The Art of the Scoundrel: Faked, Forged, and Counterfeit Art
Just another December day in LA. Two affluent businessmen are holed up in a stuffy Downtown hotel room surrounded by art while a fragile man in his 60’s speaks softly and deliberately. The man is giving a 90-minute standing presentation about his multi-million dollar art collection, detailing his collection’s finer specimens. The businessmen, impressed with this former doctor’s presentation, broker a deal and end up buying an $800,000 painting. Not a bad transaction for the dealer—especially considering the painting itself is a fake.
Here’s the twist. The “deal” was in fact a sting operation conducted by the LAPD. Unaware of the police officers wired with microphones and cameras in the next room, watching and listening to his every move, the dealer was busted shortly after the deal was finalized. Now he sits in jail awaiting trial for attempted grand theft. While this description may seem like it came straight out of a failed Hollywood screenplay, it didn’t. Rather, it’s just another account of a world where posers, wannabes, misguided talents, fakery and fraud mingle in the artistic circles of the rich and famous.
Not the usual suspects
The jury’s not out—our art dealer’s trial has not begun, but consider other fantastic scenarios:
In 2001, Forbes Magazine reported a respected art dealer fled the country after being accused of swindling the international art world of $50 million. Caught in Rio de Janeiro in 2003, the man awaited extradiction on charges of wire fraud and transporting stolen goods across state lines. But the man—who allegedly sold the same Monet to three different buyers while it was on display at the Met—disappeared again. Feigning illness, he made a daring escape from an ambulance.
In 1998, a Brentwood dentist with a taste for fine art was indicted and convicted of an insurance fraud scheme. He collected $17.5 million on an insurance policy for Monet and Picasso paintings he claimed were stolen. The elaborate scheme also implicated two prominent entertainment attorneys.
Not only are these sophisticated scoundrels not typical criminals but some are talented artists in their own right. History abounds with examples: Phoenician traders often faked their own art and Venice was a well-known breeding ground for scams. Scholars say 90% of all “original” Greek sculptures are really Roman copies—including many pieces on display at the Louvre. There are others: talented, embittered artists denied recognition. Denys Calvaert faked spectacular drawings of
Michelangelo and Raphael. Hans van Meegeren was something of a pop-culture hero for his imitations of Vermeer. Dubbed the “Vermeer Man,” his fakes even fooled a well-known art critic. Another infamous talent was a Mexican forger, Brigido Lara, known for his pre-Columbian antiques. Even after his arrest, his operation continued from prison. Some countries formally recognize talented counterfeiters. Salerno, Italy boasts a Museum of Fakes.
A rose is a rose is not a rose….
If the experts are so easily fooled, how about museums, auction houses, the public? It’s a well-known fact that the authenticity of about 45 “Van Gogh” pieces is in question. But rejecting a painting or exhibition on the grounds that it’s fake or calling a painting a forgery can also be risky. There are some embarrassing instances of allegations that proved false in the higher ranks of major metropolitan museums.
Moreover, museums can be sued for excluding or refusing to exhibit paintings on grounds that they are fake. Museums and auction houses are on the front line either way. Auction houses guarantee an art work for five years from purchase— and are liable if the work turns up a fraud.
Types of Fakers
Our art swindler was likeable and, says LAPD detective Hrycyk, had paper- work documenting the authenticity of his art. Clearly, nuances exist in art crime cases and fakers. Some fakers knowingly and intentionally make the fraud. Others merely claim an art work is more exalted than it is. Finally, there’s the person who buys a work, knows it’s a fake, and passes it off as genuine. As for art masterpieces, problems also arise. Sometimes a painting was a copy and mistaken for an original, or a student “practiced” a master’s style and, years later, the true artist could not be identified. Then there’s insurance fraud, also a big problem. Art can be a very profitable investment and so can claiming it’s been stolen. According to Hrycyk, ”proving insurance fraud is extremely difficult.”
The last frontier in a rush for gold: LA Fakers
People have gone west for gold for years so it’s not surprising LA has a myriad of problems, enough to justify an entire LAPD art fraud unit, the only one of its kind. According to Detective Hrycyk, art crime here is complicated by LA’s diverse cultures and communities. “Sometimes people don’t report things and there have been instances when people have not trusted the police,” he says. Some fraud doesn’t get to the police because it’s stopped by gatekeepers. According to Nancy Thomas, art director of LACMA’s “King Tut” exhibit: “90% of the artifacts sent to me were fake.”
What is art was always a question… Now what is a fake is also one…
Museums in recent years have had sophisticated techniques to authenticate art. LACMA’s Thomas first asks these questions: “Did you acquire the art from a reputable dealer or auction house? Does it come with provenance—documentation of owner- ship?” Expertise is very important and, when in doubt, test it—methods include thermoluminescence, radiographs, pigment analysis…
These resources are available to the public and art community:
The International Foundation of Art, NYC, NY will examine an art work’s authenticity and provide a report in two to three months. If necessary, they will also arrange a technical examination—i.e. x-rays, ultraviolet exams, and pigment analysis. IFAR offers these services to individuals, art dealers and museums for a fee of $750+ minimum.
The Art Loss Register, established in 1991, is a database of lost and stolen art. Established by the insurance industry and auction houses, it has successfully thwarted art insurance scams. With offices in New York and London, it has 160,000+ lost paintings in its database. Says Thomas Galbraith, employee and art historian, “a thief now knows better than to put something up for auction.”
The FBI’s Art Crime Team (ACT) will investigate if several jurisdictions come into play or a major museum is involved.
The novice can be overwhelmed, so here are some tips from experts. If your art work is stolen, register it immediately with the Art Loss Register. Be wary when buying art that comes with lots of documentation. According to art cop Hrycyk, “The better the paperwork, the less likely it’s authentic.” He adds, “if the price is too good, you shouldn’t believe it.” Other tips: take the item to be authenticated and appraised before you buy it and do research into the artist’s work.
As for buying art online, buyer beware. The Internet may just be the new frontier for would-be fools and wannabe fakes. Still, if you insist on perusing the deals, Hrycyk recommends you know what the purchase price is. “If the purchase price doesn’t seem reasonable, it could be stolen or inauthentic.” Make sure you get a receipt—in case you, too, become a suspect. The Internet presents infinite possibilities to defraud.