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.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Credibility gap

James Cuno has just conducted another radio discussion, this time with former Iraq Museum curator Donny George on Wisconsin Public Radio. The exchange has been widely reported (see for example on because of another Cuno-blooper which, in fact, he also uttered during his Radio Three conversation with Tristram Besterman here in the UK a fortnight ago. This is what he said to Donny George:

"There is not a credible museum in this country that has an object that it knows to have been stolen from someplace else."

And only yesterday I stumbled upon Ricardo Elia's quoting of that other bull in a china shop — Thomas Hoving:

"Almost every antiquity that has arrived in America in the past ten to twenty years has broken the laws of the country from which it came."

(Ricardo Elia Responds, Archaeology, May/June 1993, at 1, 17 (quoting memoir of Thomas Hoving, Making the Mummies Dance, 1993)

Of course, Hoving didn't say "arrived in American museums". But we know what he meant.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Worship this

My email tray has been jumping this evening with press releases about the art market, top and bottom. Monet's Le bassin aux nymphéas apparently made £40,921,250 / ($80,451,178) at Christie's. Er, so what?

Elsewhere, the media is effervescing over news that Damien Hirst has decided to sell a load of new stuff at Sotheby's rather than use his two main dealers, White Cube and Gagosian. That's marginally more interesting, but only by a whisker.

This has been reported as a maverick and innovative decision on Hirst's part, but actually it's perfectly understandable. According to some newspapers, Hirst has apparently realised that auctions are "a democratic way to sell art." That might have been true thirty-five years ago, before the buyer's premium, the insider trading, the chandelier bidding (how long have you got?). But today auctions are shadier and more ethically negotiable than ever, which doubtless partly explains Hirst's decision to get a bit deeper into bed with them. You know, take the pyjamas off this time and snuggle up nice and close.

The reality is that Hirst is more powerful than his dealers and so is in a position to deny them the vastly reduced percentage they levy for the privilege of representing him. Other less successful artists still forego 50% or more. The internet, still in its infancy, will impact on this in due course. Everything changes and nothing stays the same. The art market's as mad as a bottle of crisps.

Meanwhile I know a number of artists who have chosen to bypass their galleries now that their work has begun to sell internationally, preferring to take control of their own commissions, manage their own careers. For those with a flair for the paperwork and the communications issues, this invariably proves infinitely preferable to handing over ridiculous sums to dealers, many of whom are ignorant about art and care only about how much money they can syphon off an artist's creative gift. Oh no, Leonard Cohen's not the only one to feel the pinch.

My earliest introduction to the history of art was a family bible illustrated with plates of Old Master paintings, which included Poussin's The Adoration of the Golden Calf. Hirst's The Golden Calf (right), which is to be sold at Sotheby's later this year with an estimate of £12 million, is presumably intended as a symbol of the art market's idolatrous worship of cash. No, subtlety was never his strong point.

Of course, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai, he destroyed the golden calf that Aaron had fashioned from the Israelities' bling. Hirst's calf, however, like the shark he made earlier, will presumably self-destruct.

The current trend of artists cocking a snook at the very art market that is feathering their nest is wearing a bit thin. Yesterday I read of an 'urban art' sale held by a provincial UK auction house jumping on the street graffiti bandwagon. Among the lots was a work entitled Laugh now, but one day we'll be in charge. This might be read as a prophetic note to the art trade in general. But it could backfire judging by the sums being paid for work by some of these street artists, few of whom are likely to stay the course once the market turns. And let's face it, it will. Many of them will end up as gum turds, expectorated back onto the sidewalk of the streets whence they came.

The mixed media on cardboard work shown left, entitled Red Lips, by Adam Neate (born 1978), fetched £40,000. Neate is a self-taught "free street artist", i.e. he paints pictures on cardboard which he then leaves in the street (mostly East London) for people to pick up and take home.

Adam's largesse is being handsomely repaid. There are 23 auction results for him listed on Artnet, the earliest being last October. Where will he be in ten years time when the lipstick's worn off?

(Hirst pic: Prudence Cummings/Sotheby's)

Controversy? What controversy?

Kwame Opoku has just sent me a link to a dire and rambling KCRW radio conversation (thanks Kwame!) between James Cuno and Michael Conforti, President of AAMD (Association of American Museum Directors), discussing, yes, you guessed it, Cuno's new book, Who Owns Antiquity.

It's pretty clear that Cuno has won hands down with this book. I'm still trying to figure out how so much pre-publication opposition to his central thesis has suddenly translated into so much supine rolling-over. For the past two weeks, Cuno has sashayed from studio to studio on both sides of the pond, hoovering up the opposition as he goes. The only person to have given him a run for his money was Tristram Besterman, former director of Manchester Museum here in the UK, who clearly had him on the back foot during their Radio Three Nightwaves discussion last week.

I think most of us would agree that it's not a bad book. It's clearly written, passionate in its argument, and doubtless informative and instructive for lay readers. But its core aims — its call to arms against a notional nationalist retentionism, its strident appeal for a return to partage, and its endorsement of the beleaguered encyclopaedic museum as the best home for antiquities of any and every culture — are deeply flawed.

