(Tempo di lettura: 9 minuti)

Following the case of the forged Motherwell series and the first investigations of Spring 2011, which led to the arrest of Glafira Rosales and the Bergantiños Diaz brothers, suspicions started to emerge about Knoedler & Co gallery and its director. Ann Freedman denied all accusations through her lawyer, stating at first that she believed the works were authentic and forensic tests were flawed: “Freedman, whose lawyer claims she’s not a subject of the investigations, is determined not only to salvage her reputation but to prove she has discovered the greatest unknown treasure of modern masterpieces. ‘The works are of a five-star quality,’ she says. ‘Maybe a few are four-star, but mostly five-star, which is why they’ve stirred such an attention[1]. To prove her good faith, Freedman showed that she owned paintings, purchased through Rosales, by Pollock, Motherwell and Rothko. For her lawyer, Nicholas A. Gravante Jr., this underlined the fact she was innocent as: “If Ann Freedman had any questions about these works, she and her husband would not have invested hundreds of thousands of dollars in them[2].

The same year, after 165 years of existence, Knoedler & Co. suddenly shut down. According to Knoedler & Co. employee Frank Del Deo, who testified in a trial in 2016, Freedman left the gallery in 2009 for unknown reasons, without mentioning a first court summoning. In 2011, Del Deo met with Michael Hammer, who told him he had sold the gallery for $31 million — half its value. The gallery was then closed without further explanation, simply announcing: “It is with profound regret that the owners of Knoedler Gallery announce its closing, effective [November 30, 2011]. This was a business decision made after careful consideration over the course of an extended period of time. Gallery staff are assisting with an orderly winding down of Knoedler Gallery[3]. They even shut down early their last exhibition. Nonetheless, Freedman denied any links between the Pollock forgery case, her resignation, and the gallery closing permanently.

Floor of Pollock’s house studio (photo by Rhododendrites, Wikipedia)

In 2000, for $280,000, Ann Freedman and her husband had purchased Pollock’s Untitled 1950 from Rosales for their private collection. For Freedman’s lawyer, Luke Nikas: “It is absurd to believe that Ms Freedman would have paid nearly $300,000 for the work, asked a world-renowned expert to examine the work, hung the work openly in her apartment for over a decade, if she knew the work was a forgery or if she purchased the work to keep it hidden from critical eyes[4]. Freedman added she was “as shocked as everybody, more shocked as I am the central victim[5]. In her opinion, the story that they belonged to a foreign collector, even if anonymous, was highly credible: “Dealers often do not know the specifics of origin or background, or how the art left the artist’s studio. You cannot turn the pages of an auction catalogue or museum publication without seeing a majority of the works labelled ‘private collection’. The chain of ownership is often out of order and incomplete […] Some of the paintings were featured on museum walls. The Rothko went to the Beyeler Foundation and the Newman went to Guggenheim Bilbao for the 10th-anniversary exhibition. The most knowledgeable in the art establishment gave me no reason to doubt the paintings”. Actually, her beliefs that the paintings were authentic were shared by experts such as Stephen Polcari, scholar in Abstract Expressionism.

Still, the defrauded collectors were not at all convinced by these arguments, insisting the gallery was the first to blame: “Freedman, Knoedler and their so-called ‘experts’ claim not to have seen forgeries, even when it was literally (mis)spelled out for them[6]. Indeed, while Freedman stated there was no evidence Untitled 1950 was fake, the first analysis showed the artist’s signature was misspelled as “Pollok”, instead of “Pollock”, which definitely should have drawn the gallery’s attention. Besides that, several factors should have made the gallery doubt the authenticity of the pieces: the lack of documentation, partial and unclear provenance, and well below market level selling prices – such as Knoedler paying $950,000 for a (fake) Mark Rothko, then sold $8.3 million. It was unclear whether the respectful Knoedler & Co. and its director should be seen as victims of this scam or held accountable for fraud.

