It’s the most valuable thing you own. Not in monetary terms, but in its heavy freight of memories. It was expensive too, at least relatively speaking. You still remember saving madly for months to buy it, an irresponsible extravagance at an age when most of your friends were putting down deposits on houses. Then it was yours and it was all worth it.
It has sat, hung, lent and, occasionally, toppled over on the walls and mantelpieces and fridge tops and windowsills of countless sprawling sharehouses. Later it was afforded more deferential treatment, positioned as a centrepiece of your spartan, adult apartments. Now, it hangs high above the lush couch in the lounge room of your own house. Your kids grow up with the painting as a backdrop.
Your partner invites a work colleague to your place for dinner. Effusive in her praise for the painting and your taste, she reignites a pleasant self-satisfaction in the naïve commercial acuity your twenty-something-year-old self exhibited in buying such an important early work from an artist whose stocks have since soared to vertiginous heights. She wonders if you have had it valued. Oh I couldn’t possibly, I wouldn’t dream of selling it. It was never about the money, I just love how it looks, how it makes me feel, the time in my life that it represents.
But a few weeks later – what the hell, it’d be fun to know if I’m sitting on a gold mine, even if I’d never sell it – you find a local valuer who looks like he knows what he’s doing, having worked for the state gallery. He’s not cheap, but you’re committed to it now; you’re intrigued to know what the painting’s worth, despite the fact that you’ve never before turned your mind to it in the twenty years you’ve owned it. You drop it at his shopfront framing business one day and he says he’ll give you a call when it’s ready for collection. A few days pass, a week. Then, one afternoon, a phone call. Hello, yes, I’m not sure how to tell you this … uncertain provenance … not quite right … yes, I’m quite sure … a fake.
How do you feel?
Art fraud hit the headlines in Australia in the last few months, and again this month, after the conviction and sentencing of two men involved in an elaborate operation to produce and sell paintings which they falsely attributed to the late, great enfant terrible of twentieth-century Australian painting, Brett Whiteley. Peter Gant and Mohamed Aman Siddique were each found guilty of multiple counts of obtaining a financial advantage by deception, in the culmination of what is considered to be only the third successfully contested art fraud trial in Australian history. Siddique was one of Australia’s most respected art conservators. Having studied at both the London Institute of Art and the Chelsea School of Art, he’d advised countless key players in the Australian art market, including now Chairman of the Council of the National Gallery of Australia. Gant is a Melbourne-based art dealer with an international set of clients who regularly banks sums in the multi-million dollar range for his transactions. Now both men will need, subject to their prospects of appealing their convictions, to accustom themselves to the very different environments of the Victorian prison system, where both of them will reside for the immediate future. Gant received a head sentence of five years and Siddique three.
The media circus that attended their trial, and that reignited upon their sentencing, raised some important questions: Why do we find art fraud so fascinating? How prevalent is it? What does it mean for our ideas about the authenticity of artwork if professional art auctioneers and expert advisors are unable to tell the difference between a fake and an original?
In sentencing the two men, Justice Michael Croucher of the Supreme Court of Victoria described their crime as ‘audacious in its preparation’, by which Siddique would create the fakes in his Easey Street studio in Collingwood, Melbourne. Gant would then funnel the works into the legitimate art market through his art dealing business. Eventually, one work, Big Blue Lavender Bay, caught the eye of Sydney Swans chairman and investment banker Andrew Pridham. The giant ultramarine canvas, which Gant claimed was painted by Whiteley in 1988, would have presented as a prize purchase. Not only was its sheer size and ambition classic Whiteley, but the subject is also signature Whiteley: the view of Sydney Harbour from his home at Lavender Bay.
Pridham bought the work with the assistance of a professional art consultant and paid a handsome $2.5 million. Pridham’s initial admiration for the painting is apparent from the fact that he hung it in prime position in the lobby of his Mosman mansion – the first thing visitors saw as they entered. When Wendy Whiteley, Brett’s ex-wife and the executor of his estate, came to visit Pridham, Big Blue Lavender Bay was there to great her. It should have been a sublime moment of recognition and reunion with a Whiteley work that Wendy hadn’t seen for decades. Yet she didn’t recognise it. She had never seen it before. Worse still, she didn’t see in it the unmistakable Whiteley facture. She thought it was a fake and told Pridham as much.
How did he feel?
Pridham was so shaken by Wendy’s claim that he immediately arranged to have experts assess the veracity of the painting. When the expert reports came back doubting its authenticity, Pridham was forced to acknowledge that his big, blue iconic piece of Australian art history was a big fake – Australia’s most lucrative fake sale to date – and that he had become part of Australian and international art fraud history.
Despite capturing our imagination this past year, art fraud is not new to Australia and certainly not new to the rest of the world. One of the earliest known accounts of art fraud comes from the first century AD in Phaedrus’ Greek versification of Aesop’s fables. Phaedrus describes the practices of sculptors falsifying signatures of earlier greats in order to inflate the economic value of their work, in a society that was prepared to pay a premium for antique rather than contemporary pieces. In this example one sees an illustration of an uncomfortable fact – it is the art market itself which created the conditions for the birth of art fraud. Without collectors willing to pay inflated prices for the works of a select few artists, there would have been no financial incentive for other practitioners to abandon their own creative aspirations and dedicate themselves to the art of imitation.
