Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Fake Art is not Fake News

Pierre-Auguste Renoir,
Two Sisters (On the Terrace) 1881
Few of us were surprised to hear from Bloomberg’s Tim O’Brien that Donald Trump is the owner of a fake Renoir, which hangs on a wall of his private jet. Unsurprisingly, when told it was a fake and that the original (left) is in the Art Institute of Chicago, Trump insisted that his own version was the original. 

Fake Renoir? Fake News!

Go ahead, laugh. It’s a familiar Trump pattern. He is, after all, an illiterate, uneducated philistine who never reads, is culturally lobotomised and, according to some experts, suffers from a narcissistic personality disorder. But when it comes to high-level art collecting, Trump is not the only one to have been taken in. (Did he pay an authentic Renoir price for it for it, one wonders).  

Over the past five years, the art world has witnessed a veritable deluge of art forgeries and it is invariably high-level collectors who are hit the hardest. After all, what’s the point of a forger faking works by an unrecognised artist? 

Hollywood actor and musician Steve Martin was taken in by a work purporting to be by the renowned German Expressionist painter Heinrich Campendonk but which had in fact been painted by a German crook named Wolfgang Beltracchi. Nicholas Taubman, former US ambassador to Romania, fell foul to the tune of $4.3 million over an abstract work posing as a canvas by the Abstract Expressionist Clyfford Still, which in reality had been painted by a Chinese guy in a garage in Queens. This latter case is just the tip of an iceberg that has already sunk Knoedler, one of New York’s oldest and once venerable galleries, which managed to shut its doors before the excrement hit the air conditioning system. They settled the multiple cases without any of us knowing exactly how the fiasco came about. Move on everyone, nothing to see here. 

The auction houses are also failing in their duty of care. Take, for example, the case of the eighteenth-century portrait of Major George Maule (right) by the fashionable German-born portrait painter Johann Zoffany that graced the walls of the Villa Fontanelle, a Lake Como property owned by the late fashion designer Gianni Versace. 

Versace bought the picture from a dealer some time in the mid-1990s, unaware of its true authorship or art historical importance. Nor did he know that the picture had been stolen in 1979 from the London residence of Major General Sheffield, a descendant of Major Maule. When the contents of the Versace villa were put up for auction at Sotheby’s in 2009, members of the Sheffield family spotted an illustration of the portrait in the London Evening Standard. The picture was withdrawn from the auction and eventually returned to its rightful home.

It is not just high-profile galleries and the more up-market auction houses wiping egg from their faces. 

More recently, Whytes, a Dublin-based mid-level auction house was found to have offered a painting entitled Bringing in the Turf by the Northern Irish modernist William Conor (1884-1968).

Daniel O'Neill, The Prodigal Son
The picture was spotted on Whytes’s website by Robin Thompson, a retired Northern Irish businessman, who immediately recognised it as one of two paintings stolen from his family’s Belfast home in 2008. The other picture (left), by Northern Irish painter Daniel O'Neill (1920-1974) is still missing. (Image courtesy of Robin Thompson and Art Recovery International.

On contacting Whytes, Mr Thompson was informed that the Conor picture had been sold in 2013 to an American buyer for $30,000. Thanks to negotiations conducted by Venice-based Art Recovery International, the picture was eventually returned to Mr Thompson’s family. 

What all these cases have in common is a failure on the part of galleries, dealers, auction houses and collectors to attach sufficient importance to provenance, to researching the ownership history of the works they're buying or selling.  

Provenance may be one of the most frequently heard but least understood words in the international art market and yet its implications are profound at almost every level. Most dealers and auction houses are aware of the term, but do they fully comprehend its implications and grant it the attention it deserves? 

Consider the countless wealthy new collectors entering the global market, energised by the constant stream of media reports extolling the benefits of art as an investable asset. How many of these new participants are aware of the repercussions that await them after purchasing an object with little or no knowledge of where it came from or who previously owned it? 

How many of us would buy a car without inspecting its log-book? Would we employ someone without seeing their CV? In either instance, failing to do so could result in a nasty shock further downstream, which is why most of us are hard-wired to conduct a minimal amount of due diligence in our business affairs. It therefore seems reasonable to ask why many participants in the art market are so negligent when it comes to asking important questions about an object’s provenance, its past ownership?