Pollock’s original signature

In 2016, the Knoedler Gallery forgery scandal had already led to ten trials, five settled out of court and four still ongoing. One of the main trials spurred by the case, concerning the purchase of a fake Mark Rothko, started in January and lasted three weeks. The buyer was none other than Chairman of the Board of Directors of Sotheby’s Domenico De Sole, who had paid $8.3 million in 2004 for the painting. De Sole deemed unthinkable that Freedman had never questioned the artworks’ authenticity: she had reportedly told him she knew the identity of the owner but wished to keep it confidential, even if Freedman claimed she was not aware of the identity behind Rosales’ mysterious collector. Freedman’s and Knoedler & Co. persistence to keep on selling artworks purchased from Rosales’ gallery seemed also dubious, as the authenticity of some had been already questioned in the early 2000s. Thus, Knoedler & Co. was accused of running a 15-year racketeering operation and sued to pay triple the damages. Many experts, art historians and curators were asked to testify at the trial, as well as De Sole and Freedman.

According to Freedman, several experts shared her belief the paintings were authentic. Art historian Stephen Polcari and Elmer Arthur Carmean Jr., ex-curator of the National Gallery of Art, both testified they had believed Rosales’ works were genuine. These statements strongly pleaded in favour of Knoedler & Co.’s and Freedman’s innocence, whether the paintings were actually the real deal or not: “If the world could be fooled into believing it, why shouldn’t Ann Freedman? [They] have passed through the hands of the most renowned people in the art world and before the eyes of the most expert” [7].

On the other hand, art historian Irving Sandler claimed to have only seen the Rothko for about twenty seconds, and never officially authenticated it. John Elderfield, art historian and ex-MoMA curator, also declared that he had warned Freedman very early about the doubtful authenticity of the paintings. The artist’s son, Christopher Rothko, refused to answer these questions, as he avoided taking the responsibility of authenticating his father’s artworks.

The main difficulty for De Sole’s lawyers was to find concrete evidence of Knoedler & Co.’s involvement in the scam. In his testimony, De Sole said he bought the Rothko after being assured by Freedman that eleven experts had authenticated it and that it had a good provenance, being owned by a Swiss collector who wished to remain anonymous. De Sole had bought it for a large sum, as Knoedler & Co. was considered “the most trusted, oldest, most important gallery[8], but he started having doubts about his Rothko as early as 2011, after reading in The New York Times that Pierre Lagrange was suing the gallery for selling a forgery. After discovering his painting was a forgery as well, De Sole tried to settle the situation out of court and, as he was unable to reach an agreement, he eventually filed a lawsuit. But Freedman and her lawyers kept on insisting that she had simply followed the experts’ opinion that the paintings were genuine, and had been scammed by Rosales, who had given her an incorrect provenance. Also, the partial knowledge of some of the Abstract Expressionist artists explained the absence from catalogues raisonnés of the paintings sold by Rosales and the inaccurate provenance. For his lawyers, the main issue for De Sole was to be able “to prove to a jury that [Freedman] committed fraud intentionally. It’s really hard to present convincingly what someone might have thought“. The opacity of the art market also contributed to making it more believable as to why Freedman did not know the identity of the collector but never assumed it was a scam.

Before the much-anticipated testimony of Ann Freedman and Knoedler’s owner, Michael Hammer, the trial came to a sudden halt when lawyers announced that both parties had reached a satisfactory agreement, without giving further details.

Three years later, the Knoedler case was resumed. In May 2019, Frances White and her husband filed a lawsuit for a fake Pollock bought for $3.1 million in 2000; in August of the same year, the Martin Hilti Family Trust filed another lawsuit for a fake Rothko bought for $5.5 million in 2002. Both cases were closed with a settlement, while the gallery kept on denying all accusations. But the White couple and Martin Hilti Trust filed at the time lawsuits for fraud against the gallery’s owner, Michael Hammer, as well as his company, 8-31 Holdings.

While the judge had dismissed the fraud and racketeering charges against Knoedler & Co. given the lack of proofs, he admitted Hammer and 8-31 Holdings should be held responsible for Knoedler & Co.’s fraud, as they were closely connected. In fact, there was evidence that Hammer had shared expenses between companies: Knoedler had regularly transferred money to 8-31 Holdings, which had siphoned off in return a total of nearly $13 million from the gallery. The jury also took this decision since Knoedler & Co. could not afford to pay a refund to the plaintiffs if it was found guilty, unlike Michael Hammer.

