Wolfgang Beltracchi is a name you may never have heard before. Very few people have. But his paintings have brought him millions and millions of dollars in a career that spanned nearly 40 years. They have made their way into museums, galleries, and private collections all over the world. What makes him a story for us is that all his paintings are fakes. And what makes him an unusual forger is that he didn’t copy the paintings of great artists, but created new works which he imagined the artist might have painted or which might have gotten lost. Connoisseurs and dealers acknowledge that Beltracchi is the most successful art forger of our time -- perhaps of all time. Brilliant not only as a painter, but as a conman of epic proportions.
↑ Mario Clouds Not Bootleg V1.1 is a variation on Super Mario Clouds by Cory Arcangel. It was made available on the site NetVVorth as part of a collection of "forged" works by iconic digital artists. (Arcangel also offers instructions on his website that allow anyone to create a bootleg version of the piece.) It is still credited to "Cory Arcangel" in an attempt to highlight the ease of forging digital work.
Price fluidity is one of the key advantages of using artwork for money laundering. Coupled with a lack of a regulatory body authorized to oversee the value of art, pricing art is effectively a free-for-all. For example, after 9/11, Americans yearned for nostalgia, including Norman Rockwell paintings. Some of his folksy paintings tripled in value — from $15 million in 2006 to $45 million seven years later.
These are all Pei-Shen Qian's forgeries. Incredibly, he was able to copy the style and technique of not just one major artist, but many of the giants of the 20th century: Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Franz Kline, Lee Krasner, Mark Rothko and others. He forged 63 works that sold for more than $80 million to collectors.
Redistribution of the world’s wealth after the Renaissance created an explosive demand for art by a newly educated and prosperous mercantile middle class. Guilds of Master artists and students became virtual factories for art that was produced to fill this demand. The sale of State and Ecclesiastical art collections created new secondary markets in the form of dealers, galleries and auction houses. For the first time in history, art became a commercial commodity.
The problem isn’t their argument that seller’s should reveal themselves. It’s the slapdash evidence and flawed logic they use. The story’s biggest problem begins with the lede where it is argued that real estate sellers are transparent. Several graphs deeper in the story it is revealed that real estate transactions that are on a par with major art transactions are, in fact, not transparent. How do we know that? Because the Times tells us about a pilot program that requires transparency. Here’s the opening graph:
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.
Sylvia Dugan I started reading it, but found the main character to be too shallow and not very believable. I finally decided to stop reading it after the first 50+…moreI started reading it, but found the main character to be too shallow and not very believable. I finally decided to stop reading it after the first 50+ pages, too many other good books to read.(less)
Some exposed forgers have later sold their reproductions honestly, by attributing them as copies, and some have actually gained enough notoriety to become famous in their own right. Forgeries painted by the late Elmyr de Hory, featured in the film F for Fake directed by Orson Welles, have become so valuable that forged de Horys have appeared on the market.
Even though De Sole was appointed chairman of Sotheby’s in 2015 and, presumably, is art-savvy, Clarick points out that his being scammed speaks volumes. “To me,” says Clarick, “it says that the works were pretty good-looking and conveys the impeccable reputation that Knoedler and Ann Freedman had. People believed them. You don’t buy a really fancy diamond from Tiffany and have it checked out on 47th Street.”
It is important to note that objects identified as containing a Nazi-era provenance are not assumed to have been looted during the Nazi era or to have been acquired illegally. Rather, by making this information available to the public, the Nelson-Atkins provides an opportunity for additional information to be made available and fulfills its mission to steward responsibly the collections in its care.
In recent weeks, the art world has been rocked by perhaps the biggest forgery scandal to hit the art world since Van Meegeren’s unmasking. The extent of the Old Master forgery ring is as of yet unknown, but Sotheby’s has already issued a refund to the buyer of a $10 million Frans Hals portrait, sold in 2011 in a private sale through London dealer Mark Weiss. James Martin’s Orion Analytical, a Williamstown, Massachusetts-based company which investigates artworks, found modern-day materials in the canvas, proving it to be a forgery.
Governments around the world have stepped up their efforts to combat money laundering in recent decades, with regulations that require financial institutions to put systems in place to detect and report suspicious activity. The amount of money involved is substantial: According to a 2018 survey from PwC, global money laundering transactions account for roughly $1 trillion to $2 trillion annually, or some 2% to 5% of global GDP .