The term provenance derives from the French word provenir, ‘to come from’. It is thus intimately connected to a natural human curiosity about the origin of people and things. And yet when it comes to works of art, many art market participants, whether buyers or sellers, seem only too willing to turn a blind eye to an object’s past. A painting may look beautiful on your wall, but matters can get ugly when its past history comes back to haunt you. This may happen when you eventually come to sell it, only to discover that it was looted by the Nazis during the Second World War, or when you stumble across a newspaper report that reveals it as previously stolen from a private home. Think of it as the art world equivalent of an IED.

It is perhaps inevitable that cases of this kind will occur in an informal marketplace defined by the uniqueness of the goods being traded and the market’s relative lack of oversight. Nevertheless, the question still needs to be asked: could market participants be more rigorous in conducting provenance research? 

A few weeks ago, an international conference was convened at London’s National Gallery to ponder the current state of affairs regarding the identification of so-called Holocaust assets. The purpose of the meeting was to assess what progress if any has been made in researching the provenance of European and North American museum collections since the so-called Washington Principles on Holocaust Assets were agreed in 1998. 

So profound was the extent of the Nazi looting of Jewish families from 1933-1945, it is safe to say that this process will be ongoing for many years. At least the international museum community is no longer in any doubt as to the critical importance of conducting provenance research on its collections. The digitisation of museum collections and their transparent and accessible publication online are key to this process, but so too is a shared sense of moral and ethical responsibility. The broader art market has lessons to learn from this. 

Provenance research can be time-consuming and somewhat laborious, but affordable, workable solutions are available to auction houses, dealers and collectors for works of significant value. Merely checking a object against a database of stolen art is NOT provenance research as many dealers and auction houses assume; it is the lowest level of due diligence and woefully insufficient in terms of establishing an object’s credentials. As the recent instances mentioned above make clear, ignoring an object’s provenance, or simply turning a blind eye to it, can result in acute embarrassment, damage to professional reputation and, in some cases, significant financial loss.

No doubt Donald Trump is now seeking the person who sold him that fake Renoir. Whoever it was, it's a fair bet they'll be fired. 


Tom Flynn, Flynn & Giovani, Art Provenance Research   

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

BBC's Fake or Fortune exposes ancient art world rivalry

Bassin d'Argenteuil ...by Renoir?
In 2011, the BBC ran one of the first episodes of its excellent Fake or Fortune programmes, in which London art dealer Philip Mould, his co-detective Bendor Grosvenor, and BBC presenter Fiona Bruce investigate paintings of uncertain authorship. They’re a good team, with Bruce bringing a certain journalistic grit and Grosvenor acting as a sort art-world Lewis to Philip Mould’s Inspector Morse.

The 2011 episode — which explored a painting, Les bords de la Seine à Argentueil, purportedly by Impressionist master Claude Monet — reached an unhappy conclusion. Despite a seemingly water-tight provenance, exhaustive forensic evidence and almost universal connoisseurial endorsement, the mighty Wildenstein Institute in Paris (which publishes the Monet catalogue raisonné) rejected it. Thus, a painting that might have been worth millions, was rendered virtually worthless, for if the Wildensteins reject a picture, it cannot be sold as a Monet. I expressed my frustration with this outcome in a number of blog posts here.

In the new series, the BBC’s redoubtable trio have tried again, this time to authenticate a work long believed to be by Renoir (above left). The painting, coincidentally another river scene at Argenteuil, dated 1875, has for generations hung on the walls of Picton Castle, a stately home in Wales; indeed it has been in the Picton collection since it was purchased by a member of the family, supposedly from Monet’s studio (Monet and Renoir were lifelong friends and often painted together).

Once again, however, despite the more than compelling portfolio assembled by the BBC team in support of the painting, the Wildenstein Institute has rejected it. They were, it seems, influenced by the absence of documented provenance, the lack of a signature (that never helps), and what they considered the poor quality of the painting. 

