In what might be the first-ever exhibition of artworks co-curated by an intelligence agency, a show has been mounted at Fordham University’s Center Gallery to showcase some of the finer specimens of forged art seized by the FBI’s Art Crimes team. Caveat Emptor, as the show is titled, was timed to coincide with the intelligence community’s biannual ICCS conference on cybersecurity — and the confab will be using the gallery space resplendent with forgeries as its central registration room.
How might one go about putting together a show of forgeries owned by the FBI? The show’s co-curator, Daniel Small, recently told Hyperallergic about the extended process. “The [FBI] gave me a much longer list of stuff that could be cleared, then I whittled it down to a group of 25. And then once I got into town [New York City] I went to the facility, I pulled some other stuff out, saw what they [the FBI] accepted, then brought it to Fordham and whittled it down to the 13 artists in the show.”
The collected works are intentionally uneven, but they share a common characteristic: “All of them forensically tested out, some are convincing, some are amazing, and some are terrible,” Small said. The identical Chagall “La Nappe Mauve” paintings, for instance, were the work of the prolific forger Ely Sakhai, who went to great lengths to procure period frames and canvases for his forgeries. Small added that the full provenance of some of the forgeries remains unknown to him, though the FBI plans on making the case files available to him, and he will in turn present this information as the show continues.
Taken together, the works in the show have the effect of forming a cartoonish canon, like the national museum of a very small country whose bureaucrats are Sotheby’s catalogue completists. Juxtaposed with the theatrics of power — the agencies represented at the conference include the NSA, the FBI, and the CIA — Caveat Emptor, with its mercantilistic title recalling the whole affair’s intersection with the art market — has all the makings of an intriguing spectacle.
The tension isn’t lost on Small, who by working closely with a veteran Special Agent in the Bureau’s Art Crimes team was able to gain an unusually nuanced view of the Bureau’s attitudes toward art and art forgery. “From their position it’s all a very logistical thing … But the show isn’t just some tongue-in-cheek joke making fun of the FBI, at least how I think of it, but there are a lot of idiosyncrasies in the system.”
Caveat Emptor continues at Fordham University’s Center Gallery (113 West 60th Street, Upper West Side, Manhattan) through August 9.