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Still from F for Fake (1973), dir. Orson Welles

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In 2018 and 2019, the Hirschl & Adler Gallery purchased at auction two paintings thought to be the work of the American modernist George Ault. A bit later, doubts about these paintings prompted the gallery to subject them to extensive forensic examination, which revealed them to be forgeries.  As a result of this action by Hirschl & Adler, the FBI was able to track the fraud’s perpetrators to a studio tucked away in the hinterlands of Michigan. “This is every dealer’s nightmare,” said Elizabeth Feld, managing director of Hirschl & Adler, adding that the paintings “were very beautiful — fake or not. Whoever did this is quite an accomplished artist — just not the artist he or she purported to be.” If a painting looks right, we believe it’s right, until there is strong evidence to the contrary. Lab tests showed that the Hirschl & Adler Aults employed acrylics, which were not available until after the artist’s death. End of story, except that the fakes just keep on coming.

Florine Stettheimer, the faux-naïve painter beloved of Andy Warhol and just about everyone else, was well-to-do and therefore felt no pressure to sell her paintings. During her lifetime, she had just one solo show. Upon her death, in 1944, nearly all the works in her estate went to museums and universities. So the art world took note last year, when five Stettheimers suddenly came onto the market. Two were fakes and one was a misattribution. The most egregious ringer was “Seated Dancer in a Halo of Electric Light,” offered as an authentic Stettheimer by the Skinner auction house, in Boston. Experts pounced, first among them the art historian Barbara Bloemink, who organized a Stettheimer exhibition for the Whitney Museum of American Art in 1995. “This is not a Stettheimer,” said Bloemink in a New York Times article by Susan Mulcahy.  “It’s a crap kitsch thing,” she added, “probably painted in the ’50s or ’60s.” But what if it hadn’t been such a lousy painting? What if it had been as persuasively beautiful as the fake Aults that fooled Elizabeth Feld? Art critic and Warhol biographer Blake Gopnik has an answer to that question.

Writing for the New York Times, in 2013, Gopnik said,

If a fake is good enough to fool experts, then it’s good enough to give the rest of us pleasure, even insight. The late Swiss collector Ernst Beyeler called a fake Rothko from Queens a “sublime unknown masterwork” in 2005 and hung it in his namesake museum. Why not think of that picture as the sublime masterwork that Rothko happened not to have got around to?

Why not, indeed? Unless we feel — as most of us do — that the import of a painting has something to do with who painted it. This concern with authorship makes an early appearance in The Courtier (1528), Baldassare Castiglioni’s guide to becoming a High Renaissance sophisticate. Of Leonardo da Vinci, Andrea Mantegna, Raphael, Giorgione, and Michelangelo, Castiglioni says, “Each is recognized to be perfect in his own style.” From this judgment follows the question connoisseurs put to every painting by one of these maestros: Is it a good example? Next question: Is it the best? And sometimes these questions morph into a more unsettling one: Is this truly an example of the maestro’s style? Or is it a fake?

“The Last Supper I” painted by Han van Meegeren in 1939 in the style of Vermeer, examined in Rotterdam in 1984 (image via Wikipedia)

What mattered before the Renaissance was the meaning of an image, not the ineffable singularity of the image-maker’s touch. Painters were craftsmen, not creators aspiring to genius, and one medieval painting of the Madonna could be exchanged for another without raising any questions about origins. Sacred relics were another matter. A fragment of the true cross was worthy of worship only if the worshipper believed that it did, in fact, come from the cross upon which Christ was crucified. Belief of this kind endows bits of wood and human bones — the supposed remains of saints — with transcendent value. 

After the arrival of connoisseurship, a variant of this faith migrated to works of art. For half a millennium, paintings judged to be masterpieces have had the glow of the sacred, for they are imbued, many believe, with the human spirit at its most exalted. Here, in this “Annunciation” by Raphael or that drip painting by Jackson Pollock, we encounter the power, the authority, of a profoundly creative self. And that’s not all. Because great artworks became objects of secular worship at roughly the same time that modern markets emerged, these masterpieces also serve as commodities. Buyers with sufficient means can acquire an embodiment of genius, but only if supply meets demand — and there have long been forgers to ensure that it does.

As 19th-century American industrialists turned into robber barons with a yen for aristocratic trappings, their agents scoured Europe for Old Master paintings. Some were authentic and, of course, many were not. Scholars have long tried to separate true from untrue attributions and they have not labored entirely in vain. Nonetheless, Thomas Hoving, former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art and author of False Impression: The Hunt for Big-Time Fakes, has said that 60 percent of the art he saw for sale in the 1980s was faked. Discount his claim by half and that is still a lot of fakery.  