These reasons looked decidedly weak, however, when weighed against the evidence so diligently compiled by Bruce, Mould and Grosvenor. Indeed so convincing was it that it prompted the normally circumspect Philip Mould into expressing his “absolute satisfaction that this picture is by Renoir.” He is experienced enough to know, however, that in the art market one has to "play by the rules," however unpalatable they occasionally seem to be.

The headquarters of Bernheim-Jeune, Paris
It soon emerged that the lack of documentary evidence and signature may not have been the real reason for the Wildensteins' rejection of the picture. The five-volume catalogue raisonné of Renoir’s work was compiled by another noble family of Parisian art dealers, Messrs Bernheim-Jeune, located in the Rue du Faubourg St Honoré (right), just around the corner from the Wildenstein Institute. The Picton Castle Renoir may have been included in the Bernheim-Jeune catalogue, but even their authoritative imprimatur can be outgunned by the Wildenstein Institute, it seems, chiefly because the Wildensteins have the support of the two big auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s. 

The Wildensteins' real reason for rejecting the painting thus appears to have stemmed from little more than professional rivalry with Bernheim-Jeune. But are they perhaps also getting a little fatigued by the BBC's attempts to undermine their fabled expertise? These ancien régime connoisseurs don't like to have their opinions challenged.

When told that their competitors had overruled their endorsement, the Bernheim-Jeune directors seemed unsurprised, telling Fiona Bruce that their rivals would be “thrilled” to turn the painting down. More importantly, perhaps, Bernheim-Jeune also suggested that by publicising the problems with the painting, the BBC were effectively damaging the picture’s prospects. They may have a point. 

This is the second time that Fake or Fortune has investigated a painting of uncertain authenticity, only to broadcast its unsaleable status to ill effect (a ‘Chagall’ rejected by the Chagall Foundation even had to be destroyed). In this, as in previous cases, the programme has cast a raking light not only on a picture of doubtful authorship, but on an excessively powerful art market institution long shrouded in mystery and confidentiality. 

For the owners of these paintings the consequences of the Wildensteins’ patrician pronouncements are profound. Had the owners kept quiet and waited until the Wildenstein Institute’s vice-like grip on the market weakened, which in time it most certainly will, they might have stood to benefit from what is otherwise a convincing case for authenticity. 

Fake or Fortune is certainly helping to illuminate the darker recesses of the art trade. But at what cost? If I had a picture I was unsure about I think I'd keep my powder dry.

Fiona Bruce hit the art world nail on the head when, emerging from a conversation with Bernheim-Jeune’s directors, she concluded, “There is a real bitterness there and the rivalry between these two great houses — the Wildenstein Institute and Bernheim-Jeune — is now out in the open. And, I have to say, it’s ugly.” 

Bienvenue au marché d’art.   

Sunday, July 23, 2017

How to improve the global art market: a proposal

Is it time to create an International Art Market Practice Board to assess and appraise controversial issues and promote best practice? 
What might such a board look like? Who would sit on it? Would they be appointed or elected, and how often would they convene? Who would decide which issues would be explored and why? 

In May 20017, the BBC broadcast a documentary about the murders in rural Kent in 1996 of Lin Russell and her daughter Megan, along with the attempted murder of Megan’s sister, 9-year-old Josie. Director Matt Rudge’s programme invited a panel of experts, including forensic scientists, former detectives, barristers and criminologists — some of whom had been directly involved with the original case — to re-visit the evidence relating to the notorious Chillenden Murders. They did so with admirable diligence and deep moral concern. It made for compelling television; but it prompted other thoughts too.

Happily we don’t have many brutal homicides in the art world, but we do have other crimes. Could a similar methodology be adopted for exploring the legal, ethical and moral problems that arise in the art market? Variants on advisory panels and mediation agencies are already being explored in cultural heritage disputes, but not for the professional practices of the broader art market, certainly not for the contemporary art market. 

No group of experts could reasonably be expected to address every case of allegedly unethical behaviour, every questionable business practice or disagreement between parties. In any event, such matters are often decided amicably between individuals, or through the market’s own Darwinian logic, which is not dissimilar to the kind of self-regulating systems that operate in other commercial sectors. Even in more serious cases where these mechanisms are inadequate to the task, there are options through civil action or criminal law. Problems do arise. Problems get resolved. 

