Twelve years ago, the now defunct elite New York art gallery, Knoedler and Company, which used to cater to the aristocracy of Europe and nababs from countries worldwide, sold a painting attributed to Mark Rothko which, in reality, had been produced by a Chinese artist living in very modest circumstances in Queens. His paymaster was Glafira Rosales, a self-styled art dealer and collector based in Long Island. All told, Knoedler under the leadership of Ann Freedman, its last president, sold more than 30 paintings which Ms. Rosales offered for consignment to Knoedler as products signed by “the titans of Abstract Expressionism” allegedly coming from a private Swiss collection. All told, 63 million dollars changed hands to Ms. Rosales’ benefit. The Chinese painter who produced the forgeries barely received more than a few thousand dollars for the knock-offs that he so expertly created. He has since high-tailed it back to China.
|Glafira Rosales in front a "Jackson Pollock" painting|
The honorable New York gallery was forced to close its doors after being asked to refund millions of dollars to irate collectors who were incensed that the gallery had bamboozled them into thinking that they were investing in major modern paintings.
How do forged “masterpieces” signed by iconic members of the Abstract Expressionist pantheon withstand scrutiny as authentic pieces? How is it that Ann Freedman, Knoedler’s last president of Knoedler, fell for this elaborate scam? Arrogance might play a role in her undoing since, when asked why she did not dig more into the background of Ms. Rosales, she replied that “she doesn’t do that.” Instead, she relies on the advice of art experts. So much for provenance research. If she did not do it or encourage it, who did, at the ex-Knoedler and Company? The absence of due diligence checks and basic provenance research does lie at the core of the case against Knoedler. Had due diligence practices been put into place and applied to Ms. Rosales and her magic trove of Abstract masterpieces, many of which were signed by Pollock, could the scandal have been minimized and even stopped dead in its tracks, Rosales cuffed and jailed for running a sham operation and would Knoedler still be open today? Should a liability verdict be rendered, it might reaffirm the necessity of due diligence checks and provenance research as checkpoints against being scammed and snookered into acquiring dubious cultural assets.
The art world feeds on its own self-imposed practice of “omerta’, a Mafia code of silence, to sustain, maintain, uphold reputations and most importantly, value. It is a very competitive and ruthless milieu where one’s word can be worth gold or tin plate in appraising, authenticating and vouching for the importance and genuineness of an object offered for sale. It is all about producing a constant supply of high quality works for ever hungry and demanding, wealthy individuals, who can stop taking your calls in a second if you do not provide what they want. Or so it appears. Or so one believes.
Image is vital in this world. A woman like Ms. Freedman does not exactly rise to “queen” status but she is a highly-regarded dealmaker and connoisseur in the international art world. Did she finally break down and get ahead of herself, embarrassed about being caught up in a trap so cunningly set up by Ms. Rosales and playing double or nothing, opted to go “all the way”, by acquiring for herself some of the fakes? Perhaps to reassure her nervous clientele?
We’ll soon find out. Self-interest and narcissistic, patronizing behavior are characteristic features of the high-end segment of the global art world much like in the rarified air that one breathes in executive offices of high-performance hedge funds and brokerage firms and global investment firms, as well as auction house executives who cater to their clients’ every whim. Looking upstream to meet the autocratic needs of an ever-expanding super class of excessively wealthy people worldwide is a challenging task no doubt. Who knows where these paintings end up, in some redoubt deep in the hills of Kazakhstan or a dacha outside of Moscow or better still in the nouveau super-riche compound of a freshly-minted Chinese billionaire?
After all, the idea is to make money, even more money, amass, amass, and amass, buy, buy, buy until there is nothing left to buy and boredom sets in. Art is simply an instrumentality in the perplexing game that the super-wealthy play. Getting caught is simply part of the process. There is very little appreciation for the art as long as experts like Ms. Freedman and her equally high-priced experts can convince these moguls to part with their money because they are helping to sustain an illusion of what the cutting edge of culture is all about, as defined by these “experts.”
Whether the art is any good is for you to decide. Meanwhile, tens of billions of dollars and euros are exchanged each year to sustain this fantasy called the global art market.
The trial of Ann Freedman and Knoedler does allow us to peek into their prefabricated, platinum-plated reality, pockmarked by high fashion events, multimillion dollar parties in exotic remote islands, private estates, and well-protected luxury buildings scattered around the world.
If these are the people who actually end up possessing looted art and antiquities, we will have an incredibly difficult time wresting those objects from them. Their sense of morality does not extend to ceding title to expensive conversation pieces called “art," looted or not.