I have never met a good appraiser, and I have met a cruise-ship-load of appraisers, who was not a bit of an obsessed geek about their field. You get a group of experienced appraisers together and the conversation could go hours on the benefits of a particular black light, the latest scientific testing methodology to determine authenticity, the last great museum or gallery show we saw or the latest buzz on fakes and frauds. So, when I got the first notification of the FAE’s (Foundation for Appraisal Education) seminar offering and the topic was fakes and frauds, I jumped at the chance to head to Philadelphia for the conference. These two-day seminars are always chock full of incredible speakers and are a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and colleagues while learning from the best.
There were eighteen speakers in two days. Yes, eighteen, and each one an expert in their field. That is a testament to the hard work of the FAE’s Board of Directors and the generosity of Freeman’s Auction House, where the event was hosted. The staff of Freeman’s was professional, kind and efficient. Many thanks to them! The topics ranged from case law for fake art to connoisseurship of furniture, fake Chinese export porcelains, faked portrait miniatures and an introduction to the 19th C. French company Samson, where apparently all manner of ceramic and furniture “new antiques” were created to order for antiques dealers across Europe and America.
As an art enthusiast, the highlights for me were the art topics. Eileen Kinsella, a reporter for “ArtNet News,” covered some of the online fakes she had uncovered over the years. These ranged from a man who sold over 60 faux Jackson Pollocks online before he was caught, to the online sellers of Keith Haring and Andy Warhol fakes. One of the more amusing tales was of the fake Jeff Koons balloon dogs that can still be ordered in various colors from China. The favorite technique of such online scams is to claim that a new cache of work by a well-known artist was found in a storage shed or at a charity resale shop near a location that the artist is known to have resided. The dealers never make strong claims of authenticity and are relying on the buyer’s greed to make a sale. Here is a hint, dear reader... don’t buy collectible artwork online, relying only on the descriptions and images posted by the online dealer. If a deal looks too good to be true, it is. That dealer will be out of business or onto the next scam before you discover you have been had.
Elle Shushan, a Philadelphia dealer who specializes in portrait miniatures, gave an engaging talk on spotting fake ones. Alasdair Nichol of Freeman’s Auctions reviewed the best-known 20th C. art fraudsters who have been caught and how their schemes were discovered. Joshua Kaufman, Esq. of Venable, LLP in Washington, DC covered case law for art fakes. I was surprised to find out that stolen art is the third largest property crime in the world, with guns and drugs being the top two. Kaufman covered a few well-known art forgers. He also covered the ways dealers avoid liability for their actions and the statute of limitations for the discovery of fraud. Did you know that the statute of limitations for the discovery of fraud is only four years from the point of purchase? Not from the point of discovery, but from the point of purchase. Unfortunately, many art owners do not think to confirm the authenticity of the pieces they own until many years after the purchase when an objective third party (usually an appraiser) takes a fresh look at the piece and calls authenticity into question. The owner has relied upon the reputation of the dealer, has purchased from that dealer because of their reputation and can be stuck with fake art because of such reliance.
The recent famous case of the fake contemporary master paintings being sold by Knoedler Gallery serves as a cautionary tale. Irina Tarsis, Esq. of the Center for Art Law, New York, NY, gave a synopsis of the Knoedler debacle. When Knoedler closed suddenly in 2011 it had been in business under that name since 1857. Prior to the unraveling, the name Knoedler was venerated, seen as close to a stamp of authenticity as one could get in the art market. However, in 1994 the director, Ann Freedman, began getting in a cache of paintings from a new source. Glafira Rosales introduced herself to Freedman as the representative of an heir to a large cache of contemporary art including such names as Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko and William de Kooning. According to Rosales, the heir required absolute anonymity for himself but had a large collection of paintings for sale. She sold the paintings to Knoedler for considerably under market values. Knoedler made millions of dollars reselling over 60 contemporary master paintings in the next few years. The scam began to fall apart in 2009 as some clients began to get outside opinions of the art and began to bring suit against Knoedler for fraud. As it turned out, all the paintings were the work of a Chinese artist, Pei-Shen Quian, who worked from a studio in Queens, NY.
Apologies to the rest of the great speakers for this seminar. My hope is that one of my colleagues whose specialty is antiques and residential contents will publish an article of their own, giving the well-deserved attention and praise to the speakers on those topics. There is just not enough room in this format to be comprehensive.
However, I do want to mention the one disappointment in the lineup of speakers as a cautionary tale to those who would be speakers. I had looked forward to this speaker when I saw him listed on the brochure. After all, I had seen him in very engaging segments on the Antiques Roadshow. However, after passing out the glossy brochures about his gallery and his appraisal services, this speaker chose to get up on the dais and insult the audience with his lack of preparation and condescending tone. After a brief introduction, no visuals, he was mercifully off the platform in less than fifteen minutes. His only response to an audience question was to inform the questioner that he was welcome to visit the local library and look the answer up. I have no idea why someone would accept a speaking engagement and then behave this way. The room was filled with fellow appraisers. This is exactly the sort of audience one would want to impress. This audience was full of the sort of people who could call for an appraisal consult (a paid one) or pass a client-lead on to an appraiser with a specialty. I will not mention the person by name and have left out his specialty. But, I will offer a few general notes to those who are being asked to speak. Before, you agree to do the engagement, know your audience. Tailor your talk to their interests. Consider the overall theme of the gathering and how your expertise ties in with that theme. Then, by all means bring your ‘A’ game. If you do not intend to take these suggestions, just decline the offer to speak.
I arrived two days early for the conference to cram in as much site seeing as possible. This included a hop-a-bus trip that stopped at the Barnes Foundation, the Philadelphia Museum of Fine Art and the Eastern State Penitentiary among other marvelous stops. For those scratching their heads over why an art appraiser would care about an historic prison, it is a fascinating facility. The construction started in 1821—the first penitentiary in the country. And, I would recommend it as a stop if you are visiting Philadelphia. Thanks to my incredible colleague, Cindy Charleston Rosenberg, our group also got a private tour of the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Art, the oldest art school in America and one of the oldest collections of fine art open for view to the public.
Four days of learning and enjoying ‘down time’ with long-time appraisal colleagues and friends… just the ticket to get my creative juices going. Good thing because I returned to a pile of appraisal work that is calling for my attention. Those are my notes from the road. Hope you enjoy…