That $60,000 Jack­son Pol­lock isn’t a steal. It’s a forgery.

The Washington Post Sunday - - OUTLOOK - Wendy Smith is a con­tribut­ing editor at the Amer­i­can Scholar and Pub­lish­ers Weekly.

An­thony M. Amore’s savvy and in­for­ma­tive book con­veys a num­ber of cau­tions about buy­ing art that seem ex­ceed­ingly self-ev­i­dent. Among them: gen­uine Jack­son Pol­lock paint­ing should cost a lot more than $60,000.

It’s highly un­likely that an artist would present his as­sis­tant with 22 works val­ued at $6.5 mil­lion as a gift.

Some­one selling Dale Chi­huly glass sculp­tures from the back of an old SUV prob­a­bly didn’t ac­quire them le­git­i­mately. The same goes for a gallery owner who ex­plains the lack of doc­u­men­ta­tion for art she’s of­fer­ing at be­low-mar­ket value by say­ing it’s from the es­tate of a de­ceased col­lec­tor whose heirs want to keep the sale pri­vate.

Amore, head of se­cu­rity at Bos­ton’s Is­abella Stewart Gard­ner Mu­seum, pro­vides chas­ten­ing ex­am­ples of peo­ple ig­nor­ing each of these warn­ing signs and oth­ers nearly as bla­tant. The sad fact, as he writes in his in­tro­duc­tion, is that the art mar­ket’s con artists never have any trou­ble find­ing marks who “be­lieve, against all in­di­ca­tions to the con­trary, that they have ac­tu­ally stum­bled on the rare deal that is both too good and true.”

The list of those snowed by the in­ven­tive scam­mers Amore pro­files in­cludes sev­eral prom­i­nent gallery di­rec­tors who couldn’t wait to get their hands on works brought to them un­der de­cid­edly shady cir­cum­stances, as well as auc­tion-house ex­perts and art his­to­ri­ans so thrilled by the prospect of be­ing in on a rare find that they vouched for the au­then­tic­ity of paint­ings sub­se­quently shown to be fakes.

Il­lu­sion and wish-ful­fill­ment play a pow­er­ful role in the art mar­ket. Time and again, we see buy­ers taken in by a ro­man­tic tale spun around a du­bi­ous piece. Work­ing-class Ital­ian Amer­i­can Joseph Co­letti was in­deed a pro­tege of John Singer Sar­gent, but the col­lec­tion of Sar­gent’s paint­ings of­fered to a would-be art dealer was en­tirely fraud­u­lent — as was the artist’s re­la­tion­ship to the al­leged grand­son who of­fered them for sale. The David Herbert Col­lec­tion, sup­pos­edly be­long­ing to a wealthy, clos­eted, mar­ried man whose af­fair with a noted art dealer gave him the in­side track to buy di­rectly from ab­stract ex­pres­sion­ist pain­ters — al­ways in cash, which con­ve­niently jus­ti­fied the ab­sence of a pa­per trail — was also just a com­pelling fan­tasy. Amore am­ply backs up his claim that “the art of the art scam is in the back­story, not in the pic­ture it­self.”

That also ex­plains why it takes the duped so long to en­list the ser­vices of tech­ni­cal art re­searchers, whose sci­en­tific analy­ses fre­quently prove more ac­cu­rate than the eyes of ex­perts. Those analy­ses are gen­er­ally un­am­bigu­ous and some­times dev­as­tat­ing: The Knoedler Gallery in New York was al­ready shaken by rev­e­la­tions that it had un­wit­tingly sold phony art when it re­ceived the news that a work it had sold as a Jack­son Pol­lock was made with paint not com­mer­cially avail­able un­til 1970, 14 years af­ter Pol­lock’s death. One day later, the 165-year-old gallery went out of busi­ness.

Amore’s he­roes are sci­en­tific art author­i­ties and law en­force­ment of­fi­cials. Among the sci­en­tists are Ni­cholas Eas­taugh, who outed a fake Ger­man ex­pres­sion­ist in a case in­volv­ing forg­eries sold for $22 mil­lion; the law­men in­clude FBI agents David Wil­son and Jason Richards, who nailed the pur­veyor of phony Sar­gents, and Immigration and Cus­toms En­force­ment agent Bon­nie Gold­blatt, a spe­cial­ist in art-theft cases. Amore also praises such or­ga­ni­za­tions as the In­ter­na­tional Foun­da­tion for Art Re­search, a non­profit au­then­ti­ca­tion ser­vice, and the Art Loss Register, a data­base of stolen works used to vet sales and auc­tions.

Valu­able though their con­tri­bu­tions are, it’s dis­tract­ing when, ev­ery sin­gle time one of these ex­perts is called in, the story stops dead while Amore de­tails their back­grounds for sev­eral para­graphs. The au­thor gets tan­gled up in his nar­ra­tive threads while re­lat­ing the com­pli­cated ins-and-outs of some dozen art frauds over the past three decades, of­ten be­gin­ning a chap­ter with an anec­dote whose rel­e­vance to the events that fol­low is tan­gen­tial at best. Some­times he plunges into frauds in­volv­ing tech­ni­cal mat­ters, prob­a­bly con­fus­ing the reader, at least un­til she comes to Amore’s be­lated ex­pla­na­tion. All this makes “The Art of the Con” a bumpier text than the best-selling “Steal­ing Rem­brandts,” which Amore wrote with the sea­soned jour­nal­ist Tom Mashberg.

Nonethe­less, there’s much fun to be had in fol­low­ing the rep­re­hen­si­ble but un­de­ni­ably juicy ex­ploits of these rogues, one of whom passes off a Nazi grand­fa­ther as the com­pas­sion­ate cus­tomer of a be­lea­guered Jewish art dealer, another of whom per­suades an un­wit­ting trompe l’oeil artist to cre­ate an ex­act replica of a Pi­casso pas­tel, al­legedly to as­sist a po­lice in­ves­ti­ga­tion, then turns around and sells it for $2 mil­lion. The book would be even more fun if these crooks got jail time com­men­su­rate with their mis­deeds; Amore re­ports but doesn’t com­ment on the fact that most of them re­ceived very le­nient sen­tences, al­beit cou­pled with re­quire­ments for fi­nan­cial resti­tu­tion that they oc­ca­sion­ally met be­fore declar­ing bank­ruptcy. And although he’s com­mend­ably up to date in cov­er­ing the bur­geon­ing field of art fraud in In­ter­net and cruise-ship auc­tions, here, too, he backs away from of­fer­ing an opin­ion about what the facts sug­gest, other than the generic “one thing is for sure, fraud in­volv­ing art is thriv­ing.”

A stronger au­tho­rial voice and sharper edit­ing would have im­proved “The Art of the Con,” but it is still a knowl­edge­able and en­joy­able sur­vey of art fraud in our time.


Kil­lian An­heuser of the Fine Arts Ex­pert In­sti­tute searches for signs of forgery in a paint­ing pur­port­edly by Fer­nand Léger.

By An­thony M. Amore Pal­grave Macmil­lan. 264 pp. $26 THE ART OF THE CON The Most No­to­ri­ous Fakes, Frauds, and Forg­eries in the Art World

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