The quality of provenance of an important work of art can make a considerable difference to its selling price in the market; this is affected by the degree of certainty of the provenance, the status of past owners as collectors, and in many cases by the strength of evidence that an object has not been illegally excavated or exported from another country. The provenance of a work of art may vary greatly in length, depending on context or the amount that is known, from a single name to an entry in a scholarly catalogue some thousands of words long.
This is a novel that is based on a true crime: a $500 million art heist at the Gardner Museum in Boston in 1990. The story centers around artist Claire Roth, who is good at making reproductions of famous paintings. Early in the book, a dealer asks Claire to make a forgery of one of the Edgar Degas paintings that was stolen from the Gardner. Claire recognizes that she's making a deal with the devil, and part of her payment is she gets her own art show.
Perhaps most frightening of all, there is no telling how many fakes still lie in plain sight, accepted as originals by experts and the public alike. Famed contemporary forgers such as Wolfgang Beltracchi and Mark Landis, for instance, have infiltrated many museum collections. In 2014, Switzerland’s Fine Art Expert Institute estimated that 50 percent of all work on the market is fake—a figure that was quickly second-guessed, but remains troubling.
At any point in a work of art's history, its authenticity can come into question. Often, art is accompanied by documentation, commonly known as provenance, that confirms its authenticity mainly through ownership history. Good provenance (ownership history) leaves no doubt that a work of art is genuine and by the artist who it is stated to be by or whose signature it bears. Unfortunately, numerous forged or otherwise misrepresented works of art are offered for sale with fake or questionable provenance at online auctions, at fixed-price art websites, and at bricks-and-mortar establishments. But nowhere is the proliferation of art with problematic provenance more pervasive than at online auctions.
The provenance is listed in chronological order, beginning with the earliest known owner. Life dates of owners, if known, are enclosed in brackets. Uncertain information is indicated by the terms “possibly” or “probably” and explained in footnotes. Dealers, auction houses, or agents are enclosed in parentheses to distinguish them from private owners. Relationships between owners and methods of transactions are indicated in the text and clarified through punctuation: a semicolon is used to indicate that the work passed directly between two owners (including dealers, auction houses, or agents), and a period is used to separate two owners (including dealers auction houses or agents) if a direct transfer did not occur or is not known to have occurred. Footnotes are used to document or clarify information.
It is hard to imagine a business more custom-made for money laundering, with million-dollar sales conducted in secrecy and with virtually no oversight. What this means in practical terms is that “you can have a transaction where the seller is listed as ‘private collection’ and the buyer is listed as ‘private collection,’ ” said Sharon Cohen Levin, chief of the asset forfeiture unit of the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan. “In any other business, no one would be able to get away with this.”
As previously noted in this Journal, the legal structure we call art law (an amalgam of personal property law, contract, estate, tax, and intellectual property law) supporting the acquisition, retention, and disposition of Fine Art, often fits uneasily with art market custom and practice. The result is that 21st-century art market participants are frequently unsure of their legal rights and obligations.
To combat these problems The Authentication in Art Foundation was established in 2012 by experts from different fields involved with the authenticity of art. The aim of the foundation is to bring together experts from different specialities to combat art forgery. Among its members are noted experts such as David Bomford, Martin Kemp, and Mauricio Seracini.
Contact an art advisor to help you find a buyer for your work or see if an auction house like Sotheby’s or Christie’s wants to auction it for you. If they help you sell your collection, they will make money, so it’s in their best interest not to ask any questions. Make an appointment with an auction house to appraise the pieces in your collection. You’ll sign a contract that says you are allowing the auctioneers to sell your collection on consignment, which means if it sells you get paid, and if it doesn’t you get the art returned to you. It will also tell you what sort of fees you will be charged - like insurance, shipping, and the auction house’s cut. You’ll ship the work to the auction house, wait for your collection to be sold, and make it rain.
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:
Art scammers have one objective and that is to separate the artist from their art or from their money, or both. When approached by a stranger on the Internet, always be aware of and skeptical of phony emails and solicitations. The old adage that says “when it sounds too good to be true…” still stands true today. All artists should be aware of and comfortable with whom they are dealing with when they are selling their art on the Internet.
The wealthy figured this out in a big way back in the 1980s, giving rise to ‘art stars’ valued in the millions. And with the increasing popularity and geographical scope of biennials and art fairs in the 1990s, rich people all over the world now have access to seas of multi-million dollar investments that can be rolled up and stored just about anywhere.
When one of the oldest and most respected art galleries in America, the Knoedler Gallery in New York, closed its doors abruptly in 2011, the art world was stunned. Not because the gallery closed, but by the discovery that over the course of 15 years, the gallery and its president, Ann Freedman, had sold millions of dollars in forgeries to wealthy collectors.
