together.
Jack Flam suggested the paintings be sent for scientific testing to Jamie Martin, one of the world's top forensic art analysts. Martin showed us how he examined one of the fake Robert Motherwells using a stereomicroscope to study every millimeter of the painting's surface, and to select and then remove samples for identification. That's how he detected circular marks in the base layers, indicating an electric sander had been used to remove paint.
This essay addresses provenance issues in the context of a sale. Of course the provenance of a piece is an important factor in determining its authenticity, but how important to the seller and buyer is knowing that, for example, there were three private owners between the artist and the current owner. If one of those owners was Paul Mellon or a major museum, it might be very important. And, have the buyer and seller made that importance clear in their sale agreement?
In regards to the critical issue of the source of the funds, the AML Guidelines “encourage” art businesses “to decline payments from a third party who is not their client and buyer of record. If there are legitimate reasons why it is justified for the Art Business to accept payment from a third party, before doing so the Art Business should conduct enhanced due diligence on both their buyer of record and the third party payer[.]” The AML Guidelines also articulate a “preference” for art businesses only “to accept payments from reputable banks in jurisdictions subject to AML regulation and supervision. Such reputable banks and financial institutions are generally subject to a high degree of AML regulation. That said[,] Art Businesses should remain vigilent and not rely entirely on the fact that banks and financial institutions will have carried out the necessary checks and verification to be satisfied that the source of funds is clean.”
Whether the seller agrees to take full legal responsibility for the accuracy of the provenance is crucial information for buyers in terms of their own due diligence obligations and their ability to rely on information provided by sellers. Making all of this clear in the sales contract is unquestionably in everyone’s interest, even if—much like a prenuptial agreement—it spoils some of the romance associated with the purchase of Fine Art.
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.
Let’s get back to the real estate pilot program that lies at the heart of the Times’s confusion. That federal program, which may or may not be continued, relies upon mortgage title insurance companies to report to authorities the ultimate beneficial owner of any vehicle used to buy or sell very valuable real estate. It does not require the seller to reveal the beneficial owner to the buyer or vice versa.
Eli Sakhia was a respectable art gallery owner in business for 15 years in Manhattan. He sold privately and to auction houses in the United States and abroad. What he failed to tell his private buyers was that they were buying the forgeries and the auction houses were getting the real works. His modus operandi was to purchase originals, sell them to auction houses, and hire artists in the interim to reproduce fakes for sale to his clients. His problems started when a past buyer of a fake tried to sell his forged piece while Sakhia attempted to sell the original to another auction house. The houses brought in an expert who stated that the past buyer's work was a fake. Sakhia was arrested and convicted; he's expected to serve three to four years in prison (Campanile, 2004).
Regardless of whether this provision ultimately is enacted, the underlying issue will persist. This post discusses some of the general concerns that the art and antiquities world can be misused as a conduit for dirty money. We then discuss the AML Standards for Art Market Operators proposed by the Basel Institute on Governance, and similar standards set forth by the Responsible Art Market, both of which attempt to set forth a framework for those in the business of trading art to mitigate their money laundering risks.
Within computer science, informatics uses the term "provenance" to mean the lineage of data, as per data provenance, with research in the last decade extending the conceptual model of causality and relation to include processes that act on data and agents that are responsible for those processes. See, for example, the proceedings of the International Provenance Annotation Workshop (IPAW) and Theory and Practice of Provenance (TaPP). Semantic web standards bodies, including the World Wide Web Consortium in 2014, have ratified a standard data model for provenance representation known as PROV which draws from many of the better-known provenance representation systems that preceded it, such as the Proof Markup Language and the Open Provenance Model.
Knoedler’s fantastic tale of fraud begins in the early 1990s on the streets of Manhattan. That’s where a former waiter from Spain, Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz, came upon a Chinese artist peddling canvases on the sidewalk. Bergantiños approached the man, Pei-Shen Qian, and said that he had friends who wanted works by esteemed artists but could not afford the real things. Could Pei-Shen duplicate paintings for them? Bergantiños reportedly offered $500 per copy.