Since Phaedrus’ time there have been many notable art frauds, all of which have confirmed art fraud’s close relationship to the economic conditions of the art market. Three examples serve to limn the faint outline of this complex history of interrelation. Perhaps the greatest forger of Old Masters was Han van Meegeren, the prolific producer of fake ‘Vermeers’. When van Meegeren’s own modest artistic career began faltering in the 1920s, it is perhaps unsurprising that he latched onto Vermeer as the subject of his duplicitous enterprise. Apart from his virtuosic brush skills, which required a forger with at least a modicum of technical proficiency, Vermeer was the ideal target for a sophisticated forger. This was due to the fact that, despite his growing fame, there existed surprisingly large gaps in the 17th century painter’s biography, with consequent uncertainty as to the extent of his artistic production. (To date, there are only 35 paintings accepted beyond contest as having been painted by Vermeer’s hand.) Van Meegeren exploited Vermeer’s unaccounted-for years and patchy catalogue to conjure up ‘lost works’, some of which were marked by breathtaking departures from the painter’s true style (amongst other things, van Meegeren exaggerated the religiosity of Vermeer in his fakes). So successfully did van Meegeren weave his fakes into the great artist’s oeuvre that an authoritative Vermeer expert of the early twentieth century claimed one of van Meegeren’s fakes to be Vermeer’s crowning achievement. (A counterpoint to van Meegeren is the short-sighted owner of a genuine painting by the then little known Vermeer. The owner had the painting rebadged as a work of Vermeer’s contemporary Pieter de Hooch, hoping to increase its value, ignorant that Vermeer was soon to outstrip de Hooch and every other painter of the Dutch Golden Age.)
Next in our brief lineage of great art frauds must come German Wolfgang Beltracchi, (born Wolfgang Fischer) who is estimated to have sold in excess of EUR$35 million worth of fake modernist masterpieces – attributed to the likes of Fernand Léger, Georges Braque and Max Ernst – prior to his being brought to justice by an extensive transnational investigation. Beltracchi painted the fakes himself and released them to the auction houses as ‘rediscovered’ works that had been ‘lost’ during the Second World War. So proficient a forger was Beltracchi that on six different occasions he convinced the former Director of the Pompidou Centre in Paris, a world expert on the paintings of Max Ernst, that the paintings were the real deal. Eventually it was science that caught up with Beltracchi. It was discovered that some of the paintings he had asserted to be from the early-twentieth century incorporated a pigment, titanium white, that was not invented until considerably later than that date.
In Australia, the financial stakes are never so high as they were in Beltracchi’s case. However, in a relative sense, the damage can be just as significant. This was particularly true during the Aboriginal art boom when exponential increases on the demand side of the market created vulnerabilities on the supply side – vulnerabilities that were taken advantage of by avaricious white dealers and forgers. In 1998 the Western Desert dot painter Clifford Possum Tjapaltjarri, from Papunya in Central Australia, was the guest of honour at what he thought was a major retrospective exhibition of his paintings at Patrick Corbally-Stourton’s gallery in Sydney. When Tjapaltjarri got to the gallery he was surprised to discover that 18 of the 22 works were not his own creations. Further de-attributions by Tjapaltjarri revealed that five works held by the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sydney, and two works held by the Art Gallery of New South Wales, were also fakes.
Notwithstanding the seismic shudders that cases like these send through the art world, what is most unsettling about art fraud are not the fakes that we know about, but those that we don’t. In criminology, this statistical and research blind spot is known as ‘dark figure’ crime, which is a suitably ominous way to describe the difficult-to-quantify incidence of a crime that largely goes undetected, unreported and unsolved. (An equally apt, though admittedly tired, metaphor is that of the iceberg – the few known cases of art fraud hinting at the vast submerged mass that is as yet uncharted.)
How many artworks floating around Australia and the world are unknown fakes? How many such works are hanging in our major public galleries, like the Van Gogh painting held by the National Gallery of Victoria that turned out not to be by van Gogh, or the Max Ernst painting in the Metropolitan Museum in New York that turned out to be by none other than Beltracchi? Australian art fraud academic Robyn Sloggett, who was a key expert witness in the recent Whiteley legal saga, has suggested that as much as 10% of art in circulation could be ‘fake’, in the sense of being attributed to someone other than the true creator. Even more alarmingly, a former Director of the Met claimed that almost half of the countless works he had examined in his career were either fake, or so significantly altered in restoration as to be beyond attribution as an original.
At least part of the reason that a lot of art fraud goes unreported and unsolved is that many of the key players and institutions in the art market have an interest in sweeping it under the carpet. The more art fraud that is uncovered, the greater the public appreciation of the prevalence of fakes in the market and in galleries, and the greater the damage to the authority of the art world. Every publicised discovery of a fraudulent work previously considered to be genuine reminds us of the unknown dark figure of undiscovered fakes. Noah Charney, novelist and world expert on art crime, has written:
Crimes of deceit and forgery affect the art market in a generally beneficial way. The members of the art trade (…) all benefit, earning money even if the item they are handling is not what they claim it to be (…) the buyer only loses out if the work is proven to be false. If the buyer and the world at large remain in blissful ignorance, then the perceived value of the work remains consistent. In this way, it is in the best interests of all involved to believe that the art in question is exactly what they hope it to be.