However, there are many issues that are specific to the art market, some of which are a source of dismay to outsiders and which could therefore be having a detrimental effect on wider participation. These issues often revolve around an ethical axis rather than a strictly legal one, but transparency is always at the core.

Three or four examples might suffice: 

Firstly, art is notoriously susceptible to cross-border manipulation by ‘grey market’ participants. This has led to a general acknowledgement that in an increasingly financialised market, tighter regulation of insider trading would be constructive. In fact, international regulation of insider trading is gradually taking shape. But will business practices in the art market be properly covered by it? We hear much of the auction guarantee system, but few know how it actually operates, how often a very small group of individuals share privileged information among themselves, which can drastically effect prices. The participation of auction houses on both sides of the transaction in guarantee situations ought to be a cause for concern.

Secondly, in one or two recent cases concerning art forgery, the legal system has failed to clarify the precise nature of what occurred. This is essentially a failure of enforcement. The Knoedler scandal made it to court, but was then abruptly concluded before the most significant figures had taken the stand. Thus, thanks to out-of-court settlements, no explanation was ever forthcoming on how the scam was actually mobilised throughout the supply chain, nor what the implications of the case might be for the broader art trade. 

Thirdly, while international press coverage has drawn attention to the problematic business techniques used by some art recovery agencies, the market in general has been largely silent on the issue, preferring instead to draw a blind eye, or to view such approaches as a mere occupational hazard: “At least we got the pictures back.” Perhaps, but do the ends always justify the means? If market participants were to conclude that the real moral hazard may lie in actually doing business with the more problematic companies in this sector, then one might reasonably see that as a form of self-regulation in practice. Unfortunately, the art recovery market still operates as a virtual monopoly. And monopolies are not a feature of mature markets. 

Elmyr de Hory, 
Portrait of a Woman, 1974
Finally, as prices have risen exponentially in recent decades, many connoisseurs and experts have ceased offering opinions on high-value works of art coming to market or to exhibition. When a respected compiler of an artist’s catalogue raisonné is forced to abandon the project following death threats from disgruntled collectors unhappy with his opinions, we know we’re not in Kansas any more. Similarly, the multi-million dollar “lawyering up” by foundations to intimidate owners against consigning works for sale, usually on grounds of disputed authenticity, has begun to resemble the kind of practices we associate with gangster movies.  

A public discussion at this year’s Art Basel, ably moderated by András Szántó, sought to address some of the perennial issues of art market transparency and whether or not current market regulations were sufficient to confirm its maturity as an “industry”. 

The consensus seemed to emerge that the informal, ‘handshake’ nature of art market business transactions should be treated simply as a given, and moreover that any attempt at further regulation of matters such as information disequilibrium (which is widely acknowledged as rife across the art market) would surely have a detrimental effect on business. 

It was also pointed out that relative to other business realms, the art market is relatively small in dollar terms. The sociologist Olav Velthuis referred to the size of Walmart’s turnover in the US alone — $500 billion, he reports — compared to the estimated size of the global art market — “somewhere between 40 to 60 billion US dollars”. Unfortunately, while we have relatively reliable benchmarks for assessing the size of Walmart, no comparable reliability can be applied to the global art market. Its inherent secrecy and confidentiality — sometimes referred to as a kind of omertà — preclude accurate statistical appraisal.

How, then, to move the art market forward on structural issues of this kind, without throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath-water? 

One practical suggestion might be to create an International Art Market Practice Board, perhaps something akin to the Financial Services Authority, that convenes in certain agreed instances. The potential implications of each case would need to have been recognised as significant to the broader market, its professional practices, and reputation. The panel might convene either before a case progresses to civil proceedings or criminal court, perhaps even with a view to obviating the need for future court action. Or its deliberations might be used to provide expertise to subsequent hearings. This might be particularly helpful given that judge-led court hearings are often improperly equipped to deal with the delicate nature of art market-related issues concerning authenticity, connoisseurship, agency, moral rights, and so forth. The Board might also convene once a year to review the general state of the market, to identify potential causes for concern and to suggest ways the market might be improved (and not necessarily through more regulation). 