During the Renaissance, many painters took on apprentices who studied painting techniques by copying the works and style of the master. As a payment for the training, the master would then sell these works. This practice was generally considered a tribute, not forgery, although some of these copies have later erroneously been attributed to the master.
* If the seller states that the work of art sold at an auction house, have them provide the name and contact information for the auction house as well as the date of the sale and lot number of the art in that sale. Just because an auction house sells a work of art does not automatically make that work of art genuine. Best procedure here is to get a copy of the auction catalog and carefully read the listing for the art.
“There are museums in the past who have wanted to take something of high value down and replace it with a replica, but that’s a behind-the-curtain thing,” says Timothy Carpenter, a supervisor and special agent in the FBI’s art theft program who frequently lectures collectors to do the same. “If you’ve got this $10 million painting that you’re concerned about, you can probably afford to make a $5,000 copy made and hang it. It’s the only guarantee to keep their painting safe if they don’t have security on their residence.”
Adding to the seller’s risk is the fact that a claim for breach of warranty does not depend on proof of seller’s negligence or other culpability. Under UCC § 2-714 (2) “[t]he measure of damages for breach of warranty is the difference at the time and place of acceptance between the value of the goods accepted and the value they would have had if they had been as warranted, unless special circumstances show proximate damages of a different amount.” If the provenance is deemed to be a warranty, and the artwork is less valuable because of an inaccuracy or omission in the provenance, the seller may be liable for that difference in value, regardless of his or her good faith or lack of knowledge of the error in question.
An art forger must be at least somewhat proficient in the type of art he is trying to imitate. Many forgers were once fledgling artists who tried, unsuccessfully, to break into the market, eventually resorting to forgery. Sometimes, an original item is borrowed or stolen from the owner in order to create a copy. Forgers will then return the copy to the owner, keeping the original for himself. In 1799, a self-portrait by Albrecht Dürer which had hung in the Nuremberg Town Hall since the 16th century, was loaned to Abraham Wolfgang Küfner [de]. The painter made a copy of the original and returned the copy in place of the original. The forgery was discovered in 1805, when the original came up for auction and was purchased for the royal collection.
The Chinese art market, where regulation is lax, is thought to be particularly prone to money laundering. "The [Chinese] art market has become more and more abnormal," Wang Shouzhi, dean of the Cheung Kong School of Art and Design at Shantou University, told the South China Morning Post in April. "It is saturated with business tricks, fake works and fake prices. … It has become a tool for corruption and money laundering."
While pretty much all art could be scandalized, some are more susceptible to scheming than others. Digital artist Daniel Temkin points out that digital art, which doesn’t need to be shipped or stored because it has no physical manifestation, is particularly ripe for your risky business. To make it easy for you, Temkin has created an "online auction house, offering net art by internationally renowned artists and their impersonators" called NetVVorth. The art experiment/tongue-in-cheek criminal resource hosts a series of counterfeit works created by legitimate net artists. “The collection is offered to expose net art as a viable investment to serious collectors by establishing a shadow market, proving its ability to hide illicit profits and transfer them easily around the globe. All works are supplied with provenance papers. All sales are in Bitcoin. The true counterfeiter is identified only to the owner of the piece.” The collection includes roughly 35 works. Pick your favorite. (And if you hate digital art, like most collectors, you can always hire an art consultant who can help you pick out some “reeeeeal” art.)
Following the Renaissance, the increasing prosperity of the middle class created a fierce demand for art. Near the end of the 14th century, Roman statues were unearthed in Italy, intensifying the populace's interest in antiquities, and leading to a sharp increase in the value of these objects. This upsurge soon extended to contemporary and recently deceased artists. Art had become a commercial commodity, and the monetary value of the artwork came to depend on the identity of the artist. To identify their works, painters began to mark them. These marks later evolved into signatures. As the demand for certain artwork began to exceed the supply, fraudulent marks and signatures began to appear on the open market.
Another area of art fraud motivated by the demands of the art market involves the smuggling of works of art out of countries, especially from developing countries, where the value of the work may be poorly understood. Though smuggling is in itself a crime, art fraud may also occur when the smugglers minimize the value of the art to guardians of cultural patrimony or to customs officials. Goods thus transported are often offered elsewhere for high prices. There are sanctions against museums that buy artworks obtained in that manner, but governments of the originating country have little recourse when the objects disappear into private collections.