In fact, we are not aware of any judicial decisions addressing whether an error or omission in the listed provenance or exhibition history,4 standing alone, gives rise to a breach of warranty claim under the Uniform Commercial Code. This absence of reported cases has likely given rise to a certain complacency in the art world concerning the legal significance of provenance in connection with art sales. Nevertheless, the art world is not getting less litigious as art values escalate, and it may not be long before the courts are called upon to address this issue.
In an effort to make this information more publicly accessible, this list can be found here and and is regularly updated as the Museum’s research progresses. This list is also published on AAM’s Nazi-Era Provenance Internet Portal (NEPIP), a central searchable registry of objects in U.S. museums that were created before 1946 and that possibly changed hands in continental Europe between 1933 and 1945, which was last updated in 2017.
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.
Wolfgang Beltracchi is a name you may never have heard before. Very few people have. But his paintings have brought him millions and millions of dollars in a career that spanned nearly 40 years. They have made their way into museums, galleries, and private collections all over the world. What makes him a story for us is that all his paintings are fakes. And what makes him an unusual forger is that he didn’t copy the paintings of great artists, but created new works which he imagined the artist might have painted or which might have gotten lost. Connoisseurs and dealers acknowledge that Beltracchi is the most successful art forger of our time -- perhaps of all time. Brilliant not only as a painter, but as a conman of epic proportions.
The ownership history of a work of art is of fundamental importance for all those involved in the collecting, exhibiting and study of art, for determining both attribution as well as legal title. Recent ownership claims by heirs of Holocaust victims whose art works were looted or otherwise misappropriated during the Nazi-era, and also claims by foreign “source” countries for objects they believe were exported in violation of patrimony or export laws, underscore the importance of provenance research.
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.
Regardless of whether this provision ultimately is enacted, the underlying issue will persist. This post discusses some of the general concerns that the art and antiquities world can be misused as a conduit for dirty money. We then discuss the AML Standards for Art Market Operators proposed by the Basel Institute on Governance, and similar standards set forth by the Responsible Art Market, both of which attempt to set forth a framework for those in the business of trading art to mitigate their money laundering risks.
A common narrative used by art scammers is to say their wife has been looking at your work and really enjoys it. Or, they have a new home and are looking for pieces to decorate it. At first glance, it may seem like a plausible story, but something about it seems abrupt or stunted. If they don’t use your name or any details about the works they are looking at, it is probably not legitimate.
The Responsible Art Market, or RAM, is an industry-supported not-for-profit organization which describes itself as ‘”[r]aising awareness of risks faced by the art industry and providing practical guidance on establishing and implementing responsible practices to address those risks.” On its website, RAM provides both an Art Transaction Due Diligence Toolkit, as well as Guidelines on Combatting Money Laundering and Terrorist Financing (“AML Guidelines”). The AML Guidelines are similar to the protocols set forth by the Basel Institute, but provide slightly more concrete detail. They set forth eight basic principles:
Occasionally a forger appears with a certain specious glamour like Constantine Simonides (1824–67), a Greek adventurer who varied his trade in perfectly genuine manuscripts with the sale of strange concoctions of his own. Maj. George de Luna Byron, alias de Gibler, who claimed to be a natural son of Byron by a Spanish countess, successfully produced and disposed of large quantities of forgeries ascribed to his alleged father and to Shelley, John Keats, and others. More commonplace is the forgery encountered in the case of the Edinburgh forger A.H. (“Antique”) Smith, who was responsible for forgeries of Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott, Mary Stuart, and other persons from Scottish literature and history—a feat that ultimately earned him 12 months’ imprisonment.
The Wolf of Wall Street was a hit when it was released in 2013. Moviegoers all over the world loved the story of excessive wealth and greed. But most people didn’t know that the movie was partially funded by a money-laundering scheme involving famous works of art. Malaysian Prime Minister, Najib Razak, had siphoned part of a $1 billion fortune from the Malaysian sovereign wealth fund into American assets, such as real estate and paintings by Basquiat, Rothko, and Van Gogh.
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.