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“Art forgery is the most marvelous crime. Lots of money to be made without penalty.”

Many financial institutions have literally pallets of art items in their vaults. The art items are there for storage, collateral, and as an asset base. Who’s to say an object d’art is real or fake? It’s to the benefit of all that have touched a piece of artwork that once it is considered an original — even when the artist himself says he didn’t do it — to keep mum the story of it being possibly a fake.

The risks of using counterfeit art as collateral or as an asset are obvious. However there are real risks of even taking it on for storage. A Swiss bank was sued because the painting delivered to them to be stored was returned to the owner years later and declared a fake. The owner made quite a scene at the bank when it was shown to him. The owner claims the venerable institution switched out his original. The owner’s finger prints all over the painting in storage ended this particular incident , but many institutions have had similar problems with less-happy endings.

When an art item is passed as an original the dealer will claim it is an original. The buyer, not wanting to look like a rube and an idiot, will also claim it to be an original. Authentication cannot come from an interested party. Only a third party should be allowed to authenticate. If the art object is a forgery it doesn’t mean it is worthless. Elmyr de Hory’s acknowledged forgeries, signed by de Hory after his conviction, have great stories behind them and have a brisk market at about $20,000 USD per painting.

Art forgery is not limited to old masters or even recent masters. LeRoy Neiman has had a heck of a time controlling the distribution of his work: As lithographs, his artworks are easily photographed and duplicated with the aid of modern computer equipment and skilled printers.

That leads us to the next question: Why forge art? Art forgery is a high yield program that is untraceable. All in the chain of ownership must remain a part of the myth. It gouges the rich and sophisticated consumer who is too supercilious and embarrassed to squeal (or dares not squeal if a gallery) when stuck. It may not be a pretty picture, but….

A constant question with any piece of art is where did it come from? If indeed the object d’art is an original, then what is the history behind the art? What is the provenance and origin of the objet d’art? A genuine item may be stolen or illegally obtained. Is there an un-erasable cloud on the art object’s title?

Take the Quedlinburg treasure (indeed, somebody did just that!) .It was an accumulation of medieval objects including bejeweled texts, silver reliquaries, etc,. that were looted from the Quedlinburg church in Germany at the end of World War II. These items came up for secret sale in the 1980’s by the heirs of an American soldier who was in Quedlinburg at the time of the treasure disappeared in 1945. They were eventually returned to the Quedlinburg church but not until they had been seen at auction houses and in catalogs all over the world.

The other issue has to do with how the objects were gathered and sold. Italy has draconian laws surrounding their antiquities. Most of these laws were past just after World War II. In the 1960’s a particular type of Apulian vase was discovered in a remote part of Italy in graves. These vases showed up for sale in Geneva and London within months of their first discovery. What’s the problem? No permits were ever issued to dig and recover the vases offered for auction. Italy expressly prohibits the export of antiquities unless accompanies by a permit. No permits since 1945 were issued to export these very rare and unique items. Thus the looted vases were smuggled out of Italy. These vases continue to appear on the world market and have appeared in Sotheby’s catalogue without an explanation of provenance or explicit origins.

The moral of all this?

• Being a gentleman and an art dealer are generally recognized to be mutually exclusive.

• The hot potato rule is that the last one stuck with the bogus or tainted object d’art is the looser.

• You must do your own due diligence before you buy art. Never do business with any dealers or auction houses that won’t guarantee what they sell.

• In an art transaction you must be concerned not only with authenticity but also with provenance and origin since there are no international statutes of limitations of the recovery of stolen or looted art.

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