Price flexibility in the art world is just one of the many advantages for a certain subset of the criminals — money launderers. Other advantages include portability, lack of a paper trail, anonymity, and no regulations. Artwork is lightweight compared to other valuables, like gold and cash. Artwork is bought and sold with minimal paperwork, unlike real estate. Artwork purchases can be anonymous, unlike everything else.
Archaeologists ... don't care who owned an object—they are more interested in the context of an object within the community of its (mostly original) users. ... [W]e are interested in why a Roman coin turned up in a shipwreck 400 years after it was made; while art historians don't really care, since they can generally figure out what mint a coin came from by the information stamped on its surface. "It's a Roman coin, what else do we need to know?" says an art historian; "The shipping trade in the Mediterranean region during late Roman times" says an archaeologist. ... [P]rovenance for an art historian is important to establish ownership, but provenience is interesting to an archaeologist to establish meaning.
One of the more-complicated examples is that of the Getty kouros, an allegedly 6th-century-bce male sculpted figure owned by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles that has long been suspected of being a modern forgery. The Getty paid a very high price for what it believed may have been the last remaining such figure on the art market only to find that the sculpture had stylistic irregularities that suggested that it could not be authentic. At the same time, scientific tests have not demonstrated that it is of modern origin, and some scholars have argued that stylistic anomalies do not prove that it is a fake. The Getty Villa exhibited the work in its galleries with a label that read: “about 530 bc or modern forgery.” However, the kouros was removed from view when the museum completed a yearlong renovation in 2018, with the director stating that the sculpture was fake.
Of course, beyond AML-related process concerns, any art dealer — just like any business person — always must remember that just about any financial transaction that involves proceeds known to have originated from illegal activity represents a criminal money laundering offense. Stated otherwise, even if the BSA is not expanded to include dealers in art and antiquities, those in the U.S. art industry still need to bear in mind, in extreme examples, the omnipresent federal criminal code. Sometimes, the provenance of the funds can be more critical than the provenance of the art.
A recent, thought-provoking instance of potential art forgery involves the Getty kouros, the authenticity of which has not been resolved. The Getty Kouros was offered, along with seven other pieces, to The J. Paul Getty Museum in Malibu, California, in the spring of 1983. For the next 12 years art historians, conservators, and archaeologists studied the Kouros, scientific tests were performed and showed that the surface could not have been created artificially. However, when several of the other pieces offered with the Kouros were shown to be forgeries, its authenticity was again questioned. In May 1992, the Kouros was displayed in Athens, Greece, at an international conference, called to determine its authenticity. The conference failed to solve the problem; while most art historians and archeologists denounced it, the scientists present believed the statue to be authentic. To this day, the Getty Kouros' authenticity remains a mystery and the statue is displayed with the date: "Greek, 530 B.C. or modern forgery".
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).
When addressing the efforts to establish an artwork’s provenance history and authenticity under Guideline 4, the AML Guidelines provide that “[i]t is important to obtain and publish in any catalogue or sales document as much information as possible about the artwork, including any known provenance,” and to “check major databases of stolen and looted art and obtain any relevant and available legal documents, witness declarations, [and] expert opinions[.]” In addition to a physical examination of the artwork and a technical analysis and dating of the materials used, “[d]ocuments helpful in establishing ownership and provenance include invoices, receipts, dated photographs, insurance records, valuations, official records, exhibition catalogues, invoices for restoration work, diaries, dated newspaper articles, original signed and dated letters.”
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.
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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.
Where the research is proceeding backwards, to discover the previous provenance of a painting whose current ownership and location is known, it is important to record the physical details of the painting – style, subject, signature, materials, dimensions, frame, etc. The titles of paintings and the attribution to a particular artist may change over time. The size of the work and its description can be used to identify earlier references to the painting. The back of a painting can contain significant provenance information. There may be exhibition marks, dealer stamps, gallery labels and other indications of previous ownership. There may also be shipping labels. In the BBC TV programme Fake or Fortune? the provenance of the painting Bords de la Seine à Argenteuil was investigated using a gallery sticker and shipping label on the back. Early provenance can sometimes be indicated by a cartellino (a representation of an inscribed label) added to the front of a painting. However, these can be forged, or can fade or be painted over.
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.
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.
Glafira Rosales, an obscure Long Island art dealer, her boyfriend, and his brother enlisted Pei-Shen Qian, a Chinese artist in Queens, to paint Abstract Expressionist canvases in the style of such masters as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, and others. The venerable Knoedler gallery, which closed in 2011 as the forgeries came to light, still claims they believed Rosales’s story that the works were part of an undocumented collection sold directly by the artists to an anonymous “Mr. X.”
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.
Some suggest that a verbal confirmation serves as authentication, although if you can’t store the document in your Artwork Archive account, it’s risky. If someone gives you a verbal confirmation, our suggestion is to request an inked version, certified by either the individual’s credentials or the gallery where you bought the piece. Whatever form of paper authenticity you have, be sure to log it in your Artwork Archive account.
The Rothko even came with a romantic back story. As explained to the De Soles by Ann Freedman, then the highly regarded president of Knoedler & Co. — founded in 1846 and Manhattan’s oldest art gallery — it emerged from the collection of a mysterious Swiss heir. The man’s business-traveling father bought paintings directly from rising art stars of the 1950s. Freedman added that the piece, depicting Mark Rothko’s signature-style rectangles, had gone largely unseen by art-world cognoscenti.