A controversy surrounding a trove of allegedly fake Modernist paintings by the likes of Jackson Pollock, Mark Rothko, and Willem de Kooning is currently rattling the art world. The scandal has all the makings of a Hollywood drama: millionaire businessmen, bitter lawsuits, high society New Yorkers, and, of course, an FBI investigation. Today, the New York Times published the most complete account of the scandal yet, which centers around a Long Island art dealer named Glafira Rosales, who allegedly supplied a group of paintings to the now-defunct Upper East Side Knoedler Gallery.
The article charts how Rosales, who once owned a small gallery on West 19th Street in Chelsea, brought a cache of Modernist canvases to the market whose authenticity is now in doubt. Most of the paintings reached high-rolling collectors through the respected dealer Ann Freedman, who for over 30 years served as president of the blue-chip Knoedler. She sold individual works for as much as $17 million — and some of the collectors are looking to get their money back. Though Knoedler is now closed, Rosales, Freedman, and several other dealers are caught up in a tangle of lawsuits. A federal investigation is also underway, probing the authenticity of the paintings as well as their original source, which Rosales refuses to disclose. The Times raised a few new facts about the case, as well as some gossipy tidbits. Below, ARTINFO analyzes and expands on the five most interesting revelations about the Knoedler forgery scandal.
1. Private Detectives Join the Game
You know a controversy is brewing when a modest artist foundation hires a private detective. According the Times report, that's exactly what the Dedalus Foundation did. The Foundation, which was founded shortly after Robert Motherwell's death to preserve his artistic legacy and promote Modernist art, employed private eyes to investigate Rosales and her husband after it began to suspect the authenticity of a group of Motherwell paintings it encountered doing research for the artist's forthcoming catalogue raisonné. "Because the dealers didn't seem to have investigated the background of the people they were buying from, Dedalus decided to do so," Jack Flam, the president of the Dedalus Foundation, told ARTINFO when asked about the story. "We found that they had had legal problems and that her husband had been accused at one point in trafficking in forged art in Spain, although that was never proven." Dedalus was later sued by a collector of one of the Motherwell paintings after the foundation reversed its opinion on the painting's authenticity. In October, the foundation was vindicated in the settlement, and the canvas was stamped as a forgery as part of the agreement. But the fact that Dedalus brought in detectives so early on — even before the lawsuit — shows just how high the stakes were for some of these players — and how damaging it is to be associated with a forged painting.
2. Frank Stella Served as an Impromptu Art Authenticator
Art dealers and collectors weren't the only ones who believed the disputed paintings were genuine. It turns out the legendary artist Frank Stella, a contemporary of the Abstract Expressionists, was also brought in to inspect several of the paintings Rosales had passed on to Knoedler, and even he was impressed. "Each one is too good to be true, but seeing them in context, as a group, makes one realize they are true," Stella reportedly told Freedman in 2006, according to court documents. (It's also worth noting that when Freedman left Knoedler amid accusations that some of the Robert Motherwell works she sold were forgeries, Frank Stella followed her to her new gallery, Freedman Art.)
3. A Collector Is Named — Sort of
Rosales has remained tight-lipped about the source of her supposed Modernist masterpieces, describing the source only as a Mexican collector with a connection to the late dealer David Herbert. The New York Times now reports that Rosales did identify the collector of at least one of the pieces, a Motherwell canvas that was the subject of multiple lawsuits and was conclusively labeled a forgery in October as part of a settlement agreement. But the man Rosales identified, John Gerzso, told the Times he never owned the painting. "There was never a sale of anything like these paintings," he said.
4. Complicating the Paint Debate
The Times highlights a debate that promises to become more central to the controversy as the lawsuits and federal investigation progress. Is it damning that some of the artworks contain pigments that were not invented at the supposed time of their creation? While at first the answer seems like a no-brainer — yes, duh — experts are divided on the issue. The Times notes that while pigment dating is generally viewed as reliable, it cannot make or break a case. Painters like Pollock often used experimental pigments that had not yet been released publicly. (The Times neglects to mention that many artists — Robert Motherwell in particular — would often return to canvases years after the date of completion to tweak or adjust them.)
5. Are Your Eyes Crossing Yet?
Perhaps the most interesting part of the Times's report comes at the end, when reporter Patricia Cohen lays out just how difficult it will be to litigate both the forgery case and the criminal case. The stakes might be sky high, but the possibilities for real resolution, Cohen suggests, are paltry. Authenticity debates come down to the opinions of experts, which, at the moment, are divided. Even more difficult is to convict Rosales in a criminal case: prosecutors would not only have to prove conclusively that the works are fakes, but also that Rosales knew they were fakes all along. Expect lots more headaches before this debacle is laid to rest. In the meantime, the art world will continue to hold its breath.