14 November 2013

Isn't Everyone Here a Phony?

Okay, to round out the topic of the past several posts, I’ll go ahead and get the story of my own brush with art forgery out of the way and then (finally) move onto to other things...

Here’s the deal: During the last two years of my undergrad studies, I held a work-study gig with the university’s art department as a gallery assistant. This entailed working directly with a professor of mine – a drawing and art history instructor, and eventually chair of the department – installing shows in the various exhibition spaces around campus. Duties included uncrating and schlepping art works, hanging the same, prepping and affixing wall labels, crating the stuff back up and shipping it to its next destination. Also light carpentry work in the course of maintaining gallery facilities, and other miscellaneous chores whenever a visiting artist or lecturer came to give a presentation. My boss was an amiable guy, quite garrulous, and in the many hours it’d take to hang a show, we’d endlessly shoot the shit talking about music, art, university politics, and whathaveyou.

Of course, the job ended when I graduated, and in the months that followed, I drifted off to another local gig while I got ready to move to Chicago. One afternoon I returned home from work and found a message on my answering machine from my former boss. “Hey,” he said in his thick Tennessee drawl, “Thought I’d give you the heads up. Tomorrow afternoon I’ll be in the big gallery at the student union, unpacking a new show we have coming in that I knew you’d be interested in. Apparently it’s a collection of German Expressionist work – some rare, never-before-seen stuff – and we’re the first stop on the show’s exhibition circuit. I knew you’d want to have a look it, so if you swing by there after 5, I should be there.”

Which is what I did. When I arrived, he’d already started to uncrate the show, and had a selection of about 20 works propped up here and there about the gallery space. As soon as he saw me approaching, he waved to me – gesturing somewhat urgently for me to come and have a look. As I entered, I noticed he had a somewhat apprehensive look on his face and he stared at some of the works. “C'mere and have a look,” he says, “I’d be curious to see what you think about this.”

As we looked at the work, he explained the backstory. “Supposedly this is a private collection of Expressionist works on paper. The guy who’s responsible for the thing says the collection belonged to an uncle of his, who was apparently some kind of German baron. Apparently during World War Two, his uncle stashed the whole collection away to hide them from the Nazis. He claims all of it sat in a barn on the baron’s property for decades until it was discovered by another family member. The family eventually decided it was a significant collection and should be shared with the public, which is why the stuff is only now being shown.” Indeed, the collection was (as I recall) overwhelmingly made up of many of the major artists of the Expressionist movement – Franz Marc, Max Beckmann, Lyonel Feininger, Erich Heckel, Ernst Kirchner, August Macke, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, et al.

He gave the array a glance-over. “But I’m not sure about this.” He pointed to one piece in particular. “Look at that and tell me if you think it looks like it’s been sitting in some barn for over forty years.” It didn’t, the paper – what was visible around the margins of the work – didn’t look that aged, properly yellowed. We scrutinized another piece that was supposed to have been stored in a folded-in-half state. Once again, the paper was far too fresh, the crease looking like it had only been held for a short time, the paper appearing to still have a lot of spring to it.

And then there was the look of the works themselves, which were even more unconvincing. In many instances, the paint looked far too bright and fresh, as if they had been painting within the past decade or so. Plus the bulk of them looked like fairly weak facsimiles of each artist’s style. It looked, I thought, as if some had taken a class of third-year art students and assigned them the task of creating work in the style and manner of each given big-name Expressionist.*

"That Kokoschka...really doesn't look like a Kokoschka." I grimaced.

"Yeah, well...they claimed that the collection contained a lot of 'rare,''early' works by a number of the artists."

We agreed that the collection was fake – was, effectively, complete bullshit. My former boss had a theory, one that would explain why the first stop on the tour was a university in Alabama. “All the stops on the show’s circuit are small-to-middling universities and spaces in kind of out-of-the-way places. What they’re probably hoping to do is gradually build credibility. Fet it acknowledged and accepted at a low level, get it on the radar. Then float it out at some more prestigious and more public venues, each time working another and higher level, until the collection’s reputation – and value – has been established. Once that's done and its considered bona fide, start putting the pieces up on an auction block”

Which raised the question of what to do about the thing, since we – the first to receive the exhibit – were quite certain the whole thing was fraudulent. “Who would we call?” he asked rhetorically. “I doubt the FBI has a division in the Southeast region devoted to this sort of thing. And I doubt Interpol would be willing to make the trip,” he shrugged. “Might as well just go ahead and hang it, then send it on its way. I’d be surprised if the thing didn’t get busted somewhere further down the line. Probably sooner than later.”

One thing he knew: That the then-current head of the department would take a keen interest. Said department head being an alumnus of an ivy league university, an art historian who’d done his graduate work in Expressionism and had written his doctoral thesis on the German-American painter and illustrator Lyonel Feininger. Sure enough, the chair promptly called some of his former peers and professors from his alma mater, asking their assistance in helping him dig up any information they could on the collection’s provenance, on the family that owned the thing.

The same Dept Chair was to give a lecture on German Expression at the show’s opening. I wasn’t able to attend, but I gathered that he instead gave a lecture or art forgery, with color print-out of actual works-on-paper by Marc, Kirchner, etcetera posted next to their bogus counterparts.
So, the show was packed up and sent on its way, as planned. And about a year later I was living in Chicago, where one day I coincidently spotted a back-page item in the Chicago Tribune. Turned out that the very same collection had recently arrived at a small community college on the northern periphery of the greater Chicagoland area. Some downtown Chi gallerists who dealt in works by early 20th-c Modern masters had gone down to check out the opening, had reportedly been appalled at what they found, and immediately alerted the appropriate authorities. The collection was deemed a fraud, with the family what owned the thing responding that those discrediting the collection were “Nazi sympathizers” out to assail the art’s legacy and besmirch the family name. I clipped the article out and sent it to my former boss, writing in the margin: “From one ‘Nazi sympathizer’ to another, I figured you'd be curious to see how it shook out.”

The above isn’t meant to imply or boast that I have some connoisseur’s eye, an advanced sensibility for such stuff. Perhaps I do to some extent, if only by dent of always being inclined to a certain way of looking at paintings, combined with some technical training and experience. Part of was sheer coincidence. I was actually quite familiar with a lot of German Expressionist work early one. When I was about 16 or 17, I stumbled across a hardback encyclopedia of Expressionism at a bookstore. Fascinated by the illustrations therein, I bought it. Over the next couple of years, I read it thoroughly, peering at its images for hours. It’s how I first learned on the works of Bertold Brecht and Hugo Ball, the music of Béla Bartók and Arnold Schoenberg, films like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and of the paintings of the artists named above (as well as a number of artists associated with late Fauvism, Swiss and German Dada, and Die Neue Sachlichkeit). So my knowledge of it at the time was somewhat extensive.

Plus, as far as fakes go, the works in that show were really fcking weak.

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*  Also somewhat curious and/or suspicious: Overwhelmingly, the collection was – if memory serves – made up entirely small paintings and drawings -- oil, gouache, or watercolor on paper; with some scattered works in graphite or charcoal. No prints, especially nothing highly technical or laborious like woodblocks or etchings (which were, of course, common media for a number of the Expressionists).

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