11 November 2013

Ways of Seeing, Addendum: The Dea(r)th of Criticism

Some additional thoughts on the topic of the prior two posts...

How many fakes are on the market, out there circulating in private collections or in full public view? Some say that there are far more than anyone can estimate, far more that anyone – for obvious reasons – cares to acknowledge.*  But who knows? Perhaps only those who traffic in high volume of such stuff; like, say, appraisers at major auction houses like Christie's or Sotheby’s.

Whatever the case, whenever a scandal of the current Knoedler/Rosales/Freedman magnitude comes along, one naturally has to wonder about the degree of complicity involved on the part of parties who are supposed to know better – the ones who’s place it is to vet the items in question, conduct the requisite research into provenance, keep a critically alert eye, and what-have-you.**

Forgers and forgery rings, of course, target marks and potentially cooperative parties – usually avoiding more prestigious or reputable dealers, approaching only those that they are fairly certain might be lazy or unscrupulous to go along with the deal. And one can assume that if there’s the potential for a lot of money to change hands, there are always those parties (a minority, one also assumes) who would be willing to not ask too many questions.

One can also assume that in the middle of an art-market bubble (like we have presently), when there’s an ungodly amount of money being thrown into the pipeline in a buying frenzy mostly fueled by speculative investment, then the higher the likelihood of such shady activities taking place.

Which brings me to a side issue that was recently raised in relation to the Knoedler scandal, concerning the matter of asking the right questions and speaking up to declare something to be of dubious or fraudulent origin. As this item that appeared last month in The Art Newspaper has it, there were possibly a lot of peripheral people who helped grease the gears of the operation -- people whose role it was to weigh in with a dissenting assessment or sound the proper alarms. In some cases, the article alleges, their failure to do so implies outright complicity; but in many others, those whose assessments were suppressed, or who were intimidated into silence by the sheer amount of monied muscle that was at play. Why? Because that’s when things get litigious.

The all-too-common scenario: Some fat-pocketed investor owns or in the recent past had bought a big-ticket artwork, and was either looking to "flip" it or decides to unload it for a handsome return when the market is chugging along heatedly. But first he (and those middlemen involved in taking the thing to market) have to get it authenticated. At which point some supposed "expert" examines the item in question, does the research, and declares the thing to be a fake. Meaning that Mr. Investor not only stands to lose a lot of money, but also has to face the embarrassment of it becoming known that he’d been flim-flamed. He then promptly lawyers-up to bully, defame, and/or stifle the expert in question with all the legal means that his coffers can manage (which is, it goes without saying, considerable).

This sort of situation has haunted the whole matter of connoisseurship and authentication since the very beginning of the modern art market. As illustrated by the case of the granddaddy of modern connoisseurship, Bernard Berenson.

I expect much of the above is either unsurprising, generally intuitive, or very 101 for some readers. After all, it’s not like there aren’t variations of the same processes at work in other commercial and cultural spheres, right?

images: Honore Daumier, Gerald Gooch

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*  Admittedly, some information suggests that the bulk of fakeries fall far more heavily in the category of cultural history objects – e.g., bogus artifacts from the ancient world (be it Mesoamerica, the Orient or Asia), fake Judaica, etc.

**  Acknowledged that in some cases, if it’s the supposed work of a minor artist or if bequeathed as a donation (rather than offered for sale), some parties are inclined to be too trusting, to gratefully accept and not look very far onto the matter.

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