John Myatt (after Vincent Van Gogh), Forgeries-Hidden in Plain Sight
Art,  English,  Scandal of the month,  Shelley’s Art Musings

Shelley’s Art Scandal – Forgeries – Hidden in Plain Sight

Pei-Shen Qian painting in the style of Mark Rothko, Forgeries – Hidden in Plain Sight
Pei-Shen Qian painting in the style of Mark Rothko, one of the Abstract Expressionist fakes sold by the Knoedler Gallery. Courtesy of Luke Nikas/the Winterthur Museum.

You will have no doubt noticed (if you are into art and if you have Netflix) that recently there has been an increase on the amount of art documentaries which have started to appear. 

I recently watched the one called “Made you Look” and it started me thinking.

A forgery is classed as…

“Forgery is a white-collar crime that generally refers to the false making or material alteration of a legal instrument with the specific intent to defraud anyone.”

So, if a copy is made that has not been made with the intent to defraud people then it is no longer a forgery, but a homage to an artist or a pastiche.

This can then get us into a whole world of problems, as how can we ever really know what was created as a forgery and then sold illicitly between what was created as a copy and a genuine tribute to the original artist which has then fallen into the wrong hands for sale.

Also, if the copy is good – how can we ever really know what a was piece of art created by someone either learning under the school of a renowned artist? or what was created just to make a quick buck?

These are just the surface of the problems with marking something a forgery and then onward charging.

“Made You Look” covers one specific case of Ann Freedman, who was at the time, Director at the Knoedler Museum.  Initially she was bought an undiscovered Rothko piece, which came with a mysterious story, but she was convinced it was real.  She purchased the piece for $750,000, which considering the sale price for Rothko’s “Orange, Red, Yellow” was $86,882,500 was a bargain, and I perhaps would have started to smell a rat there.

Due to the lack of provenance that came with the painting (paper trail, history etc.) Freedman did show it to experts, who at the time of being shown agreed it looked like an original Rothko.  It later sold in auction for $5.5 Million.

This is where the old adage, “If it looks too good to be true, it probably is…” comes in to play.  The same person who bought the Rothko to Freedman, then bought her an undiscovered Jackson Pollock. 

Painting styles of Qian, Forgeries-Hidden in Plain Sight

Once again, Freedman paraded troops of experts to review this painting, all of which at the time of viewing felt that this was an authentic piece.

That same person, who was named Glafir Rosales, bought Freedman a further sixty paintings, all of which were undiscovered, and all which appeared to be authentic to experts who saw them.  The sales of these “undiscovered master pieces” racked up to around $80 million.

Eventually it was found that the paintings were indeed fake, and had been painted by Pei-Shen Qian, a Chinese national, living in the USA, who was a maths professor.  Chinese culture sees many people copy artists as a way of paying tribute to artists.  Qian was able to paint with such precision, that he was able to fool not only Freedman, but a raft of professional art experts as well.  It was only when the paint was tested on one of the forgeries, and it was found that a paint with a pigment that had been created after the painted was supposedly created did the whole thing come into question.

My issue here then is, who is at fault?  We could say Freedman, as someone who held a highly reputable position in the art world, we could say it was the experts that she asked the opinions off.  We could look at the artist, although culturally he was paying tribute to famous artists.  What about the people who blindly paid for the paintings without having them checked themselves?  Or Glafir Rosales, who sold the paintings to Freedman at a snippet of the price in the first place.  All of these people are culpable, but none solely hold the blame as this is a complicated chain of events which has set off one of the largest and most interesting forgery cases to have hit.

Within the documentation itself Freedman appears to be the one taking the fall for being the catalyst in the events that then followed, which in my opinion is an unfair portrayal, as either she was just very bad at her job, or she was very gullible, but I think that this perfectly highlights the issues with cases of art forgeries.

We simply don’t know how many forgeries are out there.  You could be stood in a museum viewing what you think is a beautiful Caravaggio, and actually it could just be a very convincing copy.

If we cast our mind back to when the “Salvador Mundi” was found, the art world rejoiced in thinking they had found another DaVinci, but it quickly fell into question and we are still unsure to this day whether it was the master himself that painted it, a student of his, or perhaps someone more modern who could have just replicated the style. 

We can look at people such as John Myatt for this, as he has created over two hundred forgeries in his time, and now makes a living from reputably painting in the style of the artists rather than copying the paintings verbatim.

Myatt started his career in forging in 1985, and was finally caught in 1999, in what Scotland Yard called the biggest art fraud case of the 20th Century.  Myatt was only given a one-year sentence for this this and was released after four months. From the estimated two hundred forgeries he made (total number has never been confirmed), sixty were recovered.

Myatt fooled prestigious auction houses by using a mix of KY jelly and emulsion paint to create his forgeries, which sounds ludicrous today, but back in the 90’s Sotheby’s and Christies both fell for his talents.

John Myatt (after Vincent Van Gogh), Forgeries-Hidden in Plain Sight
John Myatt (after Vincent Van Gogh)

With the knowledge that forgeries can get past even the most educated expert, how can we say for certain that what we are looking at is the work of the original master, or if it is just a very convincing replica by someone who is equally talented, but perhaps lacked the vision to create their own original pieces.

This leads me to my final query, if you see a piece of art, and it makes you feel something, and you truly believe that it is the original piece, because it has the style, integrity and skill… then does it matter that it may not have been painted by the original artist, but perhaps one of his students, or someone creating a pastiche which has fallen into the hands of someone who is less ethical than perhaps they are? My answer would probably be no, it doesn’t matter, because your truth is that you saw the original painting.  

What seems to be forgotten in many cases is that art is there to tell a story to the masses.  It should never have become an elites genre, but it has none the less.

Parkstone International is an international publishing house specializing in art books. Our books are published in 23 languages and distributed worldwide. In addition to printed material, Parkstone has started distributing its titles in digital format through e-book platforms all over the world as well as through applications for iOS and Android. Our titles include a large range of subjects such as: Religion in Art, Architecture, Asian Art, Fine Arts, Erotic Art, Famous Artists, Fashion, Photography, Art Movements, Art for Children.

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