Thursday, June 26, 2008

Underhand down under: how fakes and forgeries are proliferating in Australia

The Australian broadsheet reports this week on attempts to combat the problem of art forgery down-under (Art industry sees need for united defence against forgery). One of the artists whose work is commonly faked is Charles Blackman, whose authentic Alice in Wonderland of 1956 (detail) is shown left.

Fakes and forgeries, as the British Museum's 1990 exhibition and accompanying book made clear ('Fake? The Art Of Deception') is as old as the art market. The recent case of the Greenhalgh family from Bolton, exposed as the manufacturers of everything from dodgy ancient Egyptian figurines to Gauguin sculptures, offered a reminder that expert fakers are as active as ever, indeed arguably more so now that prices in the art market have risen beyond all rational metrics.

In the light of the Greenhalghs, a certain understandable trade nervousness was even expressed towards the Achaemenid gold cup that came up for sale only a couple of weeks ago at Duke's auction house in Dorchester. That piece was provenanced to a local rag and bone man, but one has only to look at the quality of the 'Romano-British' silver tray — the so-called 'Risley Park Lanx' — now ascribed to the Bolton Greenhalgh's but which for a while even took in experts at the British Museum, to see that today's fakers know what they're doing.

The lanx had been made from authentic ancient Roman coins. Such are the lengths to which rogues like Shaun Greenhalgh are prepared to go in plying their trade.

But it wasn't only knockoffs of rare and ancient antiquities that emerged from the Greenhalghs' unprepossesing Bolton semi. The family also tried their hands at modern art, kicking out Scottish Colourist canvases in the style of Samuel John Peploe that almost duped the top of the London trade (Art Newspaper story here).

Thus it came as no surprise to hear that Aussie art crooks have been trying their hand at faking works by Australian painters Charles Blackman, John Brack and others. Without wishing to cast aspersions on the great Australian modernist tradition, it is true to say that one can count its finest exponents on one hand. Blackman and Brack are certainly among them.

One wonders whether crooks see Blackman's robust and occasionally slightly naive oils as more easily faked than, say, the poetically subtle and physically fragile works of the great Ian Fairweather (right).

Meanwhile, the faking of indigenous aboriginal painting has also grown as prices have risen (see my earlier blogs on this topic here and here). But while the visual language of aboriginal painting might to the untutored eye seem straightforward and ostensibly easy to fake, its symbolic subtlety is a more elusive matter. Not that this stops fakers from faking them, or credulous collectors from forking out for those fakes.

Concomitant with the explosion of the art market has been the steady diminution of expertise and connoisseurship. As more and more money has entered the market, so the opportunists have piled in at every level. Many of these are so-called 'art consultants' — bottom-feeders looking to turn a fast buck from the well-heeled private collectors who see art as a badge of arrival.

But expertise at auction houses has also declined. The days when you could rely on an auctioneer for real connoisseurship is sadly over, even at Christie's and Sotheby's which are now glorified dealerships but without the expertise of the top of the trade. The impartial, tutored eye is a thing of the past.

Charles Blackman is "one of the high-profile Australian artists who repeatedly have forgeries and fakes turning up in auction houses under their name", Walter Granek of the Charles Blackman Trust told The Australian. Granek has apparently seen about 3000 Blackman works in his career so he should know. But if Blackman's market is so strong, and the implications of selling a forgery are so potentially damaging to all concerned, why don't the auction houses consult the Blackman Trust when the need arises? Clearly that is where the Blackman expertise resides. Sadly, Mr Granek now gets offered money to authenticate Blackman works which, being an honourable man, he refuses.

Museum experts have long been called in by the auction houses (privately, of course) to cast an eye over objects. They never did this for free and they're certainly far less likely to do it for free today with the market in spate. Kickbacks make the world go round.

All of this aside, I don't quite see how the rise of faking makes the reputations of artists like Blackman, Brack, Rover Thomas, et al, vulnerable, as The Australian article suggests. But I can see the importance of rooting out the fakes and exposing the fakers.

In summary, this story reminds us yet again that a market correction is badly needed, if only to rinse out the malignant spores proliferating in an increasingly toxic pond.

No comments: