Cons and connoisseurs — stories of fraud in the...
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Dec 21, 2015  |  Vote 0    0

Cons and connoisseurs — stories of fraud in the art world

In The Art of the Con, author Anthony M. Amore explains why art forgers love Jackson Pollock and why high-tech tools aren’t enough to detect sophisticated frauds

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Anthony M. Amore knows a lot about art forgery and theft. He’s the head of security and chief investigator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, where paintings by Vermeer, Rembrandt and Manet, to name a few, were stolen in 1990. In The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World, he writes about the rampant counterfeiting in the art world. Our conversation has been edited for length.

Forgery of fine art is not a new problem. It was an issue for Gilbert Stuart, who painted the iconic portrait of George Washington in 1796. The painting was illegally reproduced in 1801 many times by a seaman, John Swords, who hired artists in China to create identical copies.

That is such a great story. I was almost done with my research for the book and I didn’t know about the Gilbert Stuart story until I visited the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass. I noticed that portrait of George Washington in the China House there (an antique home from central China dismantled and brought to the museum).

I walked by the portrait without really looking at it because I’ve seen it so many times. Then it struck me: why is there a portrait of Washington in the China House? (The original is shared by the National Portrait Gallery in Washington and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.) I read the plaque by the portrait and that was when I discovered Swords’ forgery scam on Gilbert Stuart. I was able to find the court injunction that Stuart sought against Swords. It was a great concern to Stuart every time he sold one of his own copies. It was his bread and butter and he ended up dying penniless.

What is remarkable is the boastfulness of forgers, including the man who advertises on the web: “The Official Website of the World’s Greatest Living Art Forger.”

It’s the chutzpah, the unmitigated gall, the boldness of these guys who come up with these plots. They start off as reasonably talented artists. They try their own hand but they don’t make any money, so they turn to these forgery schemes. Once they are found out, they know they can’t use their schemes, so they have to have these selling points: “People think I am so great. I am compared to the masters.”

They always go with abstract expressionists. They are easier to copy than the great masters like Rembrandt or Vermeer or Cézanne. You’d have to be incredibly skilful, even lucky, to get everything right with the old paintings. The moderns are easier. You always see these Jackson Pollock pieces with questionable attribution. I hate to pick on him but he is one of the artists who people say, “My kid could do that.” Forgers have a field day working on Pollocks.

Some very famous people have been dinged by these schemes, including former tennis pro John McEnroe, comedian Steve Martin and film star Robert De Niro. You’d think they’d have the money to consult experts before they bought forgeries.

Steve Martin is a respected art collector. He has said he’s been duped before and he’ll probably be duped again. I agree with you. I would never make an enormous purchase without getting it thoroughly checked out. Imagine buying a Ferrari and not getting all the paperwork?

Some artists have had to take action to prevent forgeries of their work. Jasper Johns and Robert Motherwell, for example.

The more contemporary artists are aware of the problem. I am struck by the Jasper Johns story. The villain here was a trusted artisan, Brian Ramnarine, who was hired by Johns to make a wax impression of Flag, a sculpture Johns had cast originally in bronze. Johns later discovered Ramnarine had used the same mould to make some bronze sculptures, which he then sold.

But surely Johns could see these weren’t really his work. He could tell from the inexact signatures on the pieces.

Philosophically, why is the one Jasper Johns sold considered art but the one Brian Ramnarine sold isn’t? They are both created from the same exact mould.

Artists and collectors have very few resources to determine the authentic. You have the Art Loss Register (and) Art Recovery International, which have databases of stolen art. You have Interpol, the FBI, but when you talk about forgeries and fraud, it begins to get impossible. If it is not in their databases of stolen art, it does not mean it is not stolen; it just isn’t in their database. Art theft is vastly under-reported.

We are developing more scientific tools to detect counterfeit art. Do you think this lessens the problem?

You can’t rely solely on technology. The people I refer to as experts in my book are specialized. They have not only technical expertise but vast expertise in art history and conservation. There are paintings completed by the school of Rembrandt, created by his students, not him. Years later people tried to add Rembrandt’s signature to them. If you look at the pigments, they wouldn’t be inconsistent with the ones Rembrandt used. But an art historian or conservator would have a very good understanding of how Rembrandt signed his name or what he was working on during that period of time. You need someone with the ability to look at things from different angles.

What about the issues with Internet sales? EBay has created a tool allowing the purchaser to magnify the art so it can be looked at closely, and it has taken many other measures to stem counterfeiting. But I can still imagine people getting duped because the piece isn’t actually in their hands.

If you look at eBay you can find a lot of etchings and prints. How can you tell even with the best magnification tools if the etching is authentic? I know people who work in debunking forgeries who are helping eBay, but unless you have someone examining the actual piece, there is no way to know if it is the real thing. At a certain point you have to think caveat emptor. You have to know what you are getting into when you buy something on the Internet. Not just eBay but anywhere.

Toronto Star

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