When a Piece of Paper Is Worth Millions

The Issue of “Provenance” Fraud in the Art Market Today

Gifted art forgers like Walter Beltracchi have reproduced Old and Modern Masters’ style with such skills that it took time to arrest them — and some of their artworks still circulate nowadays. But Beltracchi’s talent was not the sole reason for his forgeries’ successful sales. As he knew the art world well, he also knew that he needed a justification for his possession of such a fabulous stock of art: in this case, they “belonged” to his wife’s grandfather, as part of the “Jägers Collection”, bought from real famous German art dealer Alfred Flechtheim. He could prove this thanks to photographs of his wife’s grandmother in front of her collection, and the stickers of the “Sammlung Flechtheim” on the back of the paintings. But the pictures were in fact of his wife, taken with a 1930s camera. The provenance seemed realistic as Flechtheim had died in exile in 1937 and his collection had been dispersed: thus, Beltracchi had successfully found a background that proved his paintings were not only legit, they actually had a history.

Catalogue, Galerie Alfred Flechtheim

Provenance, from the French verb provenir (“to come from”), is the artwork’s ID which lists its life throughout the years: where it was exhibited, who owned it, where, when and to whom it was sold. Such information not only gives the artwork extra value if, by chance, it belonged to a famous collector, but it also authenticates the work. An archaeological piece of art might be forged or looted — but with a clear history of its whereabouts, a buyer will feel safe enough to invest in it.

But, as we have just seen with the Beltracchi case, provenance can be forged and this has become more and more frequent in the art market. Why? Simply because it is a lot easier to forge (with some knowledge of the artists and the dealers of a given period) than a painting. Even a mediocre forgery might pass experts’ tests if it has a solid provenance to back it up. There have been cases of provenance fraud in all sectors of the art world, especially since the last century when art historians and dealers started relying primarily on connoisseurship and provenance research to authenticate art.

One of the most famous cases is the ten-year-long scheme (from 1987 to 1996) perpetrated by British conman John Drewe to sell forgeries made by John Myatt, an unknown but skilled British artist in need of money. While Myatt added elements to the paintings to make them appear historically accurate (such as old gallery stickers on the back), Drewe made up the perfect stories to sell them. By posing as a collector and making large donations, he gained access to the most famous British art libraries and archives, such as the Tate Gallery, the Victoria & Albert Museum and the Institute of Contemporary Art in London, where he was able to slip fake records for Myatt’s forgeries, “exploiting the very methodology art historians and researchers used to verify authenticity. Thus, if a potential buyer questioned the authenticity of a work and went to a library to verify its provenance or exhibition history, the doctored records would assuage his or her concerns”[1]

Tate Britain (London, UK)

Drewe created multiple aliases to build the artworks’ provenance. Among others, “Len Martin” was made up as the ‘owner’ of a Giacometti artwork, certified by a skillfully cut-and-pasted solicitor’s fake letter. Drewe finally founded his own (fictitious) company called Art Research Associates, where he hired himself as a professional archivist to confirm the authenticity of the artworks he sold. But the false provenance scheme proved him wrong in the end: since he had used similar gallery stickers for two separate paintings said to be from two different exhibitions, this detail finally attracted the experts’ attention on all the other works he sold[2].

Whether it is due to a large production or a lack of documentation on their lives and work, some artists seem to have been especially targeted in provenance forging cases. One of these is the Action Painting leader Jackson Pollock (1912-1956).

A case involving Pollock’s paintings is still to be solved. It involves the “Brennerman Collection”, supposedly belonging to a German-born American collector, James Brennerman, who gathered 748 Pollocks according to a (ultimately proved bogus) letter from July 1972. This high number first attracted the attention of the IFAR (International Foundation of Art Research), as it equalled two-third of the works listed in the Pollock’s catalogue raisonné. IFAR investigations did not find any information concerning James Brennerman’s life or death, either in Germany or in the United States, revealing he did not exist but had been merely created for the collection’s provenance[3]. Decades of correspondence said to have been written by Brennerman and pictures of his mansion in Chicago were found, but the pictures were proved to be composite views of the 15th-Century Sforza Castle in Milan, an 18th-Century Bavarian Church and the Neptune Fountain in Madrid. While letters described how Brennerman had paid for artworks in cash and transported them in personal trucks, thus explaining the missing records, tests revealed that the labels and markings on the paintings were fake, the inventory numbers were not coherent and there were traces of anachronistic materials: it was clearly a fraud case. But, as of today, the author of Brennerman’s scheme has not yet been found.

