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The Curious Case of a Missing Monet

Lawrence Denham thought he struck gold when he found the French impressionist’s painting on sale for $1,000; instead, he may have unwittingly revealed a scheme of online art fraud totaling more than $400,000.

The painting, listed by Manza Gallery as “Lot 21: French School – Painting – Impressionist” (image courtesy Artsproof)

Paintings by Claude Monet don’t come cheap, which is why Lawrence Denham seized the chance to bid on what appeared to be an unattributed painting listed as “Lot 21: French School – Painting – Impressionist” for a reserve price of only $1,000 — an infinitesimal fraction of the multimillion-dollar price auctioneers would normally estimate.

That should have been the first alarm, but why would the Australia-based buyer be suspicious? At the start, everything went smoothly. The seller, Manza Gallery, accepted Denham’s uncontested bid for the painting that it listed as “Lot 21” on the art e-commerce platform Invaluable. In December 2017, shipping arrangements were made over email for the unframed canvas to travel from the gallery’s location in Buenos Aires, Argentina to the town in New South Wales, Australia where Denham lives.

Then, radio silence.

Denham had hoped to receive the Monet by Christmas, but never got anything more than a tracking number, a receipt, and two nondescript photos of the artwork after submitting his payment to the Manza Gallery by wire transfer. Soon thereafter, the email address he used to correspond with the gallery’s owner, a man identified in messages as Marcelo Gomes Noguieria, was deactivated. The gallerist’s phone number was also incorrect, corresponding to a man named Carlos in San Francisco. Manza soon ended its stint on Invaluable, only two months after joining. Even the gallery’s Instagram account went cold with its last post occurring on December 8, the same day as the Monet painting’s sale. Another worrisome sign: banking details imply that the gallery and seller were actually located in the south Brazilian city of Curitiba, more than 1,125 miles away from Buenos Aires where the painting was supposedly shipped from.

An image of the painting’s left corner sent to Denham by Noguieria (image courtesy Artsproof)
An image of the painting’s back sent to Denham by Noguieria (image courtesy Artsproof)

Do these facts signal something sinister, or could the painting simply have been lost in the mail? The Argentine postal service does have a reputation for unreliability. Denham acquired help in recent months from Artsproof, which runs an online stolen arts database and sometimes serves as an interlocutor between bereaved art collectors and law enforcement officials.

The company reached a similar conclusion that the work had gone astray. “We believe it has been stolen and is still somewhere in Argentina,” Amit Roitman, a managing partner at the business, told Hyperallergic in an email. Artsproof attempted to acquire the Monet painting through political pressure, contacting the Australia Federal Police and the minister for the country’s Department of Communications and the Arts. Both governmental bodies declined to help. A spokeswoman for the communications department wrote to Denham that “the postal operator of a country of origin is responsible for the despatch and international line haul arrangements for an item until it enters the destination country,” meaning that only Argentina could help the art collector’s cause.

But that would assume that the painting was sent through the mail, or that Manza Gallery ever possessed it in the first place.

The chances of a Monet appearing on the South American market are small, but not unprecedented. This past March, Argentina’s Ministry of Culture announced that it would sell one of the painter’s 1904 waterlily paintings for $50 million and another similar artwork for $42 million. But unlike the Manza Gallery sale, the details surrounding these works and their provenance were clearer. According to the government, the paintings came from an important family of the Argentine bourgeoisie that’s the backbone of the country’s collection of European fine arts. By comparison, Manza Gallery listed the provenance of its French impressionist painting as from a “particular collection” and “acquired in 1941.”

The Invaluable sale for “Lot 21” carried an estimate between $5,000 and $10,000, but sold for a reserve price of $1,000 to Lawrence Denhem (screenshot courtesy Artsproof)

Richard Thomson, an art historian and Monet specialist at the University of Edinburgh, identified the painting as “Étretat, falaise et Porte d’Aval” (1885) based on the artist’s four-volume catalogue raisonné published as a boxset by Daniel Wildenstein in 1997. A similar work made in the same year, “La Falaise d’Aval,” belongs to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

Beginning in the mid-1880s, Monet devoted himself toward capturing the environment of Étretat, a fishing village-turned-resort on the coast of Normandy in northern France. From 1883 to 1886, he completed more works there than anywhere else outside his home in Giverny. According to the Israel Museum, there are some seventy-five known paintings of Étretat from this period, about fifty of which can be dated to the fall and winter of 1885–86. Invariably, the subject of these works is the sheer cliffside of the town against the sea. This precipice allowed the artist to play with his favorite elements: light, shadow, water, and vegetation.

The painting also appears in a Russian catalogue raisonné of Claude Monet’s work (image courtesy Artsproof)

Given the sheer amount of works created by Monet in this one location, it’s not ludicrous to suggest that Manza Gallery may have obtained a long-lost cousin to the cohort. But it is improbable. The artist’s catalogue raisonné states that the painting in question belongs to a private collection in the United States. This information may be out-of-date, but it casts doubt on Manza Gallery’s provenance claims. (Noguieria told Denhem that the artwork came from the collection of the consignor’s grandfather, who had acquired the painting in 1941.) For this storyline to make sense, the consignor would have to belong to the same American family mentioned in Monet’s catalogue raisonné; he would be ignorant of the painting’s importance despite it appearing in the most famous record of the artist’s work; and he would have chosen an obscure Brazilian gallerist to sell his painting instead of a more traditional venue like Christie’s or Sotheby’s.

