Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art should send shivers down the spine of every art expert and wealthy art collector. The documentary, directed by Barry Avrich and now available for streaming on Netflix, tells the story of “the greatest artistic fraud in US history” – a salutary tale of greed, pride and the sins of omission as well as commission.
The facts of the case are fairly straightforward. In 1994, a Long Island woman walked into Knoedler & Co, one of New York’s most prestigious galleries, and presented its president, Ann Freedman, with a painting apparently by Jackson Pollock. The work was previously unknown and undocumented in the literature on the artist. The woman, named Glafira Rosales, was unknown to anyone in the art world and could not provide any provenance or documentation because her client had apparently sworn to keep her a secret. Over the next 14 years, Rosales brought one or two works a year from the same mysterious source to Knoedler – around sixty in total, all undocumented and allegedly by some of the most sought-after artists on the market: Pollock, but also his colleague Abstract. Expressionists including Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn. (Rosales also sold works to another New York gallerist, Julian Weissman, who had worked at Knoedler in the 1980s.)
Rosales and even Freedman, it is suggested, were willing to sell these top-notch coins for considerably less than market value (even so, they were sold to customers for a total of over $ 80 million) . Yet all of these works, it turned out, had been recently produced in a Queens garage by a Chinese emigrant artist, Pei-Shen Qian, apparently recruited by Rosales’ boyfriend, José Carlos Bergantiños Diaz – a man with criminal history of property tampering. (after his interview for the documentary, he tries to flog Avrich what he claims to be Bob Dylan’s harmonica). According to authorities, Diaz was responsible for “aging” these putative masterpieces of the late 1950s and early 1960s and providing the appropriate frameworks.
The documentary invites us to marvel at the genius of Pei-Shen Qian, who seems to have been able to imitate the work of any artist and produce paintings that viewers found stunningly beautiful. (Most didn’t hold the same opinion after being exposed as worthless fakes.) These paintings, we’re told, fooled everyone: dealers, scholars, curators, and even the parents of the artists themselves. Even if you knew the deal, the documentary recalls some pretty astonishing details. We see, for example, a “Rothko” hanging as the centerpiece of an exhibition at the Beyeler Foundation, and a letter from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, regarding works the museum apparently intended to include. in a catalog raisonné of Rothko’s works on paper. (The court records suggest that not all of the experts cited believed – or even saw in person – the paintings in question, but an essential trope of any art exhibit appears to involve experts with a proverbial egg. on the face.)
The key question here – morally and legally – is whether Ann Freedman and Knoedler believed they were selling genuine or counterfeit artwork. Was Freedman a rascal or a fool, and what is most forgivable in contemporary art? The documentary offers plenty of post-event mockery by talking heads gleefully pointing out the red flags she should have noticed – and, my God, there was enough of it to line up a Manet Rue Mosnier. Yet Ann Freedman’s testimony, if we are to believe it, suggests that she was motivated by an all too human desire: to make a new discovery and to be the one who brought new masterpieces to light. His failure at first was perhaps nothing more than the suspension of disbelief. More alarming is his out-of-control rejection of the results of scientific investigations initially undertaken at the behest of one of the buyers – and these included anomalies such as pigments that had not been invented at the time the paintings were allegedly created. , techniques that an artist had used. not used, and even a spelling mistake on a signature. At this point, Freedman and Knoedler were too invested to be able or willing to step back.
What is striking about this documentary is that none of the main characters – including those who agreed to be interviewed at length by the filmmakers – are doing very well. The painted image of the upper echelons of the art trade was far from healthy. It might not come as a surprise, but it is a sad situation that anyone buying from a reputable art gallery with a history of over 150 years should think about having to do their due diligence. Ultimately, the lawsuits against Knoedler’s and Freedman were settled out of court and out of public view – befitting a type of business that has long been criticized for its lack of transparency. Only Glafira Rosales was imprisoned; his two alleged co-conspirators fled the United States, for Spain and China, before they could be prosecuted. Few would say that justice, in the broadest sense, has been served.
All onlookers consoling themselves that the exquisite Old Masters paintings they collect are much less easily falsified than the scribbles and stains of Abstract Expressionism should read Vincent Noce’s book. The Ruffini Affair: Investigating the Art World’s Greatest Mystery, which recently landed on my desk. It tells the story of Lino Frongia, now 62, suspected of having falsified works touted by artists as stylistically diverse as Lucas Cranach, Frans Hals, Parmigianino and Orazio Gentileschi – and who, seems he got away with it for years.
Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art (2020; dir. Barry Avrich) is streaming on Netlix.