Radical innovation is protected by the scandal it ignites: Why forge works of art that are liked by few and baffling to the great majority? But this year’s outrage may be next year’s sensation. The shock of Impressionism wore off quickly, leaving this eminently imitable style prey to generations of forgers. Though he was practically an outsider artist during his lifetime, Vincent van Gogh’s dramatic death, in 1890, led to his canonization as a saint of misunderstood genius. The proliferation of van Gogh fakes reached a crescendo in 1932 when the German art dealer Otto Wacker ended up in court for trying to pass off 30 forgeries as real. Experts clashed bitterly over the question of which, if any, of the dubious canvases were authentic. An answer came only when police found a stash of unfinished “van Goghs” in Wacker’s studio.

Elmyr de Hory in F for Fake (1973), dir. Orson Welles

It’s a good assumption that Pablo Picasso is the modern artist most likely to be faked. And it’s undeniable that Elmyr de Hory was the champion producer of unreal Picassos. Clifford Irving, himself the forger of Howard Hughes’s autobiography, celebrated de Hory in another book, Fake (1969). De Hory was lionized again in F for Fake, a 1973 movie by Orson Welles. This cinematic tribute to a master forger is ironic, but only partially. Welles, too, was sometimes a faker, and a successful one — his 1938 radio coverage of a Martian invasion threw many of his listeners into a state of genuine hysteria.

As adept as they were, neither Wacker nor de Hory is a match for Pei-shen Qian, who painted the Rothko canvas Ernst Beyeler described as “a sublime unknown masterpiece.” Beyeler, one might think, ought to know. Described in his New York Times obituary as “Europe’s preeminent dealer in modern art,” he launched a foundation, in 1997, to house a collection that contains, among much else of note, five major Rothkos. Not only did he hang a Qian “Rothko” at his foundation but he also included it in a 2007 exhibition, Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman: The Sublime Is Now! This show featured, as well, a fake Newman from the same versatile hand — a Qian production so convincing that Thomas Krens, then the director of the Guggenheim Museum, requested it for inclusion in Art in America: 300 Years of Innovation, which opened in 2007. The same painting was shown the following year in A World Elsewhere, a large survey of Abstract Expressionism presented in New York by Haunch of Venison.   

Another “Rothko” by Qian serves as a frontispiece to Taschen’s book on the artist, published in 2003; this painting held the same place of honor through four editions, the latest from 2015. The art historian Irving Sandler selected yet another Qian Rothko, as well as a Qian Franz Kline, for The Collector as Patron in the Twentieth Century, an exhibition he curated for New York’s Knoedler Gallery in 2000. This fake “Kline” had gone on view, a year earlier, in Made in USA 1940-1970: From Abstract Expressionism to Pop, a joint venture of the Caixa Foundation, in Barcelona, and Frankfurt’s Schirn Kunsthalle.    

A genuine Mark Rothko painting is compared with a Pei-shen Qian. From Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art

The first of the Qian forgeries was brought in 1994 to Knoedler’s director, Ann Freedman, by a dealer named Glafira Rosales. It belonged, said Rosales, to the son of a collector, now deceased, who had emigrated from Switzerland to Mexico after the Second World War. The son wished, she added, to remain anonymous. Over the next 14 years, she brought 40 paintings to Knoedler, 31 of them in the signature styles of Abstract Expressionism. Freedman showed every one of these canvases to experts, none of whom balked at their attributions. On the contrary, they were unanimously enthusiastic. In 2007, E. A. Carmean, the first curator of modern art at Washington’s National Gallery, gave his unqualified opinion in a letter to Freedman that a painting offered by Rosales as a Pollock from 1949 was genuine. A year later, this canvas was seen in Jackson Pollock and Shamanism, a 2008 exhibition at the Pinacothèque de Paris, and in 2010 it appeared in Chance Aesthetics, a show at the Kemper Art Museum, in St. Louis.  

An artwork goes on view in a prominent venue only after it has stood up to exacting professional scrutiny. It tells us something about Qian’s skill that his fakes produced no qualms among the curators of these exhibitions. Like the scholars and critics who saw the paintings at Knoedler, they had no idea that anything was amiss. They too believed. Yet the works’ remarkable credibility was not a theme of the relentless press coverage Knoedler received when examination showed that a pigment in one of the Rosales “Pollocks” was not available to the artist. Nor is Qian’s sleight of hand fully acknowledged in the recent documentary films that return to the case — Daria Price’s Driven to Abstraction (2019) and Barry Avrich’s Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art (2020). 

I appear in Made You Look, opining about the historical importance of Abstract Expressionism and the Chinese tradition of copying masterworks. Directors are, of course, free to shape their films as they wish, but because I’m in this one I feel obliged to register my regret that it doesn’t say more about the essential factor in the story it tells — namely, the brilliance of Qian’s fakes. And the film’s ambiguous treatment of unambiguous legal outcomes creates a further problem.

