Prosecution is also possible under state criminal laws, such as prohibitions against criminal fraud, or against the simulation of personal signatures. However, in order to trigger criminal liability under states' laws, the government must prove that the defendant had intent to defraud. The evidentiary burden, as in all criminal prosecutions, is high; proof "beyond a reasonable doubt" is required.
Fakes and forgeries in the art world are the stuff of legend, the subject of books, films, and television series the world over. In real life, they land people behind bars. 2016 brought us many unwanted things, but it also appears to have been a year when a huge amount of authenticity disputes took place. The spats took shape from contested provenance, to painters faking their own work, to a multimillion dollar Old Masters scandal. From farce to tragedy, we’ve compiled the highlights of this year’s biggest art forgery scandals below.
Though there are no hard statistics on the amount of laundered money invested in art, law enforcements officials and scholars agree they are seeing more of it. The Basel Institute on Governance, a nonprofit research organization in Switzerland — the site of the world’s premier contemporary and Modern art show — warned last year of the high volume of illegal and suspicious transactions involving art. But regulation has been scattershot and difficult to coordinate internationally.
Other paintings are now also implicated, including a Lucas Cranach the Elder, from the collection of the Prince of Liechtenstein, that was seized by French authorities from the Caumont Centre d’Art in Aix in March. An Orazio Gentileschi painting on lapis lazuli, also sold by Weiss, and a purported Parmigianino have been identified as suspect as well. Rumor has it that works by up to 25 different Old Master paintings may be involved. (For a break-down on what we know so far, read “The Frans Hals Forgery Scandal, Explained.”)
Despite being perfectly legal and of exceptionally high quality, art reproductions do carry a stigma. The owner of one faux Picasso recounted the story of how his grandparents, after selling their entire collection, commissioned a major auction house to duplicate each piece as gifts for their grandchildren. He declined to be named. Two sources from Christie’s, who spoke on background, have confirmed that reproduction is a common practice there. And as of press time, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has not returned our request for comment.
This painting, known as “Hannibal” after a word scribbled on its surface, was brought into the United States in 2007 as part of a Brazilian embezzler’s elaborate effort to launder money, the authorities say. It was later seized at a Manhattan warehouse by federal investigators who are now preparing to return it to Brazil at the behest of law enforcement officials there.
Particularly notorious was the case of the Wise forgeries. Thomas James Wise (1859–1937) had the reputation of being one of the most distinguished private book collectors on either side of the Atlantic, and his Ashley Library in London became a place of pilgrimage for scholars from Europe and the United States. He constantly exposed piracies and forgeries and always denied that he was a dealer. The shock was accordingly the greater in 1934 when John W. Carter and Henry Graham Pollard published An Enquiry into the Nature of Certain Nineteenth Century Pamphlets, proving that about 40 or 50 of these, commanding high prices, were forgeries, and that all could be traced to Wise. Subsequent research confirmed the finding of Carter and Pollard and indicted Wise for other and more serious offenses, including the sophistication of many of his own copies of early printed books with leaves stolen from copies in the British Museum.
The ownership history of a work of art is of fundamental importance for all those involved in the collecting, exhibiting and study of art, for determining both attribution as well as legal title. Recent ownership claims by heirs of Holocaust victims whose art works were looted or otherwise misappropriated during the Nazi-era, and also claims by foreign “source” countries for objects they believe were exported in violation of patrimony or export laws, underscore the importance of provenance research.
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.
As for you artists, firmly establishing yourself as link number one in the chain of provenance is essential. These days, proof of authenticity or authorship accompanying a work of art is more important than ever. In order to prevent unscrupulous sellers from trafficking in fakes, and avoid situations where people question your art, keep good records right from the start and provide some form of documentation with every artwork you produce. The last thing you want is people trying to figure out whether or not you actually created certain works, or contacting you with requests to authenticate works that have no accompanying paperwork or documentation. The bad news is that in the long run, repeated incidents surrounding undocumented art can actually compromise your market. So make sure there's never any doubt that ownership of your art begins with you. Read more about how to do that in this article about How to Authenticate Your Art.
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."
* 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.
Sometimes it is necessary to remove small bits of materials from a work and subject them to various analyses. Chemical analysis is particularly valuable in determining the pigment used because many of the paints available to the modern forger were unknown in earlier times. Today titanium, a 20th-century product, is used to make the white pigment in most oil paints, whereas white lead was the element used in the time of Rembrandt. Many ancient colours were manufactured by grinding natural minerals such as lapis lazuli for blue and malachite for green. Today cheaper synthetic chemicals are used. Some chemical tests, however, require the removal of more ancient material than is desirable. In that event a speck as small as the head of a pin can be analyzed spectrographically. From the burning of a minute sample a photographic record of the spectrum of the light emitted is analyzed to reveal the elements present and their relative percentages.
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 tax laws in art make it basically legal to not pay taxes on art. If you’re a serious art buyer, you just get a good tax accountant,” former New York-based art consultant Beth Fiore tells Hopes&Fears. “If you show newly purchased works in certain museums then you never have to pay taxes on it.” Edward Winkleman of Winkleman Gallery maintains that his gallery keeps fastidious records of all transactions and pays taxes even on cash sales. But he admits that, “the state generally wouldn't question what is reported.” He also tells us that individual sales don’t need to be reported, only the totals for each quarter. Hypothetically, someone could buy millions of dollars worth of art without the IRS knowing, and then later sell those works for a “legitimate” profit that looks clean on taxes.
A tale of literary forgery that came to light in the early 21st century was that of the celebrity biographer Lee Israel, who confessed in her memoir, Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2008), that while down on her luck in the 1990s she had forged and sold to collectors hundreds of letters by various notable figures—Louise Brooks, Noël Coward, Dorothy Parker, Humphrey Bogart, and Lillian Hellman among them.
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.
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.