In 2004, Domenico De Sole, the Chairman of Sotheby’s auction house sued Knoedler & Co, a major art dealer house based in New York for selling him a fake painting. De Sole had paid $8.3 million for Untitled, 1956, a work by the abstract expressionist, Mark Rotho. The artist flourished in the middle of last century and De Sole was delighted at having the painting, until he discovered seven years later, that it was actually a painting of squares made by a Chinese copier in Queens. The painting turned out to be just one of many fraudulent copies of modern masterpieces the now defunct gallery had sold. All in all the art swindles added up to a mind boggling $70 million and dozens of enraged clients.
This is just one example of art fraud. It is an old industry. Ever since artists’ work started selling for large sums, someone was there to make money from fakes. Many of these fakers were students of the artists or someone in their close circle. Others could be failed artists who did not have the talent to make masterpieces but enough skill to copy one and sell it. If the artist was dead and did not have anyone to watch over his art, and it was almost always a ‘his’ in those days, it was even easier.
The methods have become more sophisticated with time, sophisticated enough to fool famous auction houses. Knoedler & Co. is not the only one to have been duped into buying fake masterpieces. In 2000 both Christie’s and Sotheby’s offered Paul Gaugin’s Vase de Fluers for sale. It was later revealed that the dealer who owned the original painting had a copy made which he sold to one of the art houses with a proper letter of authenticity. A 1791 landscape painting made by Thomas Gainsborough was only caught when light pencil marks were found just below the signature, telltale marks that showed that it has been traced.
Art prices have only been increasing in the past few decades and so the forgery business is getting larger day by day. It’s a similar case in Pakistan where fake paintings of old masters are sold from ‘collectors’ to buyers or through art galleries such as Eye for Art in Karachi. Forgers have exploited Sadequain, Gulgee, Chughtai, and many others and poor imitations of their work keep cropping up in places including international auction houses and art galleries. Regarding Sadequain, Anwar Maqsood famously said that he made more paintings after his death than when living.
There are different types of fake paintings. The more common are copies of recognized works. One would think that they would be more easily found out but since artists in Pakistan are rarely exhibited in public, there is a lack of awareness in the general masses. Lacking a real sense of the artist’s oeuvre, they are easily fooled. The other case is of creating new works in the artists’ style, often using completely different themes or motifs. The third form is more plagiarism than actual forgery, in which the artists style is copied but the work is not passed on as his or hers.
In Pakistan, getting away with these malpractices is easy. As I mentioned earlier, the larger public lacks knowledge about art. Even self-proclaimed art lovers are swindled because of their ignorance about working styles, motifs, materials, and other aspects of the artists’ work. Even if someone is caught, the legal system is such that cases can drag on for ages and few people have the resources of time and money to get justice.
In developed countries, these offenses are considered crimes and people who are found guilty face incarceration. The third reason is the casual attitude towards intellectual property rights and plagiarism. Many people are happy to buy a fake, knowing very well that it is one, just so they can own a ‘masterpiece’ for a lesser price. When names and not art becomes the selling point, it creates a fertile ground for fakes industry.
Of course, finding out whether a painting is fake is possible. The first step is establishing a paper trail of ownership or provenance. Eventually the paper trail should be strong enough and reach back to the artist. The other way is connoisseurship i.e. what the experts generally believe about the art piece. The knowledge of materials, themes, styles, motifs and other details is necessary for any artist. This ties into forensics in which analysis of materials can help. Only then can they form an educated opinion about the authenticity of a painting and catch a fake. For instance, Wolfgang Beltracchi was one of the many forgers in history but once he made a copy using a paint containing traces of titanium for a fake Heinrich Campendonk painting. Too bad for him that there was no titanium white in Campendonk’s day and he was undone. A Vincent van Gogh self-portrait was revealed as a fake because the motifs did not match. In it Vincent had his ear bandaged while in the background was a Japanese print of a female. These two motifs did not match the actual periods, the print was from young Van Gogh while the bandage from mature and so the painting was unmasked as a fake.
A series of portraits by Clementine Hunter were revealed as fakes after a careful forensic investigation of the painting. Many had cat hair stuck in the paint while her other paintings did not. It turned out that her forgers owned many cats and they had rubbed against the wet paint. In all these cases, knowledge of the artists’ methods, materials and motifs were the clinching arguments.
Art buyers in Pakistan should realize that they are making a significant investment and should be wary of the fakes industry. If they end up buying a fake, they have not only wasted their money but also played a role in spoiling the artists’ legacy. Surely, the latter is the bigger crime.