Despite being perfectly legal and of exceptionally high quality, art reproductions do carry a stigma. The owner of one faux Picasso recounted the story of how his grandparents, after selling their entire collection, commissioned a major auction house to duplicate each piece as gifts for their grandchildren. He declined to be named. Two sources from Christie’s, who spoke on background, have confirmed that reproduction is a common practice there. And as of press time, the Metropolitan Museum of Art has not returned our request for comment.
Art forgery dates back more than two thousand years. Roman sculptors produced copies of Greek sculptures. Presumably[clarification needed] the contemporary buyers knew that they were not genuine. During the classical period art was generally created for historical reference, religious inspiration, or simply aesthetic enjoyment. The identity of the artist was often of little importance to the buyer.
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.
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.
Interpol also tracks art smuggling. City police forces may have units that investigate cases of art fraud on the local level. But the first, and in many cases only, line of defense against art fraud is the dealers who offer the works for sale and the museums and collectors who must make every effort to determine the authenticity and legality of the works before purchase.
“Deaccessioning” is defined as the process by which an artwork (or other object) is permanently removed from a museum’s collection. Proceeds received from the sale of deaccessioned artworks must be used by art museums for the acquisition of other artworks. As such, U.S. and international professional organizations have long upheld the role of deaccessioning as vital to the care of collections. Some nationally funded museums do not allow deaccessioning under any circumstances, and internationally it is not as prevalent as it is in America, where many museums are privately funded. The Toledo Museum of Art respects that there are different points of view, but American art museums have upheld the practice of judiciously managing collections.
* FIRST AND FOREMOST: NEVER BID ON OR BUY ART WITHOUT SEEING THE PROVENANCE FIRST. Sellers may say they have provenance, but will only show or give it to winning bidders or buyers after they purchase the art. Other common excuses for not showing provenance include protecting the privacy of the previous owners, keeping bidders from contacting previous owners, or keeping it private. In most cases, the real reason for not showing the provenance is that it's questionable in nature or worse yet, it doesn't even exist. If the seller won't let you see it up front, don't bid and don't buy. Period.
In recent weeks, the art world has been rocked by perhaps the biggest forgery scandal to hit the art world since Van Meegeren’s unmasking. The extent of the Old Master forgery ring is as of yet unknown, but Sotheby’s has already issued a refund to the buyer of a $10 million Frans Hals portrait, sold in 2011 in a private sale through London dealer Mark Weiss. James Martin’s Orion Analytical, a Williamstown, Massachusetts-based company which investigates artworks, found modern-day materials in the canvas, proving it to be a forgery.
* An illustration of the art taken from an old auction catalog without the accompanying description does not constitute valid provenance unless the auction house is or was able to demonstrate beyond doubt that the art was by the artist in question. For example, the auction house may have sold it as "attributed" to the artist. Again, get a copy of the actual auction catalog or read the full listing online to see how the art was described and represented.
Art frauds can also be difficult to prosecute because museum curators or collectors must admit to having been duped. Rarely do museums acknowledge that works of art they own may be inauthentic. When they do, it is often because they have no choice. The Boymans-van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, Netherlands, was forced to acknowledge that its “Vermeer” Supper at Emmaus was actually a forgery painted in the 1930s by van Meegeren, but the museum admitted that only after the forger himself, in the context of another investigation, had revealed his involvement. The work’s original collector, D.G. van Beuningen, continued to believe (despite van Meegeren’s claim) that the work was by Vermeer.