Fake sculptures by Rodin and Calder, fake paintings by Miró, fake art deco furniture, fake fang masks from Gabon, fake Chinese nude sold for more than 8 million euros … The cases of deception in the art market never end not to make headlines. “It is a massive and generalized phenomenon”, says Jean-Jacques Neuer, lawyer for the Picasso, Klein and Brancusi estates. An example ? “ More than 90% of the works presented to the Picasso-Authentification Foundation are not recognized as his hand “, he explains.
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In ancient art, which is more difficult to imitate, professionals have long believed that they have been relatively spared from this scourge. And yet … The Ruffini Affair, the book by journalist Vincent Noce, which comes out in bookstores on February 11, shows that paintings, sold yesterday as works by Cranach, Frans Hals, Brueghel or Bronzino today polarize a bundle of doubts. This connoisseur of the art market qualifies “ epidemic “ the current inflation of counterfeits.
Of course, these have always existed. As early as ancient Rome, copies of Greek statues were sold with impunity. During the Renaissance, Albrecht Dürer was one of the first to bring a lawsuit against his forgers, condemned to no longer use his monogram. Since then, counterfeits have multiplied, accompanying the boom in the art market.
At the beginning of the XXe century, the emergence of great American fortunes, eager for ancient art, thus favored in Italy painters like Icilio Federico Joni, author of Madonnas sold under the label of Sienese primitives. More recently, the surge in prices for some star artists or Chinese art has only reinforced the temptations of crooks.
The law on artistic fraud dates back to 1895
However, these prosper in a form of impunity. In France, the Court of Cassation was moved by this during a major conference on “The false in art” in 2017, in which several eminent jurists called for a revision of the texts. The Bardoux law on fraud in artistic matters dates back to… 1895. And it only punishes two years in prison and a € 75,000 fine for affixing a false signature on paintings, sculptures, drawings, engravings or music, not in the public domain. Furniture, works of art and old works are excluded.
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The offense of counterfeiting, punishable by three years in prison and a fine of € 300,000, only applies to the full or partial copy of an original work, which has not fallen into the public domain. The plagiarized author or his beneficiaries must expressly express their disagreement. Unfortunately, some artist descendants are content to touch the “resale rights” to his work, without protecting it against plagiarism. So much so that the small fifteen investigators of the Central Office for the fight against trafficking in cultural property (OCBC) must resort to crimes of“Scam” or from “Deception” on the merchandise to catch counterfeiters.
Investigation files that get bogged down
When it succeeds, many cases get bogged down in the slowness of justice, contradictory expertises, or extradition requests… These “rich people’s affairs” are far from appearing a priority in the eyes of overwhelmed magistrates. After the seizure in 2009 at the castle of Tours, of more than 170 works attributed to the Russian artist Alexandra Exter, qualified by a forensic opinion as sometimes gross forgeries, the file is still under investigation twelve years later. Meanwhile, some protagonists have reappeared in new cases involving questionable paintings in Wiesbaden, then in Ghent …
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The few successful trials end with modest penalties. Guy Ribes, tried in 2010 in Créteil for having counterfeited hundreds of modern paintings in an organized gang, from Bonnard to Vlaminck, only received three years in prison, two of which were suspended. In short, “ it is much less risky today to make fakes in art, than counterfeit money “, quips lawyer Jean-Jacques Neuer.
Experts and artist foundations increasingly under attack
Another major problem: experts and large artist foundations that issue certificates of authenticity are increasingly being sued by owners furious to see their works reduced to the level of counterfeit. To the point that, in the United States, the Pollock, Warhol, Basquiat and Keith Haring Foundations in particular have given up on establishing such documents. At the risk of letting the fakes bloom a little more.
In France, Claude Ruiz-Picasso, administrator of the Picasso estate, has fortunately just won a victory before the Paris court on January 5. He was attacked by the Texan owner of a Portrait of woman in hat claiming it was a gouache by Pablo Picasso.
Eight times in nine years, Claude Picasso had been asked by various sources to authenticate this work and had always issued a negative opinion. The owner, considering himself aggrieved, claimed 9 million euros in damages. The court sentenced him for ” abusive procedure »And considered that Claude Picasso had only expressed “ an opinion relating to his freedom of expression “ because “ taken with no intention of harm, no blameworthy lightness “.
The Giacometti Foundation also continues to deliver opinions on the works of this artist. With prior agreement, it even affixes “an indelible mark” on those it does not recognize so that they do not end up on the market as originals. “ Our other big concern is the low-end counterfeits, which can be found on the Internet by well-known sales sites for a few dozen euros. We spend our time getting it removed “, laments Catherine Grenier, director of the foundation.
Reinforced vigilance in museums
Museums are not spared. In 2016, a case of fake furniture from the XVIIIe century splashed to the Palace of Versailles, which had bought seats from this sector for 2.7 million euros. Since the Center for Research and Restoration of Museums of France (C2RMF) has acquired a “ expert college to collaborate with the historical monuments laboratory, the Mobilier national and the Center for the conservation and restoration of heritage (CICRP) in Marseille ”, explains its director Isabelle Pallot-Frossard.
Old furniture, rarely subjected to scientific analyzes, is now the subject of meticulous examinations before each public purchase. Since 2017, the C2RMF has also joined the Louvre acquisition commission and the artistic council, which decides on all major purchases at the Ministry of Culture. Alas, scientists can rarely provide certainty, indicating that such material or such radiographs appear correct. “ compatible “ with the technique of an artist.
Examining archives – sometimes rigged by crooks – does not offer absolute guarantees as to the provenance of a work either. “ We always make collegial decisions and cross historical, stylistic and scientific approaches. Almost all of the paintings we buy are subjected to laboratory imaging examinations ”, underlines Sébastien Allard, director of the paintings department at the Louvre. Despite this, he admits, “ No risk does not exist “.
A decade of resounding scandals
The Beltracchi case. In 2011, this German forger was sentenced by a Cologne court to six years in prison. He admitted to having painted and sold, with the help of his wife, more than 300 fake paintings by modern artists, such as Ernst, Léger, Derain, or Braque. He was released in January 2015.
The fall of the Knoedler Gallery. In 2013, this highly reputable New York gallery had to close after its director was accused of selling around 40 fake paintings by abstract expressionists (Pollock, Rothko, Motherwell, etc.) for tens of millions of dollars. . A gallery owner from Long Island, Glafira Rosales, had them made by a Chinese painter.
Cascades of fake furniture. Between 2015 and 2018, three cases of fake furniture from the XVIIIe century led to the indictment of several Parisian antique dealers and of an expert Bill Pallot who served four months in preventive detention. He admitted having had replicas of period seats made, some of which were sold to the Palace of Versailles.