2017-04-28 de Soles Knoedler Trial

Review: Center for Art Law Event “F for Fake”

Ruth Osborne
2017-04-28 Orson Welles F for Fake

Orson Welles in “F for Fake” (1973)

Last week, the Center for Art Law hosted an event at the Brooklyn Law School regarding the (unfortunately) highly relevant topic of fakes and forgeries on the art market.

Irina Tarsis, Esq., Founder and Director of the organization, introduced Orson Welles’s 1973 film F for Fake” to begin a discussion on the various parties involved with forged artworks and their respective motivations.


A presentation followed by Aaron H. Crowell, Esq., a partner at Clarick, Gueron, Reisbaum LLP who was a member of Eleanore and Domenico De Sole’s litigation team during the massive Knoedler trial in 2015-2016. Crowell brought up the issue of which side gets the most blame in these cases, and in Welles’s film: the art experts. The art experts are the ones who appear (misleadingly, and sometimes unbeknownst to them) as verifiers of a forgery. The art experts are the ones who can insist a work is authentic, only for a scientific test to prove it’s a forgery. But, as Crowell insisted, the focus on the experts as villains misses a more prevalent issue enabling the steady stream of fakes onto the art market.

Rather, the art world and the public at large act willingly as voyeurs looking for another “newly discovered” work, seeking the thrill of viewing a work by one of the old masters. That the art world at large still holds onto the Renaissance myth of the artistic genius is very true. But is it something that we can truly move away from? Would the public value of artworks risk being diminished if we did move away from this myth?

2017-04-28 de Soles Knoedler Trial

The de Soles at Trial in 2016. Courtesy: ArtNet/Elizabeth Williams/Illustrated Courtroom.

This discussion should serve as a reminder to approach connoisseurship – not avoid it entirely – in a manner that seeks as objective a point of view as a flawed human can have. In doing this, we might be more aware of potential shortcomings in our ability to truly see a work of art for what it is, to critique its value, aesthetically and monetarily.  Another essential matter to consider that always lies in the background of art market forgeries is that it is in fact a commercial market, in the sense that a market and its players can act wildly in order to drive up demand for a work to drive up a value. These market forces themselves have a rather deep impact on the prevalence of fakes, on what is authenticated and why, and on the ultimate valuation of an artist and his or her real or imagined oeuvre (see here for Scott Reyburn’s review of “insider” books on the art market today).

2017-04-28 Rothko fake Knoedler

Painting sold by Knoedler as a Rothko to the de Soles. Courtesy: ArtNet.


The “crisis of connoisseurship” that we are seeing in today’s art market and museum world has been thoroughly addressed already at the December 2015 conference “Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship” (put on by ArtWatch UK, the London School of Economics, and the Center for Art Law). We encourage our readers to take a look at the topics each speaker addressed, and to be on the look out for the upcoming publication of papers from this conference.

By Ruth Osborne


2015-12-14 - artwatch uk michelangelo prophet
, ,

Recap: Art, Law and Crises of Connoisseurship Conference 2015

Ruth Osborne

Last week in London, a rather remarkable gathering was held at the Society of Antiquaries at Burlington House. Our sister organization, ArtWatch UK collaborated with colleagues at the Center for Art Law (USA) and the LSE Cultural Heritage Law (UK) to host the Art, Law and Crisis of Connoisseurship conference on December 1st.

2015-12-14 - connoisseurship conference society of antiquraries london

Society of Antiquaries. Courtesy: VIctorian Web.

The speakers, nineteen prominent art historians, artists, attorneys, scientists, curators, and art dealers, filled the day with a series of talks on how each of them has encountered the crisis of connoisseurship in their respective field. What these presentations made remarkably clear for this attendee was  the dangers that the loss of connoisseurship poses for the future of art history, scholarship, and the understanding and care of our cultural heritage for future generations. What has in recent years become somewhat of anomaly in the study and stewardship of art was once a celebrated degree of distinction to pursue. It is the only way one can truly understand the artist’s hand, his or her materials and methods, and the only way one can detect the fakes, forgeries, and false attributions that continue to pop up on the market and, eventually, in museum galleries.

From Leonardo to Rubens, Veronese to Watteau, genre paintings to ancient pottery, the application of connoisseurship in each of the cases presented was demonstrably key in providing proper due diligence. While the very definition of “due diligence” can be endlessly debated, it was the application of connoisseurship that enabled one to point out the mistreatment of a restorer or the deceitful imitation of a master’s hand. This is an application that may take years – decades, even – of careful study in order to reveal the truth. But it is this very aspect of scholarship – the belief that it takes time and dedication despite the ever-ticking clock – that has becoming shockingly endangered in the study and care of art. ArtWatch UK Executive Director, artist, and co-host of the conference, Michael Daley, spoke on this in a piece by Dalya Alberge in The Guardian last month.

