Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Knoedler Forgery Debacle But Were Afraid to Ask
Over the weekend, news broke that federal authorities are investigating a group of at least 16 possible forgeries sold by some of New York’s most elite art dealers over the course of nearly two decades. The investigation focuses on Long Island dealer Glafira Rosales, who allegedly supplied the works to blue-chip dealers including former Knoedler & Co. president Ann Freedman and New York gallerist Julian Weissman. “People involved in the case said some collectors and dealers who purchased the works may have no idea there is any question about their authenticity,” reports the New York Times.
News of the investigation follows Knoedler’s abrupt announcement on November 30 that it would close its doors for good. Days later, London hedge-fund executive Pierre Lagrange filed a complaint in Manhattan federal court alleging that the gallery — and Freedman, then its president — sold him a forged Jackson Pollock painting for $17 million. Not long before that, another lawsuit regarding a forged Motherwell painting that Weissman allegedly acquired from Rosales and later sold was settled in civil court.
With hundreds of pages of litigation between them and little information about the current federal investigation publicly available, it is difficult to determine how these people and lawsuits are connected to one another, if they are at all. Below, ARTINFO breaks down the complicated debacle.
Glafira Rosales: The 55-year-old woman at the heart of it all, Rosales has been dealing American masters such as Pollock, Motherwell, and Richard Diebenkorn since 1993. Later in the ‘90s she supplied a string of works by Mark Rothko, Franz Kline, Clyfford Still, and Willem de Kooning to market, according to the Times. The Mexican-born woman currently lives with José Carlos Bergantinos Diaz, an art consultant and collector from Spain with whom she once operated a gallery in Manhattan. (Diaz has been accused of trafficking in forgeries since the 1999, court papers allege.) More recently, Rosales helmed Glafira Rosales Fine Arts in Mahopac, New York. (Any online record of the gallery is now almost impossible to find, save one Web page linking Rosales to the Belarus-born painter Yelena Tylkina.) Over the course of the last several years, questions about the provenance of the works Rosales brought to market began to arise.
Julian Weissman: Weissman worked as the associate director of Knoedler in the 1980s, followed by stints as the director of modern European art at Hirschl & Adler Gallery and director of both ACA and Gruenebaum galleries. In 1997, he left to open his own space in New York, which specializes in contemporary American, modern European, and Latin American art. Though Weissman is not under federal investigation, he did sell three Motherwells acquired through Rosales to established galleries, according to court records. One of those galleries, Killala Fine Art, sued Weissman in federal court last year over a Motherwell painting it purchased in 2007 that was later deemed a forgery.
Dedalus Foundation: The organization, established by Motherwell prior to his death to promote understanding of modern art, oversees the artist’s copyrights and is currently in the process of assembling his catologue raisonné. The foundation became tied up in the Motherwell authenticity debate after visiting Weissman’s gallery to view what it thought was a previously unknown work by Motherwell. That painting turned out to be the one Killala Fine Art was hoping to purchase, according to court papers.
Killala Fine Art: This respected Ireland-based gallery, run by dealer Marc Blondeau, purchased what it thought was an authentic Motherwell from Weissman in 2007. Upon finding that there were questions surrounding its authenticity, it sued both Weissman and the Dedalus Foundation, which had judged the painting to be authentic and then reversed its opinion when it uncovered new information about the work.
Ann Freedman: Freedman began her art career in 1971 as a receptionist for the now-shuttered André Emmerich Gallery. She served as the director of Knoedler for 32 years before departing in 2009 amid allegations that some of the Motherwell works she sold were forgeries. As president of Knoedler, Freedman handled at least 15 paintings supplied by Rosales. She went on to open her own eponymous gallery on the Upper East Side and snagged representation of artists such as Lee Bontecou and the estate of Jules Olitski from her former employer. To this day, Freedman told the Times, she maintains confidence in the authenticity of every piece she sold. There is no better demonstration of her faith in the work, she adds, than her purchase of three paintings — a Motherwell, a Pollock, and a Rothko — from Rosales for her personal collection.
Pierre Lagrange: The Belgian-born, London-based hedge fund manager and co-founder of GLG Partners purchased a Pollock painting from Knoedler in 2007, while Freedman was still director. Days after Knoedler abruptly announced its closing, he filed a complaint against the gallery and Freedman, alleging that the $17 million painting he purchased is a fake.
Knoedler Gallery: The 160-year-old modern and contemporary art gallery located in a landmarked townhouse on New York’s Upper East Side announced that it would close on November 30, contenting that the move was “a business decision made after careful consideration over the course of an extended period of time.” Over the course of its long history, Knoedler has been affiliated with a wide range of American art, from the Hudson River School to the New York School. More recently it dealt in work by Milton Avery, Helen Frankenthaler, and James Castle. Knoedler also represented Motherwell late in his life, and employed Freedman for 32 years and Weissman for a period in the 1980s.
