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.
Whenever I am approached by someone to buy my art, who I did not know, I always insist that I be paid through PayPal or Payoneer. After that, I usually never heard from those people again. Another way for an artist to protect themselves in a transaction like this is to insist to have the transaction handled by an escrow agent. The final transaction, shipping etc. is not completed until all of the funds have been verified and cleared. Any legitimate buyer or collector of art will not have a problem dealing in either manner. Anyone who objects to this way of doing business with you is someone who you do not want to do business with!
Among the forgers who have tried to make the experts look foolish is George Psalmanazar (1679?–1763). A Frenchman, he went to England where he pretended, with great success, to be a native of Formosa (Taiwan), and published a book about that island, which he had never visited. Another is William Lauder, who attempted to prove John Milton guilty of plagiarism by quoting 17th-century poets who wrote in Latin, into whose works he had interpolated Latin translations from Paradise Lost. A forgery made as a joke but taken seriously was the “Ern Malley” poems, offered to an Australian magazine in 1944 as the work of a recently dead poet. Actually it was composed by two young soldiers who wished to ridicule certain aspects of contemporary poetry.
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.”)
In a market depressed and made anxious by fakes, investors and private collectors may start pulling out, leaving more room for museums to buy at prices they can afford, which in turn would be good news for any art lover who depends on our public collections. And, since museums don’t have to think about net worth and reselling (let’s forget the Detroit case for a moment), they can live with the risk of maybe having bought a fake. Their audience might still enjoy and learn from the new “Rothko” in the collection.
The commonest motivation for fraudulence is monetary gain. Fraudulence is most likely to occur when the demand for a certain kind of work coincides with scarcity and thus raises the market prices. Unprincipled dealers have encouraged technically skilled artists to create forgeries, occasionally guiding them to supply the precise demands of collectors or museums. This is by no means a modern phenomenon: in the 1st and 2nd centuries ad, sculptors working in Rome made replicas of Grecian works to satisfy the demands for the greatly admired Grecian sculpture of the preceding five centuries. These copies or adaptations apparently were not offered as contemporary work but as booty from Greece at the extraordinarily high prices paid for such works in imperial Rome. Similar circumstances may account for the “discovery” of a manuscript or autograph by a dead author or composer, although many such finds are quite legitimate and have been authenticated.
Statistical analysis of digital images of paintings is a new method that has recently been used to detect forgeries. Using a technique called wavelet decomposition, a picture is broken down into a collection of more basic images called sub-bands. These sub-bands are analyzed to determine textures, assigning a frequency to each sub-band. The broad strokes of a surface such as a blue sky would show up as mostly low frequency sub-bands whereas the fine strokes in blades of grass would produce high-frequency sub-bands. A group of 13 drawings attributed to Pieter Brueghel the Elder was tested using the wavelet decomposition method. Five of the drawings were known to be imitations. The analysis was able to correctly identify the five forged paintings. The method was also used on the painting Virgin and Child with Saints, created in the studios of Pietro Perugino. Historians have long suspected that Perugino painted only a portion of the work. The wavelet decomposition method indicated that at least four different artists had worked on the painting.
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.
Philip Byler, Broadening’s lawyer in New York, said that the inaccurate invoices were merely a shortsighted attempt by the art dealer that Broadening hired to save importation fees. “It was not done with the intention of smuggling,” he said. He also challenged the Brazilian authorities’ claim, saying that “Hannibal” was legally purchased from a company owned by Mr. Ferreira’s wife.
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.
Money obtained illegally—from fraud, embezzlement, bribery, etc.—needs a hiding place. A huge deposit into a bank account, with no clear indication of where that money came from, is a red flag for the IRS. So instead of depositing dirty money, or holding onto it as cash, disreputable people will often turn the money into something else (cars, mansions) or filter it through a business so it comes out the other side looking like the profits of a legitimate enterprise.
Despite all the studies and technical tests available, forgeries will still be made. The 20th-century art forger is far better equipped and much more knowledgeable than his predecessor. The demand for rare works of art has increased, and he will attempt to supply them. In collecting, whether by the private collector or by a museum, there comes a point when, after all the studies and all the tests are conducted, a decision has to be made as to whether or not to purchase a piece in question. The element of risk can be minimized but not eliminated. At this point, the collector should be ready to back his opinion with the purchase price. In order to acquire great pieces, particularly from newly discovered and relatively unknown cultures, it is necessary to take a calculated chance. The collector who has never bought a forgery probably has never bought a great piece of art.
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.
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.
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.
The laws of supply and demand dictate that there will be no end to the growing commercial value for a limited number of great works of art; and as long as those who deal in the commercial aspects of art — galleries, art dealers, auction houses and the media — are involved as the arbiters of criteria in judging art, market prices will continue to rise and art forgery will proliferate.
From Oct. 19 to Oct. 26, 2017, the Toledo Museum of Art (TMA) is deaccessioning 68 objects from its antiquities collection through Christie’s auction house in New York. All information about these objects can be found online at Christie’s website. In response to inquiries concerning this sale, it is important to underscore TMA’s collecting philosophy as well as the Museum’s commitment to ensuring clear provenance of all of the objects in its collection.
Copies, replicas, reproductions and pastiches are often legitimate works, and the distinction between a legitimate reproduction and deliberate forgery is blurred. For example, Guy Hain used original molds to reproduce several of Auguste Rodin's sculptures. However, when Hain then signed the reproductions with the name of Rodin's original foundry, the works became deliberate forgeries.