Without the serious diligence that the speakers at this conference brought in carefully contemplating the evidence in each of their respective cases, and without their determination to bring the facts to light, where would artistic stewardship be? Shouldn’t we be concerned when misattributions and looted artworks are being promoted at major government-funded museums, after having spent millions to hang them on their walls?  The quality of connoisseurship is one to be celebrated and encouraged in young students, not something to be thrown out the window in the increasingly competitive art world. Rather, this conference brought to the fore the demonstrated successes of connoisseurship in action to deduct fakes and right the potential wrongs done to an artist’s oeuvre for posterity.

2014-08-01 - Corcoran Gallery Washington DC

The Cost of Caring for Art: Art Law’s Role in the Corcoran Case.

Ruth Osborne
2014-08-01 - Corcoran Gallery Washington DC

Corcoran Gallery in D.C. Courtesy: New York Times.

Several similar battles have emerged this year in the museum world; battles over the mismanagement of important art collections and the unfortunate consequences for the artworks involved.

In the case of the Delaware Art Museum, a collection has begun to disintegrate in the interest of keeping the doors open to the public after owing millions in bond debt after a major building expansion. Meanwhile, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. is struggling to maintain its collection by joining with the National Gallery and abandoning its historic 1897 Beaux-Arts building just steps from the White House.

In each of these instances, items of cultural and artistic significance are being forsaken due to responsibility falling on the shoulders of those unwilling or unqualified to provide strong enough support. Caring for art is not – nor has ever been – a simple task. But as the beginnings of the Corcoran court case have illustrated this week, it demands highly discerning Board leadership and financial management. The Delaware Board using deaccessions as an answer to refilling a museum’s budget goes against the fundamental purpose of a museum to care for and preserve works of art for the public. Works are treated like fluid assets and bargaining chips, not priceless cultural artifacts to be cared for. Owners are neglecting their call to be stewards of these collections, instead treating them like cultural capital to be traded.  In the on-going struggle between bankrupt Detroit’s creditors and the DIA’s supporters, art is being asked to clean up after a city government that could not keep itself afloat.

2014-08-01 - Merchant's House Museum Manhattan

Merchants House in Lower Manhattan. Courtesy: The Villager.

Across the Atlantic, the Maeght Foundation in France has a new Director looking to make up for its budget deficit by auctioning off works from its collection, which he believes would not be much affected by deaccessions. Director Olivier Kaeppelin “wants the foundation to be free to sell works. The collection is valuable.”  Furthermore, a study by France’s Ministry of Culture this July identified the shortcomings of more than 1200 museums nationwide in caring properly for their collections. From the curator’s and collection manager’s perspective, this comes down to having the right storage and staff to care for the objects. But that all depends on a museum’s money being spent in the right way, and on fundraising that keeps collections preservation as the ultimate goal, rather than new gallery expansions.

But who is to answer if the governing board in question fails to account for their lack of good stewardship? Where a museum’s trustees fail, other major donors and supporters can step up (as in the case of the DIA and Corcoran). But what happens when outside support systems fail as well? Here in New York, the month of April signaled the final nail in the coffin of the Merchant House Museum’s fight against damage from new construction next door. The state institution charged with defending the interests of art and historic preservation was unable to prevent a new hotel from going up. Now, with 6-1 approval from New York’s Landmarks Preservation Commission, the 180 year-old landmarked building and superior interior plasterwork will now suffer greater damage for the sake of a new hotel that surely could have been built elsewhere in the trendy NoHo neighborhood.

The law is the last system in place to defend the interests of a collection. The role of art law often ends up being essential in deciding how museums and historic sites fight to preserve their collection. It sets parameters for what should be expected of a museum board or director; it determines what should be expected from those in such positions and creates an arena in which they can be called to account for their actions. For the Corcoran, the question of what will happen remains to be answered by the D.C. Superior Court. The battle over the Corcoran’s proposed dissolution will be sure to set precedent for (inevitable) future struggles over museum collections. Questions of board mismanagement, the appointment of an unqualified director, and an inability to fundraise have thus far been raised. Representing the “Save the Corcoran” group, lawyer Andrew S. Tulmello has even gone so far as to argue: “the museum trustees have long operated as if the Corcoran had no future.” ArtWatch will be keeping tabs on what is sure to be a serious debate over board and directorial ethics, items coming under greater scrutiny in today’s changing non-profit development and donor climate.