In a similar case, Long Island conman John Re pretended to have found in a basement in Springs, East Hampton, a stock of authentic Pollock and Willem de Kooning paintings[4]. It belonged to a recently deceased woodworker and restorer named George Schulte, who had supposedly bought them from the artists themselves while they all lived in that same town. Notarized statements signed by Schulte’s widow Barbara attested to this, but they were called into question when Barbara Schulte’s family started suspecting that Re had taken advantage of her fragile mental health to get this document. Interviews conducted by the IFAR revealed Schulte did not know Pollock or ever mentioned owning these artworks. There were no traces of transactions in the Pollock archives. After a closer examination the artworks were also proved to have been forged, and in 2014 Re was arrested and charged with fraud. But out of the 150 Pollocks and de Kooning sold by Re over nine years, only 74 had been found by the time of the trial[5].

Pollock’s House in Springs, NY

In 2016, Michigan art dealer, Eric Ian Hornak Spoutz, was arrested for fraud, after selling forgeries of Abstract Impressionists Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline and Joan Mitchell. Spoutz had forged paperwork and created several aliases (such as Robert Chad Smith, John Goodman and James Sinclair) to build the paintings’ history and persuade potential clients of their authenticity. He also donated artworks to museums, just like Drewe, to establish himself as a respected art collector. 

Eric Ian Hornak Spoutz Lecturing Washington County Museum of Fine Arts in 2013

As he “also owned a legitimate art gallery, [Spoutz] understood the value of provenance. He forged receipts, bills of sale, letters from dead attorneys, and other documents”[6]. According to the FBI, Spoutz used a vintage typewriter and old paper to create his fake documentation and made them look authentic by mentioning real art dealers or lawyers. Spoutz chose to sell lower-level works by known artists, which explained why they did not appear in these artists’ catalogues. But this very fake paper trail cost Spoutz the success of his otherwise bright scheme. According to the FBI: “The type of a letter allegedly sent from a business in the 1950s matched the type in a letter allegedly sent by a firm in a different state three decades later. Spoutz also mistakenly added a ZIP Code to the letterhead of a firm on a letter four years before ZIP Codes were created. Another red flag was that many of the people mentioned in the letters were dead. And some of the addresses were in the middle of an intersection, or didn’t exist at all. All these dead ends helped prove fraud was being committed”[7]. While Spoutz was eventually arrested, some of these forgeries are probably still circulating.

Contemporary and street artists have been also targeted by provenance fraudsters — just like with Pollock, often because of their large production yet frequent lack of documentation. Indeed, in 2020 Mexican politician Angel Pereda was charged with attempting to sell Jean-Michel Basquiat and Keith Haring forgeries, by falsifying their provenance. And this year, Jason Harrington was arrested in San Diego for selling $1.1 million of forged art (including street art) to at least 15 galleries and collectors between 2018 and 2020. Harrington’s scheme was first successful as he would explain that the paintings were not yet known on the market because they had been just discovered. Harrington also sent buyers letters from fictitious previous owners, he altered photographs to make it look like a certain painting had belonged to a certain collector, and imagined elaborate stories for them. Among others, he sold forgeries of street artist Richard Hambleton and 1970’s American artist Barkley Hendrick. According to Harrington, the Hendrick painting would have been bought from the artist himself by his uncle at a garage sale in 1972. This proved to be incorrect and the painting to be a forgery, just like the rest of his collection. But, for a while, such stories convinced buyers of his stock of art’s authenticity[8].

