Art Fraud Case Begs Question: What Makes Art Valuable?

Today, two parallel stories of art authentication/fraud enquiry appeared in the news.  “Old Man With Beard”, thought since the 1960’s to be a skilful copy by one of Rembrandt’s students, was examined with the latest x-ray technology, revealing a hidden drawing of a Rembrandt self-portrait beneath the painting, clinching its authenticity as his work.

On the other hand, the New York Times reveals in an explosive story today that millions of dollars of paintings purported to be by Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn may be fakes.  They were brokered by Glafira Rosales, who claimed they were from the personal collection of a “close family friend” who insisted on anonymity, and sold by blue-chip galleries and art dealers, including Knoedler & Co., which abruptly closed its doors this week.

The Times article details the FBI investigation, which is fascinating.  In addition to a lack of provenance (the documented ownership trail of a work of art), the paintings were not subjected to simple pigment tests, which have now revealed that some of the paints used to create them were not yet available at the time, to the artists who supposedly created them.  Curators and dealers with sterling reputations are falling under the juggernaut of this investigation.

It is incredible to me that these fakes, which convinced the experts (who weren’t looking too hard), could have simply been done without anachronistic paints, and might still retain their “value”.  The lack of the most basic due-diligence on the part of the “experts” is stunning, and calls to question their complicity in the fraud.  How many more are out there?

Beyond all the detective work, I wonder:  If a painting looks like a Pollock or a Motherwell, and is loved and respected for its “inspiration”, is it really less of a “masterpiece” than an authentic work?  If we really can’t tell without the help of a lab, is it really that special?  I like Motherwell, Rothko and Pollock, but $17 million??

I daresay that convincingly faking a Rembrandt would be beyond the technical and artistic abilities of anyone alive.  The Rembrandts that have been called into question were produced by his students, under his tutelage, perhaps with help from his own hand.  If a painting is so easily copied, what’s all the fuss?

What do you think?

(For a fascinating investigative journalism piece on the mechanisms of art forgery, see “Three Indicted in Sale of Fake Famous-Name Prints” from the Chicago Tribune, April, 2011.)

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4 responses to “Art Fraud Case Begs Question: What Makes Art Valuable?

  1. I think the fakes show the power of a “brand;” in this case, famous modern artists. People are duped by their own illusions.

    thanks,
    susan chertkow

    Like

  2. Susan,
    I agree. I have seen prints that were purportedly by Salvador Dali, which appeared to me to be obviously fake. Dali is known to have been counterfeited a lot, so I was skeptical, and they just looked badly drawn. I’d like to think that someone who really “knows” Pollocks and Motherwells could insinctively tell the difference!

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  3. Great post Judith! I think Art as an investment has taken a big hit with these revelations. As Susan stated these artists are now a brand and if people are sucked into the whole idea of Art as an investment then they aren’t really inspired by Art they’re just following their money.

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  4. Thank you, Luis! Exactly! As in: “This Pollock painting is worth $17 million because it’s a valuable Pollock painting.” It’s circular logic, based on nothing, really. It makes the general public distrust artists and art dealers, which is unfortunate.

    Like

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