The Mysterious Collector: Rosales claims she brokered the high-profile sales of Modernist masterworks on behalf of an unnamed Mexican collector who insists on anonymity. Neither Weissman nor Freedman can identify the exact source of the artworks, though according to court records Freedman once identified the source as coming from a wealthy family in the sugar business. In a letter to Freedman in 2007, Rosales said the collector acquired the works directly from the artists, and that they were inherited by the collector’s son upon the owner’s death. Elsewhere, some of the disputed works were described as belonging to the son of a prominent Mexican family that had acquired major Abstract Expressionist works through David Herbert, the late American expatriate dealer and connoisseur, according to the October issue of Art + Auction.
The Motherwell Forgery Case
The controversy stretches back to 2007, when Weissman, the Manhattan dealer, sold a painting — a black-and-white canvas in the style of Motherwell’s “Elegy to the Spanish Republic” series, reputed to have been created in 1953 — to international art dealer Blondeau. Weissman asked the Dedalus Foundation to assess the painting’s authenticity, court papers say. Though the foundation believed the painting to be authentic at the time, it reversed its opinion two years later after doubts of the painting’s provenance arose.
Interestingly, many previous reports refer to the fact that the authentication opinion was reversed after forensic analysis revealed pigments that were not present in the 1950s. Motherwell, however, frequently returned to paintings to rework them years later. In fact, it was the anachronistic style and the similarities between the disputed painting and a cache of six other recently-surfaced works with unclear provenance (combined with forensic evidence) that ultimately led foundation authorities to change their opinion. All the questionable works mentioned in court papers were allegedly provided by Rosales before passing through Weissman and/or Freedman.
In February of last year, Blondeau, who argued that he would not have purchased the painting without Dedalus’s affirmation, sued both Weissman and the foundation in federal court. The foundation responded with a cross-claim charging Weissman with knowingly attempting to pass off the forgery as genuine. After months of back and forth and hundreds of pages’ worth of rigorous claims and counterclaims, a settlement agreement was finalized on October 4. Blondeau’s gallery, Killala Fine Art, received $650,000 — the price Blondeau paid for the painting in 2007 — while Dedalus received $200,000. (The foundation also earned the right to stamp the back of the painting with a dramatic and indelible warning that reads in part, “This painting is not an authentic work by Robert Motherwell but a forgery.”) The majority of the money came from Rosales; Weissman paid the remaining portion. Weissman’s lawyer told the Times that his client was persuaded by ill health and financial difficulties to settle, and that it should not be taken as an admission that the painting was a fake.
As part of the agreement, Blondeau's attorneys are also holding the painting in escrow for up to six months “pending the receipt of lawful process” before it can be made available for pickup by Weissman or Rosales, leaving open the possibility that it could be seized by law enforcement as evidence in a criminal investigation — a dramatic twist in the case that would suggest authorites view the sale as one piece of a larger scam.
The Federal Investigation
The forged painting could figure, then, in the ongoing federal investigation of Rosales recently made public in the New York Times. (Rosales’ lawyer confirmed to the paper that she is under investigation, though Weissman and Freedman have been implicated.) The inquiry began after Modernist works by Diebenkorn, Pollock, Rothko, Motherwell and others began popping up on the market with specious authenticity and sketchy details regarding their provenance before the 1990s. (Significantly, works by Deibenkorn, Rothko, and Pollock are all mentioned in court documents associated with the forged Motherwell case; some of these works, court papers say, were sold through Weissman, Knoedler, and/or Freedman, and their authenticity was affirmed and later questioned by experts from Dedalus and elsewhere, including MoMA curator emeritus John Edlerfield.) The F.B.I. investigation, according to the Times, was underway by 2009, the same year Freedman resigned from Knoedler. She alleges the investigation was not the cause of her departure.
The Pollock Forgery Case
One day after the Upper East Side’s 165-year-old Knoedler & Co. abruptly announced it would close its doors, London hedge-fund executive Pierre Lagrange filed a complaint in Manhattan federal court alleging that the gallery sold him a forged Pollock painting for $17 million.
According to the complaint, Bloomberg reports, Lagrange tried to resell the painting in 2010 to both Christie’s and Sotheby’s, but the two auctioneers refused to accept the consignment because of concerns about authenticity. The financier is now suing Knoedler and then-director Freedman. A consulting company hired by Lagrange concluded in a report last month that the painting was fake, according to the complaint.
Though a rep from the gallery said the sudden closure was a “business decision” that had nothing to do with the lawsuit, the complaint alleged that Knoedler closed a day after Lagrange gave the gallery a copy of the report he commissioned. The GLG Partners Inc. co-founder is seeking at least $15.3 million — the purchase price minus the commission he paid to two intermediaries — plus punitive damages. Knoedler’s spokeswoman called the complaints “baseless.”
WHAT WE STILL DON’T KNOW
How much — or how little — did Weissman and Freedman know about the provenance of the paintings they were selling? Where are these specious paintings now, and will the current owners be alerted to the investigation? Is it even possible to track them all down? Most importantly, of course, where did Rosales really get the paintings? Are there more out there than the 16 currently under investigation? One thing is clear: trust no one.