In the United States federal money laundering statutes apply to nearly every major transaction through which illegal profits are disguised to look legal. Typically, dirty money is laundered through the purchase of, say, a penthouse apartment, or mixed in with the earnings of a legitimate business like a restaurant. When gambling winnings or drug proceeds come out the other end, they appear as a real estate asset or business profit. They look clean.
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.
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.
The principles of archival provenance were developed in the 19th century by both French and Prussian archivists, and gained widespread acceptance on the basis of their formulation in the Manual for the Arrangement and Description of Archives by Dutch state archivists Samuel Muller, J. A. Feith, and R. Fruin, published in the Netherlands in 1898 (often referred to as the "Dutch Manual").
Forgers also remind us that great art depends on the ideas of artists, not necessarily on their actual hands. Many wonderful works of art by figures such as Titian, Rembrandt and Rubens were executed partly or even mostly by their studio assistants, which doesn’t make them any less expressive of Titian or Rembrandt’s innovations. For nearly two decades, our forger in Queens managed to fool both the dealers at Knoedler and their art-savvy clients, and the only reason his fakes could exist and succeed is because the true achievement of Pollock and Rothko was to come up with a set of ideas and procedures for making art. The faker could be considered a faithful assistant of theirs who happened to arrive after they’d died; ditto the hundreds of forgers of Qi Baishi.
Excluded from the category of literary forgeries is the copy made in good faith for purposes of study. In the matter of autographs, manuscripts in the handwriting of their authors, forgeries must be distinguished from facsimiles, copies made by lithography or other reproductive processes. Some early editions of Lord Byron’s work, for example, contained a facsimile of an autograph letter of the poet. If such facsimiles are detached from the volumes that they were intended to illustrate, they may deceive the unwary.
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.
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.
Of course, certain countries already impose AML regulations on the art world. The European Union Commission issued its 5th Anti-Money Laundering Directive in June 2018, which must be implemented by Member States by January 2020, and which in part expands its coverage of “obliged entities” to persons trading in art, acting as intermediaries in the trade of art, or storing art in freeports, if the value of the transaction or a group of linked transactions equals €10,000 or more. In the United States, although the BSA already applies to dealers in precious metals, stones and jewels, and thereby requires them to file Suspicious Activity Reports and comply with other AML obligations, no such rules currently apply to U.S. dealers in art.
Some of the 20th century’s most important creators set out to undermine ideas of unique, authentic, hand-touched works of art. Precisely 100 years ago, when Marcel Duchamp began presenting store-bought bicycle wheels, urinals and bottle racks as ready-made sculptures, he was also inviting others to buy and show similar masterworks. A half-century later, Andy Warhol was famously freewheeling when it came to notions of authenticity: You could never tell, and weren’t supposed to know, how much if any of a Warhol painting had actually been made by him versus by some acolyte in his art Factory. (In interviews, Warhol would sometimes attribute his works to others even when he’d executed them himself.) The art market can’t stand the slippages such ideas introduce, and insists on selling Warhols and Duchamps the way you’d sell a Lincoln autograph. Forgers, on the other hand, help preserve modern art’s productive uncertainty.
Open a foreign bank account in a tax haven like Switzerland or the Cayman Islands. Banks in these countries are not required by law to hand over information about your account to anyone without your consent. If you open what's called a “numbered account” in a private Swiss bank like Union Bank of Switzerland or Credit Suisse Group, a number or code name will be associated with the account, rather than your name. To open a numbered account, you will most likely need to travel to Switzerland to do it, though if this is impossible, there are firms that help people set up off-shore bank accounts that can help you. You will most likely need to make an initial deposit of at least $100,000 to open the account, which will cost roughly $300 a year to maintain.
For museums and the art trade provenance has increasingly important, not just in the older way where establishing the authorship and authenticity of an object was the main concern, but in establishing the moral and legal validity of its chain of custody, given the increasing amount of looted art. This first became a major concern regarding works that had changed hands in Nazi-controlled areas in Europe before and during World War II. Many museums began compiling pre-active registers of such works and their history. Recently the same concerns have come to prominence for works of African art, often exported illegally, and antiquities from many parts of the world, but currently especially in Iraq, and then Syria.
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).
Provenance trials, where material of different provenances are planted in a single place or at different locations spanning a range of environmental conditions, is a way to reveal genetic variation among provenances. It also contributes to an understanding of how different provenances respond to various climatic and environmental conditions and can as such contribute with knowledge on how to strategically select provenances for climate change adaptation.
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the mania for classification and study of the past resulted in an upsurge in forgeries as the art market adjusted to accommodate the new interest in the artistic past. That interest in the classification of the past also led to the founding of academic disciplines such as the history of art. The study of art history and the creation of agreed-upon bodies of work for artists and eras, as well as advances in science, made possible in the 20th century the winnowing out of forgeries, fakes, and misattributions from authentic works. As art historians gained more knowledge about the past and the styles, materials, and working conditions of artists and historical epochs, inauthentic and fraudulent works were more readily exposed.