Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate
The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World by Anthony M. Amore is a fast-paced chronicle of 11 separate cons that illustrate the ways in which the art world is susceptible to swindlers, grifters, and artists of all kinds.
In our desire to find newly discovered (or once lost) works, we overlook questionable or missing provenance, inconsistencies in the artistic timeline, mismatched signatures and/or dating, uncertainness from authorized experts, and even scientific certainty from accredited sources; for this is the art of the con, realizing what the mark most desires and giving it to them. What does the art world most desire? Sellers, like gallerists, want to make money; collectors, like museums, want to make history. How do they do that? By selling, or collecting, the “blue-chip” artists whose names even those far removed from the art world recognize, like Vermeer, Rembrandt, Pollock, Chagall, and Chihuly.
Amore notes that a former director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Thomas Hoving, claimed in 1996 that approximately 40% of all art in museums is either a fake or a forgery. But wait, aren’t fakes and forgeries the same thing? Not exactly. Though the media uses them interchangeably, a fake refers to an exact, though unauthorized, replica of an existing work passed off as an original while a forgery is a painting (or sculpture) created by an artist in another’s style and name without authorization. A fake is not always produced to con, (most every art museum has fakes in the form of posters and prints of major paintings) but every forgery is. Virtually always a “him”, though women actively participate in the schemes, the forgers themselves are almost exclusively male. Amore notes that somewhere, while we’re reading this book, someone is out there forging a priceless work of art.
In Chapter Two, “The Broker”, Amore recounts the tale of Manhattan’s Knoedler & Company, one of the oldest commercial galleries in the United States until its close in 2011. Its tale of woe was recently the subject of the Netflix documentary Made You Look and focuses on the so-called David Herbert Collection, peddled by Glafira Rosales. A “collection” of Abstract Expressionist artworks by the likes of Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko whose provenance changed multiple times; in reality, the works were painted by Chinese artist Pei-Shen Qian. Gallerist Ann Freedman fell prey to the “newfound masterwork scheme”, purchasing and reselling the “newly recovered” works despite various red flags. Amore explores the theme of victimization and guilt throughout the book via the questions “What determines ‘in good conscious’” and “Who is responsible?”. Is it the job of the gallery to perform due diligence to authenticate the works? Or is it the buyer, who is spending thousands or millions of dollars and should, therefore, undertake their own rigorous investigation? Amore leaves the answer to the reader.
Closer to FWMoA, Chapter Eleven, “The Internet”, places art forgeries in the context of e-commerce, focusing on eBay. Not only are paintings forged, but sculptures (see Chapter Four, “The Trusting Artist”) and works of glass, too. Renowned glass artist Dale Chihuly’s work was subject to a selling scheme by Michael Little, who sold the forged works on eBay. Due to the unique nature of his work, there are few people qualified to authenticate his works. Who did the buyer of the Little’s fakes, James Coombes, reach out to for assistance with verification? Why, Martin Blank! He was able to guarantee that the pieces were fakes. Convicted of wire fraud, Little was sentenced to five months in prison and a restitution of $75,389.
In these schemes, not only are unsuspecting sellers, and even less suspecting buyers, hurt, but the artists as well. Flooding the market with fakes de-values the real works and casts suspicion on any piece in the market when not bought directly from the hands of the artist. Amore’s book takes the reader through the various cons and grifts of the art world with nuance and emotion, portraying each of the victims, the buyers, sellers, and artists, as humans who got caught up in the elaborately painted stories.
Written by the head of security and chief investigator at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston (itself the victim of the largest art heist in the world in 1990, now the subject of the Netflix documentary/miniseries This Is A Robbery), Amore seamlessly weaves the drama and intrigue that keeps the public fascinated with art crime into an educational lesson on the who, where, why, and how of fakes, frauds, and forgeries.