The notion of intellectual property—the idea that artists’ works belong to them—dates at least to medieval Europe, though history records examples of the concept as early as ancient Greece. It had taken hold sufficiently during the Renaissance for Michelangelo to take umbrage when his work was misattributed. It was reported that when he discovered that another artist was receiving credit for sculpting the famous Pietà (now in St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome), Michelangelo returned with his chisel and added his signature across the centre of the sculpture, on the prominent sash across Mary’s upper body (in Italian): “Michelangelo Buonarroti, Florentine, made this.”
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).
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.
Your documents must be investigated—because they are worth nothing until proven to be authentic. You have to be able to trace the qualified individual’s signature, the artist in the question, or previous owners back to real people. This will help you confirm that the document given to you is not fallacious. Unqualified experts attribute art all the time, and the documents might be completely trustworthy.
Stories of art and money laundering tend to be media friendly, and often involve the wealthy behaving poorly. In one notorious case, the Department of Justice (“DOJ”) seized, via a civil forfeiture action, Jean Michel Basquiat’s 1981 painting, Hannibal. This work — later returned to Brazil by the DOJ — had been smuggled into the U.S. by Edemar Cid Ferreira, a former Brazilian banker who was convicted of money laundering and other offenses, and who allegedly converted some of his laundered proceeds into a significant art collection. According to the DOJ, although Hannibal had been appraised at a value of $8 million, it had been smuggled by Ferreira into the U.S. from Brazil, via the Netherlands, with false shipping invoices stating that the contents of the shipment were worth $100. Other stories provide less genteel tales of drug cartels, terrorist organizations and other criminal syndicates financing themselves through systemic looting and the illicit antiquities trade.
These pesky forgers don’t limit their scams to painting, and are capable of turning their hands to many types of fakery. In the case of this set of six Louis XIV chairs—sold by highly-respected Parisian antiques dealer Kraemer Gallery to the Palace of Versailles itself—it emerged after the sale was made public that there just were not as many chairs in the court of Versailles as there are currently in circulation. The natural conclusion would be that some of the presumed authentic chairs must indeed be fakes.
Fine examples of pottery and porcelain have always commanded high prices, which have, in turn, encouraged the making of forgeries and reproductions. Since many European factories tried to imitate Italian majolica during the 19th century when it was especially popular, forgeries are common. The work of Urbino, Castel Durante, Faenza, and Gubbio was copied freely, and, to a lesser extent, so were the wares of Orvieto and Florence. Most of these forgeries are not close enough to deceive a reasonably expert eye. Potters used natural deposits the impurities of which, for good or ill, often affected the final result; until recently it has been impossible to procure materials in a pure state. In all but a few isolated instances (some German stoneware reproductions, for example) the forger no longer has access to these original deposits and he has to imitate the effect of the impurities as best he can. Although the best forgeries are often remarkably close to the originals, they are not very numerous.
Speaking on the sidelines of the Art Business Conference, Pierre Valentin, head of the art law practice at London law firm Constantine Cannon, said laundering illicit funds through the art market was seductive because purchases at auctions "can be anonymous and it's a moveable asset. You can put the art on a private plane and take it anywhere. Plus there is no registration system for art."
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.
Less clear is whether the standards that exist in the art world about what should be included in the provenance are followed with any regularity or even can be followed as a practical matter. While theoretically intended to be a “chain of title” that should include every owner of the work since its creation, provenance typically tends to be a non-exclusive listing of interesting facts concerning the background of the work, such as notable former owners (at least those who are willing to have their identities disclosed) and the exhibition of the work at prestigious venues. Should galleries which held the work on consignment be listed? Does a seller have potential liability if the provenance provided to the buyer turns out to be inaccurate in any material respect? What if it is merely incomplete?
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.