The Knoedler & Co. case has had a strong impact on the art world as it has raised sensitive questions about the market system. First, it exposed the risks of its opacity: unscrupulous dealers were able to sell a collection of works without providing any proof of the owner’s identity and claiming this person wished to remain anonymous — a mistake Knoedler & Co. made by selling Rothko’s Untitled to De Sole. This general lack of clarity makes it impossible to prove the ill intention of a person or a company and justify, on the contrary, the purchase of works with questionable provenance. Gregory Clarick, one of De Soles’ lawyers, remarked that “Ann Freedman tried to take advantage of the fact that in the art world there are often anonymous buyers and sellers […] As if that gave her the right to believe everything that Glafira Rosales had supposedly told her[9]. The lack of transparency of the art market has recently led to multiple instances of forgeries sales, such as the case involving art dealer and fraudster Inigo Philbrick. In 2019, Sotheby’s had to deal twice with disputable sales: those of highly-priced paintings of Frans Hals and Parmigianino’s St. Jerome.

The Knoedler & Co. forgery case has questioned the respectability and liability of an institution as ancient, famous and important. Plaintiffs during the trials repeatedly claimed that it was their trust in the 150-years-old gallery that led them to buy the artworks without any concrete proof of authenticity.

The matter of art connoisseurship and expertise was also raised during these trials. Even though the status of an expert gives full confidence in their opinion, authentications are rarely 100% certain. The confrontation of expert testimonies during the De Sole vs. Knoedler & Co. trial clearly highlights the complexity of connoisseurship: if two experts were certain Rothko’s Untitled was genuine, other witnesses were either hesitant to take a stance or sure that it was a forgery. In any case, both sides (Freedman and De Sole) relied on these testimonies to back up their own statements that the painting was either real or fake, as the opinion of famous and respectable experts always carry a strong value.

Painting by Rothko (Untitled, Wikipedia)

For ten years, the Knoedler & Co. trials failed to prove any involvement of the gallery or Freedman herself in selling forgeries. Even if they did not determine Knoedler & Co.’s responsibility in these fraudulent sales, the trials underlined the dangers of the art market’s lack of transparency. They also put under investigation the role and liability of experts and galleries when authenticating or selling artworks as genuine. Knoedler & Co. forgery cases prove the risks of a market relying on discretion and confidentiality, but with large sums of money at stake. Both buyers and sellers’ desire to remain anonymous contributes to such fraudulent schemes and might cause further forgery cases and trials in the future: “Lacking much transparency, the art market is considered the largest unregulated industry in the world, besides guns and drugs. One of its main rules is an almost pathological level of discretion, with which much of the Knoedler cases were dealt with. This long high-stakes legal saga raised all sorts of questions about whether the lack of transparency at the high end of the art market will be viable in the future[10]. Indeed, the rate of forgery on the art market has been currently estimated at 50%. It is still left to see whether, following such a publicized case and with the fear of losing credibility – like Knoedler & Co. and Freedman did –, the art market and its players will gain more transparency in years to come.

[1] Michael Shnayerson, A Question of Provenance, in Vanity Fair, April 23, 2012.

[2] Patricia Cohen, Note to Forgers: Don’t Forget to Spell Check, in The New York Times, June 11, 2014.

[3] M. H. Miller, The Big Fake: Behind the Scenes of Knoedler Gallery’s Downfall, in Art News, April 25, 2016.

[4] Eileen Kinsella, Knoedler Forger Misspelled “Pollock”, in ArtNet News, June 12, 2014.

[5] James Panero, I Am the Central Victim’: Art Dealer Ann Freedman on Selling $63 Million in Fake Paintings, in New York Magazine, August 27, 2013

[6] Patricia Cohen, Note to Forgers: Don’t Forget to Spell Check, in The New York Times, June 11, 2014.

[7] See. M. H. Miller.

[8] See. M. H. Miller.

[9] See. M. H. Miller.

[10] See M. H. Miller.

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