One of the biggest forgery schemes of these last few years involved art dealer Inigo Philbrick specialized in post-war and Contemporary Art and also accused of forging provenance. Philbrick, who had galleries in London and Miami, defrauded collectors and institutions of more than $20 million to finance his art dealing business. He was finally arrested in Vanuatu in 2020 where he had fled after being accused of perpetrating a forgery scam[9]. Investigations revealed how, from 2016 to 2019, Philbrick scammed his clients and sold forgeries to obtain funding and loans for his gallery, sometimes selling the same piece of art to different persons without their knowledge. He would provide fake contracts and records to prove the works’ authenticity also listing stolen identities as the sellers. 

But while provenance fraud cases concerning paintings are numerous, they have also involved antiquities. Manhattan antiquities dealers Erdal Dere and Faisal Khan were recently arrested for fabricating false provenance documents for antiquities sold between 2015 and 2020[10]. Dere owned the Fortuna Fine Arts Ltd. gallery, with Khan as his business partner. They both allegedly acquired new antiquities in Asia and falsified their provenance to sell them to buyers in the US and abroad. Dere also used the identity of dead collectors to claim they had been past owners of these antiquities[11].

As we can see, provenance forgery has become more and more frequent these past years, ever since the John Drewe scheme in the 1980s-90s. While a fraudster needs a forged artwork to sell, its quality does not have to be first-rate, as long as there is a convincing provenance with it. Provenance fraud concerns all sectors in the art world, from Archaeology to Contemporary Art, and can be found in many parts of the world. Indeed, in Spain, an art dealer has also been recently arrested for attempting to sell three forged paintings, presumably by El Greco, Amedeo Modigliani and Francisco de Goya, for €12.5 million ($14.7 million) each. Their authenticity was built on false history, with the intent to sell them to black market buyers in Germany, Switzerland and Mexico. The artworks were finally certified as fake by experts from the Sephardic Museum of Toledo and the National Museum of Prague[12]

Provenance fraud relies on a good knowledge of the art world and market and of its figures, both dealers and collectors. It uses all elements usually capable of authenticating an artwork. According to Dr Sharon Flescher, Executive Director of the IFAR and Editor-in-Chief of IFAR journal: “All types of markings and provenance documents are grist for the faker’s mill: collectors’ and dealers’ labels or marks, custom stamps and shipping labels, or exhibition and auction stickers on the back of the works; sales receipts and certificates of authenticity; exhibition catalogues; correspondence; photographs; and other archival documents, conservation records and file notations. Given their importance for provenance research, such identifiers and records are also a faker’s bread and butter, thus again underscoring the need for vigilance when undertaking provenance research”[13]. But as provenance fraud is more frequent, experts are also more careful when researching the history of a painting and checking the sources. Since the arrest of perpetrators such as Drewe, Spoutz or Re, experts have also learnt how to spot red flags (for instance, if an artwork has been approved by Drewe’s Art Research Associates, comes from the Schulte’s collection or belonged to James Brennerman). With documentation published online, such as digital catalogues raisonnés, fraudsters have access to a lot of details on an artist and the whereabouts of his/her artworks, but this also enables researchers and dealers to find more easily foolproof information on a painting. As art institutions research and publish the entire life and work of artists, this leaves less room for a fraudster to create a provenance out of thin air, without the risk of being found out quickly.

Online sales remain a dangerous field for buyers, even more so with dematerialized art. When buying online or when digital artworks are involved, there is less certainty on the provenance accuracy. But, as San-Francisco art consultant and founder of Art Business, Alan Bamberger noted, this shift to the online art market and the more frequent issues of forged provenance throughout the last few years have not changed the wisest and safest way to buy, which anyone interested in investing in art, these days, should remember: “With the growth of the market online, the days of simply assessing paperwork are also gone. But the advice appears to be the same: if something looks too good to be true, it probably is”[14].


Notes

[1] Arthur Thompkins (ed.), Provenance Research Today, Lund Humphries & IFAR, 2020.

[2] See How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote Art History.

[3] See Provenance Research Today.

[4] Emma G. Fitzsimmons, “Seller of Art Fakes Pleads Guilty to Wire Fraud”, in The New York Times, December 1, 2014

[5] See Provenance Research Today.

[6] Caroline Elbaor, “FBI Warns There Could Be ‘Hundreds More’ Fake Postwar Paintings by Forgery Mastermind”, in Artnet, April 10, 2017.

