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.
Even though De Sole was appointed chairman of Sotheby’s in 2015 and, presumably, is art-savvy, Clarick points out that his being scammed speaks volumes. “To me,” says Clarick, “it says that the works were pretty good-looking and conveys the impeccable reputation that Knoedler and Ann Freedman had. People believed them. You don’t buy a really fancy diamond from Tiffany and have it checked out on 47th Street.”
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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.
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 Queens, a guy working in his garage churned out “Pollocks” and “Rothkos” that fooled the experts, sold for millions of dollars and helped destroy the Knoedler & Company gallery, as we learned in recent months. In China, thousands of artisans have forged the country’s artistic treasures, both ancient and modern, according to a report in The New York Times.
As the trial nears, a few facts are certain. Rosales sold fraudulent art; after pleading guilty to nine counts that include wire fraud and money laundering, she agreed to cooperate in the investigation and is awaiting sentencing. Her boyfriend Bergantiños was arrested in Spain and remains there. Pei-Shen, who brilliantly forged work by the most lauded artists of the 20th century, is on the loose and untouchable somewhere in China.
Forgeries again came into play at Turkey’s State Art and Sculpture Museum in Ankara, where a group of museum officials and criminals are believed to have teamed up to steal some 302 works from the institution between 2005 and 2009. The crime was discovered in 2012, when the museum realized that 46 pieces in the collection had been replaced by copies. Another 30 works also raised suspicion.
Governments around the world have stepped up their efforts to combat money laundering in recent decades, with regulations that require financial institutions to put systems in place to detect and report suspicious activity. The amount of money involved is substantial: According to a 2018 survey from PwC, global money laundering transactions account for roughly $1 trillion to $2 trillion annually, or some 2% to 5% of global GDP .
Ultraviolet rays readily reveal additions or alterations to a painting, since the varnish layers and some of the paint layers fluoresce to different colours. Ultraviolet is also used in the examination of marble sculpture. Old marble develops a surface that will fluoresce to a yellow-greenish colour, whereas a modern piece or an old surface recently recut will fluoresce to a bright violet. Infrared rays can penetrate thin paint layers in an oil painting to reveal underpainting that may disclose an earlier painting on the same canvas, or perhaps a signature that has been painted out and covered by a more profitable one. X rays are used to examine the internal structure of an object. A carved wooden Virgin supposedly of the 15th century but revealing modern machine-made nails deep inside is obviously a fraud. A forger usually works for the surface effect and is not concerned with the internal structures.
Like most laundering cases involving art in the United States, this one was uncovered when the work was illegally transported into the country. In 2004 Mr. Ferreira’s financial empire, built partly on embezzled funds, collapsed, leaving $1 billion in debts. A court in São Paulo sentenced him in 2006 to 21 years in prison for bank fraud, tax evasion and money laundering, a conviction he is appealing. Before his arrest, however, more than $30 million of art owned by Mr. Ferreira and his wife, Márcia, was smuggled out of Brazil, Judge De Sanctis said.
Vilas Likhite, a Los Angeles doctor, was said to have owned a multimillion-dollar art collection inherited from an Indian maharajah. His collected works included the names of Brancusi, Lichtenstein, Chagall, Casatt, and others. The pieces he collected were best described as "museum quality." At times, he could be persuaded to sell some of these works to trusted friends for exceptionally low prices. However, a recent sale of a Casatt proved to be his downfall when he sold it to an undercover police detective who specialized in art fraud. All of Likhite's carefully documented works, some presented in a three-ring binder, were fakes.
Law enforcement officials in the United States and abroad say “Hannibal” is just one of thousands of valuable artworks being used by criminals to hide illicit profits and illegally transfer assets around the globe. As other traditional money-laundering techniques have come under closer scrutiny, smugglers, drug traffickers, arms dealers and the like have increasingly turned to the famously opaque art market, officials say.
Finally, forgers teach us to doubt connoisseurs. There’s a myth out there, propagated by the market and some strains of academe, that certain thoroughbred experts can smell authentic art at 100 yards. After more than a century of bad attributions, reattributions and long-lived fakes, you’d think we would know better than to believe in such fantasy creatures. The truth is, the connoisseur’s eye works brilliantly in that vast majority of attributions where an artwork comes without a name attached but clearly has a single maker’s signature look. And then that eye fails utterly in those remaining, more iffy cases where a piece looks quite like some artist’s work, but may almost as easily be by someone else — including a forger.
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.
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.
But to dealers and their clients, secrecy is a crucial element of the art market’s mystique and practice. The Art Dealers Association of America dismissed the idea that using art to launder money was even a problem. “The issue is not an industrywide problem and really does not pertain to us,” said Lily Mitchem Pearsall, the association’s spokeswoman.
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.
The hardest deception to detect is usually one that has been made recently. The forgery is a product of the time in which it was made, and the forger is closer to current understanding of the artist or period forged. The forgery, therefore, is often more appealing than a genuine work of art. As a forgery ages, viewpoints and tastes shift, and there is a new basis of understanding. Consequently, a forgery rarely survives more than a generation.
* 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.
Any given antiquity may have both a provenience (where it was found) and a provenance (where it has been since it was found). A summary of the distinction is that "provenience is a fixed point, while provenance can be considered an itinerary that an object follows as it moves from hand to hand." Another metaphor is that provenience is an artifact's "birthplace", while provenance is its "résumé", though this is imprecise (many artifacts originated as trade goods created in one region but were used and finally deposited in another).
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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.
Despite those advances, the detection of fraudulent art remains a complex undertaking. It is particularly difficult to weed out forgeries in the work of modern artists whose large numbers of works and superstar statuses make them especially attractive to those who commit fraud. Pablo Picasso, for example, was a prolific artist, creating a huge number of works on canvas and on paper as well as sculptures and ceramics. Considering his vast output and the varying styles and media in which he worked, scholars have had difficulty establishing a definitive corpus for him. The prestige associated with owning a Picasso and the difficulty of attribution, especially for a drawing, made and continues to make fraudulent representations of his work hard to police.