The problem, I think, is that this is such a specialist topic that very few radio hosts, however capable they may be (Andy Marr on Radio 4, for example, and clearly Ruth Seymour at KCRW) are capable of offering an incisive critique of what he proposes. In fact, when push comes to shove, nobody is, not even archaeologists. Perhaps they all agree with him.

Having read a recent New York Times piece on the new AAMD guidelines on the acquisition of antiquities, Ruth Seymour set out to unleash these two ferocious dogs onto each other in the hope that they'd rip each other limb from limb for the delectation of her bloodthirsty listeners. Unfortunately for Ms Seymour, Cuno and Conforti were having none of it.

At times like these, with every nation in the world seemingly united against the US over everything from global warming to who owns cylinder seals, you won't get two prominent American museum directors to do anything except close ranks in a big schmoozy antiquities love-in.

Fareed Zakaria's piece in this week's Sunday Times (Enfeebled superpower: how America lost its grip) offered some telling insights into why America has become so resented in the world. She was writing about geopolitics, but what she had to say resonated for me on the level of cultural diplomacy too.

“When we meet American officials they talk and we listen - we rarely disagree or speak frankly because they simply can’t take it in. They simply repeat the American position, like the tourist who thinks he needs to speak louder and slower and then we will understand,” a senior foreign policy adviser in a European government told me. To foreigners, US officials seem clueless about the world they are supposed to be running.

“There are two sets of conversations, one with Americans in the room and one without,” says Kishore Mahbubani, formerly Singapore’s UN ambassador. Because Americans live in a “cocoon”, they don’t see the “sea change in attitudes towards America throughout the world”.

This is not dissimilar to what's happening in cultural heritage disputes. Leading US museum directors like Cuno just keep talking, seemingly unwilling to listen to an alternative position.

Michael Conforti, who was gushing in his praise for his Chicago colleague, spoke of "a need to operate in a world where there's a level of mutual trust." Amen to that. It would seem that Mr Conforti recognises that the requisite level of trust is currently lacking. Why is it lacking, I wonder? Well, he promptly provided the answer by closing the discussion with a reference to Kavita Singh's piece in this month's Art Newspaper (Do we really want the freer circulation of cultural goods?) which I discussed here.

In her piece, Ms Singh spoke of how Western museums are seen outside the west: "as terrifying places with insatiable appetites for works of art. They are also seen as the arm of a more powerful state, with infinite funds and power at their command. To tell a Bangladeshi protestor that universal museums 'build bridges across cultures and promote mutual understanding' would only provoke anger or derision."

What did Michael Conforti have to say about these attitudes? "Very instructive... however silly they may be"

Mutual trust, eh?

Monday, June 23, 2008

Not weaving, but drowning

Friday, June 20

To La Piscine, the now famous swimming-pool museum in Roubaix, near Lille in north eastern France (left) for the opening of an exhibition for which I'd written the catalogue essay.

I'd heard much about La Piscine, which opened to great fanfare in 2001 after a major makeover, but had never visited it. The invitation thus offered an opportunity to see at first hand what the Journal des Arts has just declared to be France's fifth most important museum (based on visitor numbers and the number and frequency of exhibitions).

Built by architect Albert Baert between 1927-1932 as a temple to the body, hygiene and sport, this masterpiece of Art Deco design was quickly recognised as France's most beautiful swimming-pool and one of its most successful public buildings.

During the nineteenth century Roubaix was a burgeoning industrial town, second only to Manchester as textile manufacturing centre (it is still home to La Redoute, the mail-order clothing company). As a result from 1800-1850 it saw population growths unequalled by any other town in France as people flocked there for work.

However, the textile industry peaked towards the close of the 19th century and then began a downward slide leading to a long period of stagnation brought about by the First World War and the depression of the 1930s. Thereafter the town's industry was blighted by regular industrial action and the population decreased accordingly.

The swimming pool was seen as a means of redressing the decline in what had once been regarded as France's "sacred city of socialism." (If you've ever spent time in the decaying old public baths and steam-rooms of Budapest, you'll have a sense of the ambience of La Piscine during its golden age, judging from surviving photographs.)

Arriving at the town's elegant 19th century iron and glass train station on a summer evening and making your way to the beautiful museum it seems hard to believe that Roubaix remains riddled with social problems.

According to a recent BBC4 documentary (Small Town Murder), behind the elegant signs of regeneration, Roubaix is "eroded by poverty, unemployment and crime. It has become a society that offers little opportunity to its inhabitants." Its small police force is "kept busy by armed robberies, domestic violence, car theft, missing teenagers, and arson." These are the wounds that Sarkozy vowed to heal.

One Parisian visitor to Friday's opening related his experience of travelling by train from Lille to Roubaix earlier that afternoon when he had shared a carriage with some locals. "These people are so, so exotic," he said of his impoverished compatriots, his lip curling into a rictus of displeasure. "I mean, the way they look, the way they dress, their language. Incomprehensible. I mean really exotic."

At dinner during the vernissage the reluctant anthropologist took his place beside other representatives of the Parisian art élite who had also gamely ventured into the heart of darkness. A wealthy New York private equity entrepreneur joked about packing the bread and peanut butter before flying out, thanks to the plummeting dollar.

Listening to their tales of woe I was yet again reminded of the gaping social and economic divide that art and culture may brilliantly disguise but will never erase.