Fake it When You Make, the Big Ab-Ex Scam

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Fake it When You Make, the Big Ab-Ex Scam

Earlier this week the art world got yet another pie in the face, when Federal agents indicted an art dealer who had made $20 million selling forgeries of famed ab-ex painters; Jackson Pollock, Robert Motherwell, Mark Rothko, Franz Kelin and others.

The scam had been going on for fifteen years and involved reputed gallerists, museums, and private collectors. In total it is believed that $80 million dollars had exchanged hands as these works circulated through the secondary market.

A Jackson Pollock fake, giving new meaning to "anyone can do that."

We had a chance to talk to Hong Kong art dealer Dominique Perregaux, to ask him how these kinds scams can happen in a world of connoisseurship and the availability of high-tech art forensics. Perregaux also recently published a work of fiction, "A Taste for Intensity," based on events in his life.

Moon: What would cause an art dealer, who I would assume is a highly skilled connoisseur, to accept lock stock and barrel not just one fraudulent work but a whole catalog of fakes?
Perregaux: Assuming that such a dealer is not part of the scam, I think two factors may cause such a person to unknowingly recommend to their clients so many fake masterpieces through a long period of time: trust and greed. It is important for a dealer to have access to art works that are directly coming from collectors, without going through numerous intermediaries.

This gives the dealer a strong competitive advantage, increases the chances of selling works and maximize the potential gains from such sales as commissions would not be shared with many intermediaries. So if someone the dealer knows well and trust has exclusive access to a large collection of art works his guard will be somehow off. Furthermore, the sale potential of such a large collection (greed) would be a further factor for trusting that person “too much.” Also, selling such masterpieces requires proofs of authenticity. Yet, forging documents is easier than making a copy of a painting!

Robert Motherwell, forgery by Pei-Shen Qian a 73 year-old artist living in Queens.

I understand that one of the ways in which these paintings were uncovered to be fakes was that pigment/chemical analysis on two paintings by Robert Motherwell. However, these paintings were being released onto the market for 10 years before anyone checked. Why did it take so long for anyone to do forensic tests before they were even brought to market?
In art, forensic analysis is usually made for century old masters to date particular works that lack proper documentation or living witnesses (obviously). For 50-60 year old paintings (Motherwell, Rothko, Pollock, de Kooning, Kline...) you usually won’t do any forensic tests as there would be a lot of documentation available on the art works and their provenances and you could actually still paint a fake with 50-60 years old pigments, stretchers and canvas. You would also likely have access to living experts who knew the artist and may have published catalogue raisonnés or to foundations taking care of the estate of an artist and that may authenticate works.

If a collector buys a painting from a reputable dealer and that documents look legitimate, then he may not question the authenticity of such painting. What may have happen in the particular case you are referring to is that an expert or a foundation decided to published a catalogue raisonnés few years ago and, thus, asked collectors to come forward with works they own to be included in the publication. Or one of the works was to be sold in auction and doubts were cast then. Forensic analysis as a last resort if experts could not agree may have then been ordered, explaining the time lag between the purchase and further investigation.