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