[7] FBI News Website.

[8] Kristina Davis, “Escondido man admits in guilty plea to dealing in forged works of contemporary painters Richard Hambleton and Barkley Hendricks”, in San Diego Union Tribune, August 9, 2021.

[9] Department of Justice, U.S. Attorney’s Office, Southern District of New York, “Former London and Miami Art Dealer Arrested For Fraud Scheme”, on the U.S. DoJ Website, June 12, 2020.

[10] Riah Pryor, “The devil is in the paperwork — don’t be caught out by provenance fraud”, in The Art Newspaper, November 11, 2020.

[11] Margaret Carrigan, “Two Manhattan antiquities dealers arrested on charges of fraud”, in The Art Newspaper, September 22, 2020.

[12] Nora McGreevy, “A Swindler Almost Sold These Forged ‘Masterpieces’ for $14.7 Million”, in Smithsonian Magazine, April 1, 2021.

[13] Dr Sharon Flescher, “The Challenges of Provenance Research”, in Provenance Research Today (ed. Arthur Thompkins), Lund Humphries, 2020, p. 39-51.

[14] Ryan Pryor, “The devil is in the paperwork — don’t be caught out by provenance fraud”, in The Art Newspaper, November 11, 2020.


References

FBI News Post — Forging Papers to Sell Fake Art. Many Victims May Unknowingly Own Phony Works, April 6, 2017.

David Anfam, “‘Provenance: the Trojan horse that can make or break a work of art’. The who, where and when of ownership can lead to scholarly, ethical, legal and existential issues”, in The Art Newspaper, December 2, 2020.

Margaret Carrigan, “Two Manhattan antiquities dealers arrested on charges of fraud“, in The Art Newspaper, September 23, 2020.

Noah Charney, The Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of the Master Forgers, Phaidon Press, 2015.

Kristina Davis, “Escondido man admits in guilty plea to dealing in forged works of contemporary painters Richard Hambleton and Barkley Hendricks”, in San Diego Union Tribune, August 9, 2021.

Lisa Duffy-Zeballos – Sharon Flescher, “The mysterious James Brennerman: did he exist and where did all his fakes come from?”, IFAR Journal 17 (no. 4), 2017.

Lisa Duffy-Zeballos – Sharon Flescher, “Long Island con man John Re sentenced to 5 years for fraud that IFAR helped expose”, IFAR Journal 15 (no. 1-2), 2015, p. 33.

Caroline Elbaor, “FBI Warns There Could Be ‘Hundreds More’ Fake Postwar Paintings by Forgery Mastermind”, in Artnet, April 10, 2017.

Emma G. Fitzsimmons, “Seller of Art Fakes Pleads Guilty to Wire Fraud”, in The New York Times, December 1, 2014.

Dr Sharon Flescher, “The Challenges of Provenance Research”, in Provenance Research Today (ed. Arthur Thompkins), Lund Humphries, 2020, p. 39-51.

Nora McGreevy, “A Swindler Almost Sold These Forged ‘Masterpieces’ for $14.7 Million”, in Smithsonian Magazine, April 1, 2021.

Eileen Kinsella, “Sotheby’s Is Suing a Miami Couple for Consigning Millions of Dollars Worth of Allegedly Fake Diego Giacometti Works”, in ARTnet, August 2021.

Aimee Murphy, Aura, Provenance, Fakes & Forgeries. Exploring the Pitfalls of Provenance and how this Can Enhance the Agenda of Fakes and Forgeries in the Art World, University of Glasgow, April 4, 2021.

Ryan Pryor, “The devil is in the paperwork — don’t be caught out by provenance fraud”, in The Art Newspaper, November 11, 2020.

Laney Salisbury, Aly Sujo, Provenance: How a Con Man and a Forger Rewrote the History of Modern Art, 2009.

Ronald D. Spencer, “Art Law On Authenticity and Provenance When Buying and Selling Art — What are the issues of authenticity and provenance when it comes to buying and selling art?”, in Artnet, March 22, 2015.

Arthur Thompkins (ed.), Provenance Research Today, Lund Humphries in association with the International Foundation for Art Research (IFAR), 2020.

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