From Driven to Abstraction

Absent from Driven to Abstraction, Ann Freedman is a major presence in Made You Look, which Avrich has described in a promo video as “a sort of catch-me-if-you-can” story enlivened by a “thriller element.” His goal, he says, was to provide “entertainment value.” I would never deny anyone’s right to entertain or to be entertained. Still, by laying a crime-story template over the facts of the Knoedler case, Made You Look raises only one question: Did Freedman know from the outset of this 14-year saga that Rosales was bringing her fakes? Providing no answer, Avrich says, “I leave it up to the audience to decide.” Yet nothing about this case is undecided.  

Prosecutors from the District Attorney’s office of the Southern District of New York found Qian, Rosales, her associate Jose Carlos Bergañtinos Diaz, and his brother, Jesus Angel, guilty. Freedman was not indicted because the famously dogged and resourceful SDNY could find no evidence of an intent to defraud. Like the art-world luminaries to whose voices Freedman listened, she believed in the Qian paintings. As Jack Flam, head of the Robert Motherwell foundation, says in American Greed, another art-world documentary, “Ann was hoodwinked.”

By subjecting Freedman to did-she-or-didn’t-she speculation at odds with the facts, Made You Look wreathes her in a cloud of unwarranted suspicions. The film also obscures the nature of art — in particular, the reasons that paintings are so vulnerable to fakery. Granted, these reasons are rooted in aesthetic complexities no documentary film is likely to address. It is much more entertaining to play on our inclination to think the worst. An unregulated market trafficking in one-of-a-kind luxury goods? Surely funny business is rife, think many observers, and their distrust is not completely unjustified. Moreover, the press — including, sadly enough, much of the art press — is as greedy for art scandal as it is for record auction prices. Art and its meanings tend to get lost in the churning cycle of art news. Consequently, the media almost always overlook what is truly interesting about fakes: not who made them, who sold them, or who was in on the scam and who was not, but what they tell us about art and those who produce it.

Pei-shen Qian painting. From Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art

Ronald D. Spencer, chairman and CEO of the Pollock-Krasner Foundation, says in Made You Look that Qian is a “genius.” This is true, and his kind of genius leads us into the gray area where the issue of authenticity resides. Ever since Leonardo, Michelangelo, and a few others appeared on Baldassare Castiglione’s list of undisputed geniuses, admiration for a painting presupposes knowledge of its author. We prize the work as a unique imprint of an exalted self only if we believe it is the work of that very same self. Our faith secure, we ask: What is the nature of the individual we encounter in the painting absorbing our attention? What does the painting reveal about this creative personage and how does it make its revelation? These are questions of interpretation, complex and endlessly contested. One leads to another and another, in a series that continues unless doubts arise, prompting us to ask, for example, if a certain painting in the Frick Collection is really a Rembrandt.  

I am thinking of “The Polish Rider,” long labeled the work of Rembrandt van Rijn but in recent decades thought by some scholars to show evidence of other hands. The latest word on the subject was pronounced by Ernst van de Wetering, director of the Rembrandt Project, who believes that the familiar attribution of “The Polish Rider” is, on balance, correct. Yet he acknowledges that his conclusion is tentative. Revisiting this painting, experts of the future may well award it in whole or in part to some other Dutch painter. However that saga continues, here is the crucial point: questions of authorship turn on subtleties of the brush, the all-too-replicable traces of the painter’s hand that have encouraged forgers to flourish for centuries. The record of an artwork’s ownership — its provenance — can reinforce an attribution, and yet a provenance, too, can be faked.    

Though a painting’s authorship counts as a fact, facts of this kind often rest on experts’ assessments of form, color, and touch. What matters here are qualities that cannot be quantified, and so the experts often have nothing to guide them but intuition refined by experience. Intuition is fallible, hence the interpretations that give artworks their meanings are never definitive, always uncertain. This uncertainty is not a good thing or a bad thing; it follows from the nature of art. That is why some shy away from everything aesthetic, focusing instead on math or logic or some practical endeavor like building bridges. We can be sure if a bridge is functioning as intended. By contrast, much about every work of art is up for grabs: its intention, its meaning, and sometimes, even, the identity of its maker. That is why every dealer’s nightmare — and, not so incidentally, the nightmare of every curator, art historian, and art critic — always looms over the world of art.

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Carter Ratcliff

Carter Ratcliff is a poet, art critic, and contributing editor of Art in America. His writings on art have been published by the Museum of Modern Art, New York; The Guggenheim Museum; the Royal...