When art galleries ratify forgeries

December 3, 2011
Patricia Cohen has uncovered the art-world scandal of the year.

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Patricia Cohen has uncovered the art-world scandal of the year: it seems as though Knoedler, the 164-year-old Upper East Side institution, closed abruptly on Wednesday in large part to protect itself against a $17 million lawsuit from Pierre Lagrange. Lagrange spent that sum on a Pollock which he then discovered contained two paints which had not been manufactured until after Pollock died. And now it seems that Knoedler regularly sold AbEx paintings procured by Glafira Rosales with the vaguest of provenance:

Neither Ms. Freedman nor Mr. Weissman can identify with precision the collector whom Ms. Rosales has said she represents. They acknowledged that they did not know of any paperwork that documented the provenance of those works. They have said they only know what Ms. Rosales has told them: that the works were bought by a unnamed collector in the 1950s directly from the artists.

In a letter written to Ms. Freedman in 2007, Ms. Rosales said the secret collector acquired the works on the advice of David Herbert, an art dealer who died in 1995. When the collector died, they were inherited by the owner’s son, whom she described as “a close family friend” who lives in Mexico and Switzerland and insists on remaining anonymous.

This “close family friend”, over the years, seems to have been able to come up with seven Diebenkorns, on top of dozens more works by the likes of Motherwell, Pollock, Rothko, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still and Willem de Kooning.

Given that these works had basically zero documented provenance, they were to a first approximation unsellable. Until — and this is key — they found their way to Knoedler, whose reputation was rock-solid.

Current and former Knoedler employees, including the above-mentioned Ann Freedman and Julian Weissman, would accept paintings from Rosales and sell them while quietly whispering all manner of unverifiable assertions about where they came from. This court document is quite a fun read: in the case of one Motherwell, it seems, Weissman first said that it belonged to Shaikha Paula al-Sabah, a princess in the Kuwaiti royal family, and then changed his tune:

By letter dated November 23, 2010, Weissman’s lawyer writes to Killala and reveals that the owner of the work when he had it consigned to him by Glafira Rosales was purportedly John Gerzso, the son of Mexican painter Gunther Gerzso. This is an entirely new twist in the story. Up until now, the owner was supposedly a rich Mexican closet homosexual very close to David Herbert whose family was in the sugar business.

The point here is that the art market, like the stock market, runs on a combination of trust and storytelling ability. The most expensive artists are nearly always those who can be credibly placed into central slot in the history of art; one of the main reasons that Abstract Expressionists in general are so expensive is because they have spent decades as the very heart of MoMA’s collection, which presented them as the pinnacle of 20th Century art, the artists standing on the shoulders of people like Picasso.

When gallerists sell paintings, they tell stories not only about the work, but also about the story behind the work, conjuring up romantic notions of dealings between Robert Motherwell and Mexican sugar magnates, brokered by “man named Alfonso Ossorio”. So long as the institution selling the work is trustworthy, potential buyers tend to take such stories at face value — and, of course, they have a vested financial interest in those stories being true, the minute they actually buy the piece.

Which is why it’s easy to see how Freedman personally owns a “Motherwell”, a “Pollock”, and a “Rothko”, all of which came from Rosales — like all the best salespeople, she probably truly believed what she was saying.

But Freedman would also have found it much harder to sell all those Motherwells if she hadn’t had the full institutional credibility of Knoedler behind her. That’s how galleries can be such lucrative businesses to be in: once you’re established, you can literally add hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars to the value of a painting, just by hanging it on your wall. A fake Motherwell in a garage in Switzerland is worthless; in an Upper East Side gallery, it’s priceless.

Until the forgery is uncovered, of course.

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