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The Decline and Fall of Knoedler & Co.

One of the most notorious episodes of forgery in recent times is related to […] the Knoedler Gallery, the oldest and one of the most respected galleries in the city

R. Ekelund, J. Jackson e R. Tollison, The Economics of American Art, 2017

This forgery case caused the decline and fall of world-famous Knoedler & Co., founded in 1848 by Adolphe Goupil (1806-1893) in New York as a branch of his French gallery Goupil & Cie, later taken over by its manager Michel Knoedler (1823-1878) in 1857. Since then, Knoedler & Co. has prospered for over a century, first dealing in Old Masters paintings with clients such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, J.P. Morgan, and Henry Clay Frick, then in Impressionist and Modern Art. In the 1970s, the gallery was in financial difficulties and came close to bankruptcy before oil tycoon Armand Hammer bought it in 1971. In the 1990s, director Ann Freedman focused more on Contemporary Art, for which prices were skyrocketing in a market just recovering from a major economic crisis.

The decade-long forgery scandal involving Knoedler & Co. started in the early 2000s, as several collectors began questioning the authenticity of paintings bought at the gallery. While managing to keep the matter confidential, Knoedler & Co. was first subpoenaed to a jury about a forged series by Robert Motherwell in 2009 and had to give the buyer a full refund.

Inside the Knoedler Gallery (historical photo from Robert Dennis Collection)

In November 2011, details of a peculiar forgery case began to emerge in the press, drawing the attention of both collectors and the public when forensic analysis conducted on Jackson Pollock’s Untitled 1950 concluded with negative results. The painting had been bought in 2007 for $15.3 million by Belgian millionaire Pierre Lagrange, who was told it belonged to a “private collector who had inherited it” [1]. But then tests revealed it was a forgery, as the paint was from 1957 — thus a year following Pollock’s death, and its tenuous provenance was false.

Furthermore, as it turned out, the artwork had already been tested by the IFAR (International Foundation for Art Research) in 2001, and experts had stated they could not possibly authenticate it. The owner at that time, Wall Street employee Jack Levy, had bought the Pollock from Knoedler & Co.for $2 million and decided to return it.

After Lagrange discovered the painting was not genuine, he asked Knoedler & Co. for a refund and when they refused, he sued the gallery. Both parties finally seemed to find an agreement (on undisclosed terms) but, apparently, the Motherwell and the Pollock were far from the only forgeries sold at Knoedler & Co: in all, during fifteen years, the high-end scam amounted to $63 million and involved art dealers, historians, experts as well as well-known institutions and galleries.

Were there any common links between these fakes? For a start, all belonged to Abstract Expressionism — by Willem de Kooning, Mark Rothko, Barnett Newman, Clyfford Still, Sam Francis and Franz Kline among others. Also, according to Ann Freedman, all of them were supposedly owned by the same collector, a “Mr X” who lived between Switzerland and Mexico and, in the 1950s, had bought the paintings through gallery owner David Herbert. Freedman was told the paintings had been inherited by Mr X’s son, who also remained anonymous as “Mr X Jr.”. Another link between these artworks was that they had all been sold to the gallery by art dealer Glafira Rosales.

After research was conducted on the paintings’ provenance and Freedman gave her first testimonies, Rosales was arrested. Further investigations revealed she had sold over 30 forgeries to famous collectors, galleries and museums. Rosales was indicted for fraud over ten years long, from 1994 to 2009, and pleaded guilty to wire fraud, tax evasion and money laundering in 2013. She identified the forger as Pei-Shen Qian, a 75-year-old Chinese artist living in Queens. In April 2014, two other men involved in the case, dealers and brothers Jesus Angel and Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz (incidentally an ex-boyfriend of Rosales), were arrested in Spain and charged with money laundering and fraud.

The inquiry exposed how they had elaborated an intricate forgery scheme with Qian: the latter was selling paintings on the corner of Manhattan Street, in the 1980s, when he had been recruited by Jose Carlos Bergantiños Diaz to fabricate copies for a few hundred dollars. At first, Qian started copying artworks by Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring and forged their signatures: while he thought the paintings were “worthless imitations”, Jose Carlos still sold them to galleries [2]. In the 1990s, Qian was asked to focus essentially on Abstract Expressionist artists; around the same time, Rosales became also involved. To make the artworks, Qian allegedly reused paint from old paintings bought by Jose Carlos at auctions and flea markets, so that they could be dated as they were made in the 1950s. He also used Isorel, a type of wood panel, from old pieces of furniture to replicate the medium used by some of these artists. Afterwards, paintings were altered with tea bags or dust, heated with a blow dryer or left outside and exposed to the elements, to give them an older, authentic look. All the paintings were sold through Rosales’ galleries in Long Island.

Pollock in action caught on camera by Hans Namuth (Wikipedia)

Qian denied any knowledge of the scam and of Rosales, saying he believed the works would be sold legally and that this was proved by the fact he received only a minor sum for his work while Rosales and the Bergantiños Diaz brothers earned tens of millions of dollars – laundered and hid abroad [3]. Qian pretended he did not know the artists he copied from and that he hadn’t intentionally imitated their style; nevertheless, a search in his apartment revealed he owned books and sales catalogues about them — which might have also helped to establish a false provenance for the paintings. As later emerged, Qian, while at first paid just several hundred dollars per forgery, had asked for more money after finding out how much his artworks were sold on the market. Eventually, they had given him around $7,000 per painting.

In 2016, the Bergantiños Diaz brothers were in Spain and supposed to be extradited when Jose Carlos pleaded to a judge that he couldn’t travel to the United States because of his poor health. By that time his brother had vanished with the money. Having cooperated with authorities, Rosales was sentenced to nine months of house arrest and three years probation and ordered to forfeit $81 million. After denying any knowledge of the scam to the FBI, Qian left for China (incidentally, with no extradition treaty with the US) with his wife: in 2014, became indicted of wire fraud, conspiracy to commit wire fraud and lying to the FBI.

While Rosales and the Bergantiños Diaz brothers were indicted, and Pei-Shen Qian interrogated, early investigators and federal prosecutors had not directly charged Ann Freedman nor questioned the responsibility of Knoedler & Co. yet. The first evidence incriminating the gallery – and subsequently its director – was the contradictory outcomes of the 2011 diagnostic tests on Pollock’s Untitled 1950.

[1] Lagrange Sues Gallery For Fake Jackson Pollock, in Artlyst, November 7, 2011.

[2] Jon Swayne, Artist at Center of Multimillion Dollar Forgery Scandal turns up in China, in The Guardian, April 22, 2014.

[3] More Arrests in Abstract Expressionism Forgery Case, in Phaidon, April 23, 2014.

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