The establishment art world of public and private galleries, museums and art dealers, operates on the assumption of authenticity and singularity. Which is why when credible galleries and auction houses are exposed as selling fakes, the foundation of the whole industry begins to look pretty shaky.
The chance to interface with the one and only genuine art object was at the heart of Walter Benjamin’s theory of the aura of the work of art. Benjamin’s concept of aura is multi‑dimensional, including authenticity, authority and historical rootedness. But how do we think about this experience if we are not sure that we are really looking at, say, a work by Rembrandt? When even world experts are unsure of its provenance, (as they are in the case of a painting controversially attributed to Rembrandt – The Polish Rider) what hope do we have of divining its authenticity? Benjamin, in a Marxist vein, saw the reproducibility of art and the diminishment of aura as a good thing because it undermined established hierarchies of power and authority. But Benjamin’s way of thinking isn’t shared by everyone; some art viewers and buyers care very much whether they are looking at or buying the original or a copy.
Why do we care? Why did it so matter to Pridham that the beautiful painting he had hanging on his wall was one day thought to be painted by the long-dead Whiteley and the next day thought to be painted by someone else? Quite obviously the painting didn’t change overnight. The physical object changed not one bit, but the all-important, intangible pedestal of authenticity collapsed beneath it. Pridham could no longer look at the painting and place it confidently in a central vein of Australia’s modern art history. He could no longer imagine Whiteley sitting high above the harbour painting it in a blaze of creative genius between heroin binges. So Pridham’s subjective response to the work would have inarguably altered as soon as doubt was cast over its authenticity; the work no longer connected Pridham to Whiteley through space and time. Each of the indicia of aura identified above – authenticity, authority and historical rootedness – were diminished or irrevocably altered.
Standing in front of a Rembrandt, or a Whiteley for that matter, is meant to be about as close as one can get to touching the great artist’s genius, second only to the access to greatness one would secure by owning the work. When we view art, and even more so when we buy it, we hope that a little bit of the artist’s creative genius might rub off on us; we hope that our proximity to these important social objects might place us at the centre of history’s flow, rather than in its peripheral eddies. Thierry Lenain, author of Art Forgery: The History of a Modern Obsession, has expressed similar ideas about the authentic/fake dichotomy. For Lenain, the art world rests on the absolute truth of the ‘trace paradigm’, by which he means the idea that an original work of art is valued as an expression and record of the artist’s hand, but also the political, social and aesthetic forces operating in the era in which it was created. So not only did Pridham lose a connection to Whiteley when he learnt that Big Blue Lavender Bay was a fake, but he also lost an enduring, tangible connection to the wild 1980s Sydney scene of which Whiteley was an exemplar.
But we also need to talk about money, because it was not just Pridham’s perception of the painting that changed upon its de-attribution – the rest of the art world had their eyes on the scandal, and presumably no one in their right mind would now buy the painting for anything close to the AUD$2.5 million that it cost Pridham. As Martin McKenzie-Murray, who observed the trial, wrote: ‘Before the verdict, [Big] Blue Lavender Bay’s worth was either AUD$2.5 million or a few bucks. It existed in a sort of limbo of value’. It is this uncertainty as to value and authenticity that poses an existential threat to the contemporary art world in which originality and authenticity, but most of all economic value, are the criteria of greatness.
This new existential uncertainty as to authenticity and value gives us a glimpse of an alternate reality: an art world in which meaning and value are not dictated by authorship but by the inherent qualities of the work itself. In this world, Picasso’s Guernica would be worth the same amount as a one-to-one replica painting from Dafen Village, China, where it is estimated that 60% of the world’s cheap oil paintings are produced. Jeff Koon’s giant imitation balloon dogs would no longer sell for US$60 million, but might be mistaken for children’s playground equipment. ‘Rothkos’ would no longer be ‘Rothkos’; they’d just be big, inoffensive canvasses suitable only for hotel lobbies and high-ceilinged restaurants. And we wouldn’t need a judge to tell us the difference between a painting by Peter Doig (no ‘e’, contemporary Scottish painter of quirky, ethereal landscapes) and one by Peter Doige (with an ‘e’, now deceased, hobby painter while in an Ontario prison).
I’m not pining after such an alternate reality by any means. But if the art world wishes to avoid it then something needs to be done to eradicate the existential threat that forged works pose to the institutional art world’s monopoly on authenticity. The long-time New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl astutely identified the threat posed by convincing forgeries: ‘They are impeccably destructive, tarring not only pretensions to taste but the credibility of taste in general’. If the art world does not do more to restore its damaged credibility in matters of authenticity, then the value of the original and the authentic will be cast further into doubt – an existential doubt that may precipitate the art market crash that experts have warned is approaching.
Image: Crop from Brett Whitely’s Alchemy