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Vilas Likhite, a Los Angeles doctor, was said to have owned a multimillion-dollar art collection inherited from an Indian maharajah. His collected works included the names of Brancusi, Lichtenstein, Chagall, Casatt, and others. The pieces he collected were best described as "museum quality." At times, he could be persuaded to sell some of these works to trusted friends for exceptionally low prices. However, a recent sale of a Casatt proved to be his downfall when he sold it to an undercover police detective who specialized in art fraud. All of Likhite's carefully documented works, some presented in a three-ring binder, were fakes.
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).
However, federal criminal prosecutions against art forgers are seldom brought due in part to high evidentiary burdens and competing law enforcement priorities. For example, internet art frauds now appear in the federal courts' rulings that one may study in the PACER court records. Some frauds are done on the internet on a popular auction websites. Traces are readily available to see the full extent of the frauds from a forensic standpoint or even basic due diligence of professionals who may research matters including sources of PACER / enforcing authority records and on the internet.
The pure fabrication is a kind of forgery that defies classification, often because there is no false attribution and the motives are difficult to ascertain. An example of this is the Historia regum Britanniae (1135–38) of Geoffrey of Monmouth (died 1155), a pseudo-historian who compounded stories from Celtic mythology and classical and biblical sources into a fictitious history of ancient Britain. The book became one of the most popular of the Middle Ages and was the basis for some Arthurian legends recounted in medieval romance and epic.
In order to fool inexperienced buyers, unscrupulous sellers often say they have provenance or documented ownership histories that they claim confirms the authenticity of bogus art. In some cases, this concocted provenance appears to date all the way back to the original artists themselves. Before bidding on or buying any art, your job is to make sure any such provenance offered by sellers is correct, legitimate, verifiable and does in fact attest to the authorship of the art. (Problem art may also be accompanied by questionable Certificates of Authenticity. To evaluate a Certificate of Authenticity or COA, read Is Your Certificate of Authenticity Worth the Paper It's Printed On?)
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.
When you sell your home the paperwork details the sale, including your name, and the title search lists the names of the people who owned the property before you. But when someone sells an artwork at auction — even something worth $100 million, much more than your house — the identity is typically concealed. […] In finance, Treasury officials last year began asking banks to identify customers who set up accounts in names of shell companies. In real estate, they introduced a pilot program that requires the full identification of people who buy expensive properties in New York and Miami using cash and shell companies.
In the late 20th century, art fraud was propelled by a rise in the popularity of art as an investment. With more collectors and museums vying for an ever-smaller number of works by noted artists or from esteemed eras in the history of art, motivations for fraud were exponentially increased. At the same time, modern science made it possible to authenticate works of art to a greater degree than at any time in the past, though even those scientific tests led at times to ambiguous results.