At Lowy, collectors interested in hiding their originals in the vault, whether for security purposes, to protect delicate works, or to lower the cost to insure them, can reproduce works without the help of a museum. The company employs both specially trained restoration artists and independent artists in need of a day job to conserve and replicate artworks. The process starts with an extremely high-quality print of a digital image, and then the painstaking application of clear conservators’ gel to simulate brushstrokes. Prices start at about $2,000, while frames tend to quadruple the amount.
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?
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.
Forgeries may be detected by the methods of examination formulated by Jean Mabillon, in his great work De re diplomatica (1681), for determining the authenticity of a document by the writing and the style of the terminology. These techniques have developed during three centuries into the modern sciences of paleography and diplomatics, by which various scripts and formulas can be assigned to particular ages and localities, and effective comparison can be made between two examples of handwriting purporting to come from the same pen. Thus it is possible to state that a particular document could not have been written at the date that it bears. In dealing with printed texts, analogous methods are employed.
Well, they are. In 2014, Texas business man Phillip Rivkin was charged with 68 counts of fraud after using millions of dollars worth of photographs to launder money. He had made over $78 million through fraudulent schemes involving his biodiesel production companies—which didn’t actually produce any biodiesel. Rivkin spent roughly $16 million dollars on 2,200 fine art photographs by artists like Edward Steichen, Alfred Stieglitz, and Edward Weston. Works included Edward Weston’s Dunes, Oceano, a gelatin silver print that Rivkin purchased from Sotheby’s for $134,500 and another vintage gelatin silver contact print by Alfred Stieglitz, From the Shelton, West. Rivkin wired Camera Lucida, the seller of the photograph, $150,000 to purchase it.
Nearly 40 paintings, supposedly created by some of the most important artists of the 20th century, were all fakes, painted by a struggling artist in his garage in Queens. The fraud might still be going on if it weren't for an art historian Jack Flam -- who was the first person to uncover the scheme and blow the whistle to the government, putting the brakes on an $80 million con -- the most audacious and lucrative art fraud in U.S. history.
In seeking to revoke the sale based on an “incomplete” provenance, the buyer claimed that the provenance constituted a warranty under the Uniform Commercial Code (“UCC”) because it was part of the “basis of the bargain.” Under UCC § 2-313(1)(a), “[a]ny affirmation of fact or promise made by the seller to the buyer which relates to the goods and becomes part of the basis of the bargain creates an express warranty that the goods shall conform to the affirmation or promise.” Section 2-313(1)(b) provides that “[a]ny description of the goods which is made part of the basis of the bargain creates an express warranty that the goods shall conform to the description.” It is hard to argue that these sections are not worded broadly enough to encompass the provenance of art work, assuming that provenance was considered part of “the basis of the bargain” when the artwork was sold. The bad news for the seller is that determining whether the provenance was part of “the basis of the bargain” in a given transaction will likely be a question of fact for a jury to decide. That means that, absent precautionary measures such as an express disclaimer as to completeness and accuracy, the question of whether the provenance provided by the seller in an art sale constitutes a warranty will not be decided until after a good deal of expensive litigation. And it is certain that if the provenance is arguably misrepresented or incomplete, the buyer will be able to produce an “expert” to testify about the importance of provenance in the art world, all in support of the buyer’s argument that the given provenance was part of the basis of the bargain.
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.”)
“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.
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.
One of the more-complicated examples is that of the Getty kouros, an allegedly 6th-century-bce male sculpted figure owned by the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles that has long been suspected of being a modern forgery. The Getty paid a very high price for what it believed may have been the last remaining such figure on the art market only to find that the sculpture had stylistic irregularities that suggested that it could not be authentic. At the same time, scientific tests have not demonstrated that it is of modern origin, and some scholars have argued that stylistic anomalies do not prove that it is a fake. The Getty Villa exhibited the work in its galleries with a label that read: “about 530 bc or modern forgery.” However, the kouros was removed from view when the museum completed a yearlong renovation in 2018, with the director stating that the sculpture was fake.