All illustrations by Marta Grossi, based on film stills from F is For Fake (1974) by Orson Welles.

F for Forensics

Also available in:  Chinese  Arabic

It is said that strong economic times breed white-collar crimes, and the ostentatious transactions associated with the art market would seem a plausible, fertile host for turbid agendas. On a recent trip to Hong Kong, I was invited to meet with a group of investors with mysterious intent. After a decade or so in the auction business, I have learned that those who clothe themselves in mirrors only want to lead you astray—or possibly don’t know what they themselves want—but I had agreed to give them an hour as a favor to a colleague.

I was greeted in a hotel lobby and escorted to a private boardroom, where a handful of venture capitalists and one scientist with a laptop awaited me. I was the only woman present. The awkwardness of the encounter was undiminished as jokes were exchanged over whether the door had been locked behind me, or if I had given my whereabouts to anyone.

I gave them my elevator pitch on what I do (contemporary Asian art), how I came to do it (quirks of circumstance and timing), cautiously setting up flags around what I don’t do and know nothing about (no scroll paintings, ceramics or ancient family heirlooms, please). I was warmly and eagerly received and, after a pause, I ventured to ask: “So, what do you guys do?”

Soon a PowerPoint presentation was launched and I held in my hand a tiny vial filled with millions of microchips that these men believed would solve the art market’s problems of fakery. Each chip could be embedded in the fabric of a painting or otherwise attached to the collectible object in question. It would contain within it the object’s exhibition history, provenance, information about the artist and the creation of the thing itself. The storage capacity seemed flexible and limitless. I understood there to be a method by which the chip could be scanned and updated with every change of hands, and its data would be held somewhere securely, indefinitely, for a fee. I was intrigued—but for all the wrong reasons. Like real-estate developments that name themselves after that which they’ve destroyed, the name of the company was a variation on something that it could never achieve: truth.

It turns out that the recourse to advanced technology in order to establish authenticity is increasingly common as old organizations that provided authentication, employing scholarly research and experts deeply familiar with a particular artist, cease to operate. For example, after a string of lawsuits and mini-scandals, the Warhol Foundation decided to put an end to such practices in 2011, and since that time the foundations for some of the most-sought-after artists, including Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Robert Motherwell, Roy Lichtenstein and Alexander Calder, have all done the same. Suspected of secret agendas that benefited some and excluded others, many of these organizations, which often maintain granting bodies and scholarship programs, decided, perhaps wisely, that they had better things to do.

The Dedalus Foundation, representing the estate of Robert Motherwell, has pursued a different model. Working closely with James Martin of Orion Analytics, one of the world’s leading forensics conservators, they have built an extensive materials database for the late artist’s works. Any new claims of attribution, such as for works lacking a clear provenance, can thus be addressed by an analysis against the Foundation’s extensive materials database. Consider it a paternity suit for orphaned art works.

Meanwhile, the State University of New York at Albany has established a research center, funded by title insurance company ARIS, to develop independent verification systems and technologies for object-tagging and tracking, in a more concerted effort to set standards for the industry. One takes on, in some sense, a radical position in acknowledging that art-making is part of a large, unwieldy commercial industry, and a surprising number of artists have already signed on to participate in the project. What remains an open question is how this tag-and-release system will affect creativity for individuals who do not yet know, or wish to imagine, that their activities will later be conceived and transacted as marketable art, or how we will manage disparate bodies of work, some of which carry a microchip and some of which do not. But it is telling that an unregulated system is perceived as bad enough that living artists have sought to intervene. It is certainly the case that most working artists likely won’t have a well-funded organization such as Dedalus to do the detective work, once they have passed.

Advanced conservation science has also been essential in several high-profile forgery trials. Take the case of known forger Wolfgang Beltracchi, who claims to have forged more than 300 paintings, many of which are thought to be in European museum collections. Orion Analytics and Martin was called in on this case; they discovered that although Beltracchi was meticulous in his use of historically accurate materials, he was not aware that a particular paint manufacturer had changed their zinc white formula, adding in a new compound that could not have been present in the work of the artists he was forging. Beltracchi was eventually sentenced to a minimum-security prison that allowed him to spend time in his studio, where he continues to paint, though now under his own name.

