Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art should thrill any art expert and wealthy art collector. The documentary, directed by Barry Avrich and now available to stream on Netflix, tells the story of “the greatest art fraud in the history of the United States” – a salutary story about greed, pride and the sins of omission as well as commission.
The facts of the case are quite simple. In 1994, a Long Island woman walked into Knoedler & Co, one of New York’s most prestigious galleries, and presented its president Ann Freedman with a painting apparently by Jackson Pollock. The work was previously unknown and undocumented in literature about the artist. The woman, named Glafira Rosales, was not known to anyone in the art world and could not provide any provenance or documentation because her client had apparently sworn to secrecy. Over the next 14 years, Rosales brought one or two works a year from the same mysterious source to Knoedler’s – some 60 in total, all undocumented and allegedly by some of the most sought-after artists on the market: Pollock, but also d other abstract artists. Expressionists including Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko and Richard Diebenkorn. (Rosales also sold work to another New York gallerist, Julian Weissman, who had worked at Knoedler in the 1980s.)
Rosales and even Freedman, it seems, were willing to sell these prime coins for sums considerably below their market value (even so, they were sold to customers for a total of over $80 million ). Yet all these works turned out to have been recently produced in a garage in Queens by a Chinese immigrant artist, Pei-Shen Qian, apparently recruited by Rosales’ boyfriend, José Carlos Bergantiños Diaz – a man with a criminal background. of freight traffic. (after his interview for the documentary, he tries to whip Avrich what he claims is Bob Dylan’s harmonica). Diaz, according to authorities, was responsible for the “aging” of these putative masterpieces of the late 1950s and early 1960s and for providing appropriate frames.
The documentary invites us to marvel at the genius of Pei-Shen Qian, who seems to have been able to mimic the work of any artist and produce paintings that viewers found staggeringly beautiful. (Most didn’t hold the same opinion after being exposed as worthless fakes.) These paintings, we are told, deceived everyone: dealers, scholars, restorers, and even those close to the artists themselves. Even if you knew the case, the documentary offers some pretty amazing detail recalls. It shows a “Rothko,” for example, hanging as the centerpiece of an exhibit at the Beyeler Foundation, and a letter from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., regarding works the museum apparently intended to exhibit. include in a catalog raisonné of Rothko’s works on paper. (Records of court proceedings suggest that not all of the experts cited believed the paintings in question—or had even seen them in person—but a key trope of any art exposition seems to involve experts with an egg. proverbial on the face.)
The key question here – morally and legally – is whether Ann Freedman and Knoedler believed they were selling genuine artwork or fakes. Was Freedman a rogue or a fool, and what is more forgivable in the world of contemporary art? The documentary offers plenty of smug after-event mockery by talking heads happily pointing out the red flags she should have noticed — and, thank goodness, there was enough to field a Manet on rue Mosnier. Yet Ann Freedman’s testimony, if we are to believe her, suggests that she was driven by an all-too-human desire: to make a new discovery and be the one who brought new masterpieces to light. His early failure may have been nothing more than suspension of disbelief. More alarming is his outright dismissal of the results of scientific investigations originally undertaken at the request of one of the buyers – and these included anomalies such as pigments which had not been invented at the time the paints were supposed to be created, techniques an artist hadn’t used, and even a misspelling on a signature. At this point, Freedman and Knoedler were too invested to be able or willing to take a step back.
What’s striking about this documentary is that none of the main characters – including those who agreed to be interviewed at length by the filmmakers – fare very well. The picture painted by the upper echelons of the art business was far from salubrious. It may not come as a surprise, but it is a sad situation that anyone buying from a reputable art gallery with a history of over 150 years should consider doing their due diligence. In the end, the lawsuits against Knoedler’s and Freedman were settled out of court and out of public view – as befits a type of company that has long been criticized for its lack of transparency. Only Glafira Rosales saw a prison sentence; his two alleged accomplices fled the United States, for Spain and China, before they could be prosecuted. Few would argue that justice, in the broadest sense, has been served.
Any viewers taking solace that the fine Old Master paintings they collect are much less easily faked than the squiggles and smudges of Abstract Expressionism should read Vincent Noce’s book The Ruffini Affair: Investigating the Art World’s Biggest Mystery, which recently landed on my desk. It tells the story of Lino Frongia, now 62, believed to have forged works acclaimed by artists as stylistically diverse as Lucas Cranach, Frans Hals, Parmigianino and Orazio Gentileschi – and who, it seems, he got away with it for years.
Made You Look: A True Story About Fake Art (2020; dir. Barry Avrich) is streaming on Netlix.