Or increasingly more likely, this curious case of the lost Monet is just another story about fraud in the online marketplace for art.

According to Invaluable’s website, the Boston-based business hosts $10 billion worth of items on its platform from nearly 4,000 sellers. Reviews of the platform are mixed. “Stay away from this site,” wrote a disgruntled buyer named Hugo in March on the customer-review service Sitejabber where the company has a one-star rating. “It traffics with ‘auction houses’ that sell counterfeit products.” Other users had similar words for the website. “Complete fraud,” said Lauren. “What a nightmare!” wrote John, who said he bought a Marc Chagall painting through a Chicago auction house named Art Legacy on the website, which two separate appraisers deemed to be a fraud based on a photographic reproduction. But out of nearly 4,700 reviews on the website Trustpilot, nearly 59 percent of respondents said they had a positive experience with the digital brand, calling it “amazingly user friendly” and “extremely helpful.”

A spokesman for Invaluable tells Hyperallergic that it has a list of guidelines for those who wish to host their sales on the website. Sellers must provide a valid business license, an auctioneer license when required, a valid website, a legitimate business address location, and publicly available information on the business itself. Additionally, Invaluable scans its website to flag possible patterns of problematic behavior.

“Our contractual agreements with our auction houses include recission rights for our buyers if a piece is determined to be fraudulent or materially differs from the description supplied by the auction house,” explained the spokesman. “Our goal is to have successful transactions between our sellers and buyers that are mutually beneficial.”

Invaluable says that it investigates any customer complaints, and Denham did email the company about his concerns in April 2018. Five months after the sale, he asked the company to forward Manza Gallery’s contact information, which it did. Because the company heard nothing else from the buyer, the issue was not logged as an official complaint in their records.

Regardless, collectors who have been duped and defrauded by sellers have no legal recourse with Invaluable, which states that it is not legally liable for faulty sales because it’s simply a platform for transactions that never physically handles the art, much like the websites eBay, LiveAuctioneers, and Artsy.

The online marketplace for art is therefore subject to varying degrees of self-regulation. Simon Warren, a spokesperson for Artsy, explained by email to Hyperallergic that the company “takes matters of authenticity and fraud very seriously.” In addition to vetting partners during the onboarding process, Warren said that the start-up encourages “best practices for our users, buyers, and sellers, which are aimed at safeguarding all parties” while also providing access to a collector relations team available around the clock.

(When asked for the number of complaints filed by users about fakes and forgeries, Warren declined to comment. A similar question was sent to representatives at eBay, who also would not comment.)

Public perception of obliqueness in the art marketplace — online and in real life — has motivated bigger auction houses to take greater measures to prevent the sale of forged and looted items. For example, Christie’s announced in November that it would pilot a collaboration with Artory to produce a blockchain record, which advocates say will strengthen provenance records and secure transactions.

For its part, Invaluable deploys a variety of measures for security, including “proactive data scanning” that can “detect and flag any problematic patterns in business behavior,” according to a spokesperson.

Even algorithms take some time to notice patterns of malfeasance. After Manza ended its stay on the website, Invaluable noticed that Noguieria and his gallery’s address were linked with another defunct business that once appeared on the platform, Cosmos Art, which had previously been suspected of wrongdoing.

Hyperallergic has attempted to contact Noguieria for comment by phone and through multiple email addresses but has not received a reply. Without that feedback, it’s impossible to clearly discern the authenticity of what Manza Gallery has auctioned off to unsuspecting bidders.

Screenshot of the others lots sold by Manza Gallery through Invaluable (screenshot by author)

“I am distressed because the world has been robbed of an important piece of its artistic and cultural heritage,” Denham told Hyperallergic through an Artsproof representative. “I am not interested in getting my money back, but I do want to be vindicated that the painting I bought does exist.”

But the missing Monet painting is just one piece of a million-part puzzle that is the online art market. During its December 2017 sale, Manza Gallery auctioned off 20 other alleged works, which included drawings by Keith Haring, Lee Krasner, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. According to Invaluable’s website, every lot sold. Based on auction estimates, Noguieria was looking to profit anywhere between $163,000 and $417,500, although most artworks went for much lower than their listed prices. Still, one wonders just how many other galleries and art dealers have launched similar schemes on unsuspecting art enthusiasts. After all, online sales have roughly tripled in value during the last five years, rising from $1.51 billion in 2013 to $4.64 billion in 2018 according to the Bermuda-based insurance company Hiscox.

The report also indicates that forgeries and fakes were a concern for 62 percent of online art buyers this year, a 10 percent increase from 2018. Another 60 percent said that difficulties establishing the reputation of sellers was a key obstacle. And as more stories like Denham’s surface, who can blame buyers for being a bit leery?

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