There is a certain schadenfreude in the high-stakes flaunting of truth and fiction in such cases. Orson Welles, in his relentlessly dialectic and all but unwatchable documentary-essay, F for Fake (1974), follows the story of another notorious and prolific art forger, Elmyr de Hory, and his seemingly mutually parasitic relationship with writer Clifford Irving. At the time, Irving was writing about de Hory as well as promoting his own fictionalized interviews with shut-in entrepreneur Howard Hughes, and, perhaps inevitably, himself. Welles revels in this house of mirrors, as any secure notion of authorship is disassembled through the illusory, twinned accomplishments of fame and scandal.

Welles more or less concludes, somewhat lamely, that the crisis of authenticity is the fault of experts, whose commodification of knowledge has sucked all pleasure and beauty out of the act of creation. But basic knowledge in some recent cases has proved, in turn, an inconvenience when commerce was at stake.

In 2011, America’s oldest fine art gallery, Knoedler Art Gallery (founded in 1864) quickly and quietly shut its doors as the history of its fraud, dating back to 1994, began to unravel. Forensic science was again called to task, but was hardly necessary in compelling the gallery to settle multiple cases out of court. A little-known art dealer had been uncovering never-before-seen Abstract Expressionist works, often delivering them in rolls in the backseat of her Mercedes, to the director of the gallery, receiving payment just under the levels at which the federal government might take note. She claimed that the owner of the works insisted on anonymity. He came to be known as Mr. X, and within the gallery his collection was filed under “Secret Santa.” A legend developed that perhaps he was Swiss, or Mexican, or Swiss with a home in Mexico, and that he’d had an extramarital affair with a male lover who in turn was a known purveyor of AbEx works. In fact the paintings were the creations of a Chinese artist living in Queens, commissioned by the dealer. One suspects all parties to be participating in willful self-deception when faced, for example, with a masterwork by an artist who has spelled his own name incorrectly. Confronted with a canvas purportedly by Jackson Pollock, (plainly misspelled as “Pollak”), who was well-known for his hard-drinking lifestyle, it would be reasonable to assume that at the time of signing he may have been in his cups. But would it be wise to do so at the price of USD 2 million?

The outrage engendered by such incidents can sometimes seem out of proportion relative to other crimes, but they do trigger long-held and rarely acknowledged romantic notions of art-making—the spiritual benefits of the cultivation of the self and the contemplation of beauty—both for the artist, the viewer, and in these cases, the collector. To want to associate one’s self with such objects reflects an aspirational urge, to transcend one’s perceived self, whether spiritually, culturally, socially or all of the above. The moral self finds expression in its intrepid, exquisite taste and the objects that surround it. To fake it, to dupe the owner, who has imbued an object with the highest of subjective values, is spectacularly humbling, a fine gag on the millionaire and billionaire elite who seem to hold the purse strings of culture. Yesterday they confidently embodied highest standards of taste; they had class. Today, they’re just a paltry “class act.”

However, recent examples defy those romantic notions. Chinese art collector Liu Yiqian made headlines when he was photographed drinking tea from a Ming Dynasty cup that he had purchased for USD 36 million. Here again was the flagrant abuse of the special privilege of collecting exquisite objects by a newly rich billionaire, who has been very public not only in his purchases but in their display (he and his wife, Wang Wei, now have two major art museums in Shanghai, with a third in Chongqing). In an interview published in Orientations magazine in January 2010, Liu recounted bidding at auction for an imperial Qing Dynasty inkstone with a rare zitan wood stand. The auction house had not been able to confirm prior to sale if the wood was wholly original to the era; one part may or may not have been a later addition. Against a conservative estimate of USD 20,000 to 30,000, the bidding quickly rose to USD 700,000. Liu recounts: “That’s when I was certain the stand could not be a later addition; otherwise, why would so many people want to buy it?”

As auction house experts, some of us try to limit ourselves to meekly encouraging collectors to buy only what they love, or rather, what they can afford to love. The high prices involved have compelled a cottage industry in other measures of security and validation, be they price databases, artist indexes or simply an unhealthy auratic attachment to provenance and authorship. Some liken this to the role of ratings agencies during the mortgage securities crisis. I liken buying art instead to another institution sometimes burdened with mixed motivations: marriage. You can marry for all kinds of reasons, but if you get hitched for any reason other than love, you might find that it costs quite a bit more than a little heartache if it doesn’t work out. And isn’t a broken heart painful enough?

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