The aim here is not to bring more law into the market, however critical specialist art lawyers are to a healthy market, but rather to pool expertise across all relevant domains: law, the art trade, forensic science, art history, museum management, academia, journalism, connoisseurship, art criticism, insurance, art fairs, and auction houses.

An interesting outcome of the BBC documentary referred to above was the disclosure that the barristers who participated in the programme, Stephen Kamlish QC and Sheryl Nwosu, have offered to represent, at his forthcoming appeal, Michael Stone, the man now thought to have been improperly convicted of the crimes in 1996. Kamlish and Nwosu’s decision was a direct result of having collaborated with other impartial experts from cognate fields of enquiry, which led them to question the judgement handed down in 1996. By reviewing the evidence in this way, the panel threw light on the professional practices of the relevant agencies and hinted at ways investigative procedures could be improved. 

Could a similar methodology and ethical purpose provide the foundation for an International Art Market Practice Board?

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Bernard Buffet: Yes or No?

What are we to make of French artist Bernard Buffet (1928-1999), whose paintings have for decades been greeted with snorts of derision by most of the serious art world? 

While working as an art market journalist during the 1990s, we used to gather around each others’ desks whenever a Buffet appeared in an auction catalogue. They invariably drew gales of laughter from the entire office. It wasn't just the tacky subject matter: anorexic nudes, gloomy clown masks, clunky still lifes; it was the technique too: the black cloisonné outlines, the bilious palette, the daubed, scratchy backgrounds. Buffet’s work seemed to encapsulate the worst aspects of post-war French painting. There is a word for a fear of clowns — coulrophobia. If you’re not familiar with it, just take a look at Buffet’s paintings. They’re hilariously bad.

But wait, is he due a revival? If we are to believe Nicholas Foulkes’s excellent biography, Buffet’s grim existentialist vision is poised to enjoy a market renaissance. The problem is — and it’s now a familiar one — the motor behind the Buffet industry is not being driven by the art historical or art critical community, but from, yes, you guessed it, bankers and other opportunistic investors. 

Bernard Buffet: The Invention of the Modern Mega-Artist (Arrow Books, 2016) is no slim volume. At 450 pages, Foulkes has rolled his sleeves up, notched up some air miles and consulted many of those closest to the artist, some of whom were instrumental in promoting Buffet from a Gallic James Dean-lookalike to château-owning millionaire in a matter of just a few years. Most prominent of his sources was the soigné French socialite Pierre Bergé, later to become the lover and business partner of Yves St.Laurent. Bergé was Buffet’s first great romance and by most accounts the architect of the young artist’s transformation from a moody, poverty-stricken outsider to art world vedette during the 1950s. Bergé’s subsequent efforts to undermine his former lover’s career following their break-up — something Bergé adamantly denies — is one of the book’s more intriguing subtexts.

Although a man of few words (“oui, non, peut-être” seems to have been the limit of his vocabulary), the youthful Buffet was blessed with the etiolated good looks of the half-starved Left Bank drop-out.  He also had a chip on his shoulder the size of the Gorge du Tarn and a gargantuan appetite for booze and fags. But he also had what Foulkes repeatedly refers to as a Stakhanovite appetite for work. Had he been a better painter that productivity might have been a good thing (Picasso was no layabout) but so prodigious was his output that it inevitably led to accusations of robotic repetitiveness. You might say there were always too many Buffets for the world to digest, but in his heyday so popular was he among an undiscerning public (including the Japanese) that his fame and wealth grew and grew. 

At the beginning of Buffet’s career, Pierre Bergé, the dealer Maurice Garnier, and the rest of the artist's coterie of well-connected admirers never doubted his “genius” and deployed all the familiar art market techniques to launch him to stardom. It’s clear that Foulkes also subscribes to the “genius” tag and even digs up a couple of quotes from none other than Andy Warhol in support of this dubious assessment, conveniently overlooking the fact that Warhol was the cynical contrarian par excellence. “Art is what you can get away with,” he once said, and it was clear that Buffet was getting away with it to spectacular effect. 

