By Peter Dobey
October 6, 2013
The talk of the town seems to be art fraud and the art marketplace individuals involved with it. But what does art fraud have to do with art? After all, the art market greatly effects art, but it is not art. What is art fraud in the grand scheme of art itself?
A literal example occurred Tuesday, when Chicago’s ‘River North’ gallery was raided by authorities and the gallery owner Alan Kass was sentenced to six months in prison with six additional months in home confinement. Why? For selling forged masterworks. On Thursday, two men in Laguna Beach were charged with selling counterfeit Damien Hirsts.
These two “scandals” ran on the heels of another case that has shook up (but not surprised) the New York art collecting world. On September 16th, Glafira Rosales pleaded guilty to peddling over sixty fake art works that eventually fetched over 80 million dollars in sales, most notably through the (formerly) esteemed Knoedler gallery, one of the oldest and most famed galleries in New York, founded in 1846. Although Knoedler gallery had come under pressure for years, shutting down over forgery allegations in 2011, the ex-director was unaware of her complicity until one of her main dealers, Rosales, admitted herself guilty to initiating the fraud, resulting in a maximum sentence of 99 years in the slammer. The phony Motherwells, Rothkos and Pollacks that she vended were painted in the Queen’s garage of 73 year old Pei-Shen Qian, a Chinese immigrant who was compensated a measly couple thousand dollars a work, in other words, a typical artist’s cut.
Interviewed on the matter for an NPR broadcast on September 21, critic Jerry Saltz was asked if the act of painting these copies was a crime. He responded “No. Everybody at home, go do it. If you have a great one, Jerry Saltz at New York magazine, send me a picture. I’m good for 125 bucks. I’ll pay. I swear.”
Saltz’s comical answer comes with timely connotations, art forgery, an ancient craft, has been running rampant since the heralding in of appropriation art, and classical forgery has been exacerbated by the surge of online art sales. One year ago, PATRICIA COHEN wrote in the New York Times that the sale of art through websites like EBay posed new challenges to the question of an art pieces validity, since many rip-off artworks now sell without much import of authenticity. Hundreds of online sellers post items for sale with little regard for intellectual property, clearly stating that the works they sell for a few hundred dollars are original works of acclaimed artists.
The article interviewed Alexander Calder’s grandson of the Calder Foundation, who works vehemently to guard against the circulation of fake works, especially those of his fathers. He was quoted in the article demonstrating the blatantly obvious nature of some of the fakes, such as “an image of a 12-inch-high sculpture of an elephant balancing on its upraised trunk a wire with a red sun on one end, and a crescent and a yellow half-star on the other. “This is one of the ugliest things I’ve ever seen in my entire life,” Mr. Rower said.” Although Calder’s grandson was seemingly expressing discontent with notions of authenticity, he clearly was also expressing a subjective aesthetic judgment.
Considered purely as a matter of consumption, it seems many online buyers have little qualms bidding on quite unashamedly faux works. But is this out of thrift and shrewd purchase evaluation or is it a matter of taste?
In the same article, San Francisco art consultant Alan Bamberger of artbusiness.com frankly states it’s the former, but perhaps also alludes to the later: “consumers generally did not base their assessments of sellers on the authenticity of the art, because they may not know the difference. Rather, customers tend to look at whether a seller packed carefully, shipped on time and answered questions promptly.”
Bamberger’s examination suggests that the considerations of online shoppers cast off the historical baggage that drew their interest in the first place. A copy after all, looks the same as the real thing; why not get it for a marked down price?
The question becomes, does it even matter? It depends on what one believes is the mark of a good work of art. If purchasers of art make their decisions on the basis of beauty alone, fakes are good enough. Serious blue chip collectors of course, buy art not because of beauty, but because their investment are good assets. A true originals value for these collectors lies not in its beauty, but in its market value, which is predicated on the original being a one of a kind luxury item. The value of which increases because of the demand for the art works’ scarcity, not aesthetic quality.
Most forgeries are of old masters or modernist classics, but with contemporary art, much of which is industrially fabricated or mass produced, does the authenticity of an original matter from the buyers perspective, blue chip collector or EBay surfer? The works of many big market players such as Damien Hirst are made in large quantities by squadrons of assistants who may in fact be better painters, sculptors or craftsmen than the artists themselves, and when they are mass produced, they loose their scarcity appeal. Hirst neglected this crucial point with his industrially manufactured spot pictures, and his work plummet in value since there was no proper original. The original value could not be clearly traced back to their originator.
If it is a creator that bucks the status quo, offers up social commentary and shows awareness of the inner workings of the art market that gets your goat, or perhaps you think that modernist object making is passé, well then Ms. Rosales’s just may be your art world darling. As the curatorial elite like to make us brutally aware, beauty is passé, cleverness is key.
On the other hand, if you still value the act of artistic creation and new forms of aesthetic engagement, I offer you an even more experimental breed of artist, one who is passionate about ingenuity AND is giftedly skilled: what I will call “Originalists”.
Orson Welles’ 1974 masterpiece of cinema ‘F for Fake’ chronicled the life of forger extraordinaire Elmyr de Hory, who eventually made a career AS A counterfeit artist, openly exhibiting an oeuvre of copied works that spanned such diverse styles as Modigliani and Matisse. This all happened before the rise of conceptual art and the legitimation of “appropriation” into art histories lexicon. De Hory’s life exemplifies just how beautiful and creative the ACT of forgery can be, for not only did his practice embrace the aesthetic life of an artist at work as a wholesome, romantic endeavor, it also espoused the virtues of exercising flexibility and exorcising the dogmas of art movement categorization.
It would seem that forgers, such as Queen’s own Pei-Shen Qian, care more about the act of creation than many contemporary artists, who seem to be more interested in presenting and questioning art world conventions of production or appealing to consumerist aesthetics rather than creating new forms of visual contemplation or originality.
Come to think of it, if there ever were a group of truly creative artists who are thoroughly invested in the process of their work, it just may be the bold ideas of the forgers themselves. Forgers seem to be the only artists truly doing what they are good at and love doing, all whilst flying under the art market radar.
Pei-Shen Qian should be given a Chelsea retrospective. He is an artist’s artist.