More typically, provenance will be scrutinized where questions of authenticity arise. A few years back, an issue arose concerning the authenticity of a century-old sculpture attributed to a 20th-century artist of iconic stature. The work was sold to a prominent collector through an auction house with a certificate of authenticity from a qualified and appropriately-credentialed scholar of the artist’s work. According to the provenance provided at the time of sale, the work had been acquired in Paris after World War II by an art history professor from an Ivy League university. When questions of authenticity arose several years later, an Internet search and a few telephone calls to the university revealed that no such art history professor ever existed. Also left off the provenance was the fact that just months prior to the multi-million dollar sale to the prominent collector, the work had been purchased from an obscure antique store owned and operated by someone who had served jail time for art insurance fraud. Had these “errors and omissions” in the provenance been discovered at the time of the sale, the sale itself and several years of costly litigation would have been avoided.
Ken Dreifach, head of the Internet Bureau at the New York State Attorney General's office, reported the reoccurring sales of a forged painting. An individual purchased a painting from the Art and Design Center of New York City and brought it to an art expert for appraisal who determined the work was a forgery. The Art and Design Center refunded the money to the purchaser but then sold it to another individual. That person also had it evaluated by an expert who said it was a fake. The Center refunded the money to the second purchaser. Then an undercover investigator from the attorney general's office bought the same painting and the jig was up. The attorney general filed charges and the case was settled against the Center for various monetary charges (Department of Law, 2001).
Further, and as noted, other traditional vehicles for laundering money have become less attractive, thereby driving those who need a mechanism to launder large sums into the arms of the art world. As we repeatedly have blogged, one of the most time-honored and relatively convenient vehicles for laundering — real estate — is under intense scrutiny and now is subject in the U.S. to the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (“FinCEN”)’s ongoing Geographic Targeting Orders (these require U.S. title insurance companies in many parts of the U.S. to identify the natural persons behind legal entities used in purchases of residential real estate involving $300,000 or more and performed without a bank loan or similar form of external financing).
Stories of art and money laundering tend to be media friendly, and often involve the wealthy behaving poorly. In one notorious case, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) seized, via a civil forfeiture action, Jean Michel Basquiat’s 1981 painting, Hannibal. This work — later returned to Brazil by the DOJ — had been smuggled into the U.S. by Edemar Cid Ferreira, a former Brazilian banker who was convicted of money laundering and other offenses, and who allegedly converted some of his laundered proceeds into a significant art collection. According to the DOJ, although Hannibal had been appraised at a value of $8 million, it had been smuggled by Ferreira into the U.S. from Brazil, via the Netherlands, with false shipping invoices stating that the contents of the shipment were worth $100. Other stories provide less genteel tales of drug cartels, terrorist organizations and other criminal syndicates financing themselves through systemic looting and the illicit antiquities trade.
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.