Today, the international art market is notable for its art historical ignorance and lack of aesthetic criticality. Instead we’re witnessing an increasingly obsessive reliance on econometric analysis and investment-based data-mining designed to feed the appetites of billionaire plutocrats, Wall Street speculators, wealth managers and family offices. This amounts to another form of groupthink, a kind of anamorphic distortion in which art historical and aesthetic concerns are fuzzed up by the moiré of price data. Perhaps unsurprisingly given these recent trends, Foulkes’s book closes with contributions from the new breed of Buffet-dealers and Buffet admirers, or rather, investors. “If I had £100,000, I’d invest in a painting by French expressionist painter Bernard Buffet,” gushes Jean-David Malat, super-salesman for the Bond Street corporate mega-gallery, Opera. If he’s wrong, it could be the death of Malat.

Other Buffet speculators include the jet-setting financier Stephan Wrobel who is busy deploying strategies more usually associated with the stock market in order to increase his Buffet position. Wrobel counts Buffet as one of the towering figures of twentieth-century painting, listing him alongside the likes of Giacometti, Bacon, and Freud. To juxtapose Buffet with Giacometti, Bacon and Freud would until recently have been enough to exclude Wrobel from the high table of critical sophistication, but criticality is no longer the issue; it’s now about primitive accumulation. In another quote, Wrobel refers to Buffet being “in dialogue” with Dürer, Rembrandt, El Greco, Goya, Courbet, Delacroix, Cézanne, Picasso, Matisse, Morandi, et al. If he is, they aren’t listening. 

The mention of Morandi is noteworthy, for earlier in the book, Foulkes, working up a head of defensive steam to condemn Buffet’s exclusion from a big Pompidou Centre survey show, has this to say about the painter’s seeming victimisation by the critics:

“To omit him altogether (while including his Biennale colleague Giacometti and the one-trick bottle-painter Morandi) is a compelling piece of evidence for a conspiracy, pogrom, or campaign of intellectual terrorism.” 

I’d give anything to overhear the dialogue between the one-trick bottle-painter and the one-trick clown-painter. For me, Morandi wins hands down. 

While Foulkes does well to garner testimonies from a host of confidants and cheerleaders, including  Buffet’s former lover Pierre Bergé; the painter’s life-long dealer and business manager Maurice Garnier; Buffet’s adopted son Nicolas, and the iconic chanteuse Juliette Greco, what is really missing are the voices of scholarly critics, prominent curators and respected art historians. 

Picasso’s biographer John Richardson has a walk-on part but is understandably withering about the suggestion that Buffet might be compared with Picasso. The very idea is laughable, of course. Picasso was occasionally off form, but rarely was he was that consistently off form. To liken Buffet’s crudely banal Horreur de la Guerre (aboveto Picasso’s Guernica, as one prominent French museum director did, is just one of the many blundering comparisons quoted throughout the book. 

Such is the determination of those invested in the Buffet industry to recover his stock that, if necessary, art history must be rewritten. Benjamin Buchloh is one of the few academically established names to make a brief appearance. While interviewing Warhol, he realises after a few minutes that Andy is not referring in glowing terms to Jean Dubuffet, as Buchloh assumed, but to Bernard Buffet. At that point the German art historian’s interest fizzles out like a damp Gauloise. Given the close homophone, it’s an easy mistake to make…until you survey the two artists’ oeuvres and their respective contributions to the history of art. 

One can’t help admiring Foulkes’s strenuous attempt to make the case for Buffet’s “genius,” but unlike the speculators queuing up to secure examples of his work, I don’t buy it. 

This is a hugely entertaining biography, beautifully written and rich in colourful, anecdotal detail. The Francophile Foulkes is clearly in his element writing about the snobbish gratin, the cultured upper crust of post-war Paris, through which a young, Ricard-soaked Buffet drifted in a haze of Gitânes smoke. It’s also a poignant tale. After a lifetime spent in his various châteaux, relentlessly churning out his lugubrious Dante-inspired grands machines, grimacing clowns, sinister cathedrals, minatory birds and giant insects, with only his loyal, once beautiful, whisky-soaked wife Annabel for company, the ageing, reclusive, alcoholic Buffet, now running to embonpoint and still at odds with the world, puts a plastic bag over his head, ties it round his neck and finally bids the world, “Au revoir”.

Will his reputation be revived and the market rise? — Oui? Non? Peut-être… 
______________________________________________________