Valuing the Source More than the Thing

                           A Fake Rothko

Eight million dollars is a lot to pay for a fake. But it is still the same canvas that was once loved when it was purchased years ago.

Sometimes our apparent devotion to a specific thing gets betrayed by our deeper and occasionally unmasked love for its ostensible caché.  We may like the idea of owning something more than the object itself.  For example, many of us have hundreds of books that we may never read again. But they stay nearby, proudly displayed as representations of an identity we are willing to share. These books are doing most of their work as unopened artifacts, their spines neatly lined up and visible for the world to see.

Our misplaced love for assumed attributions of good taste suggests values that have perhaps become inverted. To use the language of the art world, can the provenance of an object mean more than the object?  Sometimes– a fact well represented in Director Barry Avrich’s documentary, Made You Look now available on Netflix. It’s drama means that it will surely be a feature film in the near future. In it, Avrich takes us back to the early 2000s and to New York’s Knoedler Gallery and its Director, Ann Freedman.  Over a full decade, 80 million dollars changed hands at the gallery as what were supposedly “unknown” paintings by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and Mark Rothko were sold to Manhattan’s money-to-burn elites.  Even the President of the Board at Sotheby’s and his wife couldn’t resist.

You know where this is heading.  All of the newly discovered works of abstract impressionism were fakes. They were sold to Freeman, who found it convenient to accept the story of a Queens New York woman who claimed that she was simply helping a friend, a South American art collector who wished to sell off works that he no longer wanted. The mysterious woman sold them to the gallery for modest sums, and then the gallery sold them to their well-healed clients.

In fact, there was no collector. Instead, a very good Chinese artist then living on Long Island had mastered the common cultural practice of making nearly perfect paintings in the styles of the artists. It was an effective con involving scores of “new” canvasses that had supposedly been purchased directly from leading painters of mid-Twentieth Century American art.

The problem is what to make of copies of a famous work at a time when we have almost perfect tools of reproduction.

Interestingly, if we buy a copy of a musical performance—perhaps a CD, DVD or download—we know we are getting a copy, and that is exactly what we want.  We want the performance that is brought back to life in bytes or pixels. With music, everyone can be a collector of music.  But the modern art world has a distorted set of values.  The assumption is that each painting is unique and monetizes the celebrity of a famous artist.  All of this presumably increases the size of the numbers on price tags. A long-running BBC series, Fake or Fortune, made the same point for years. Sleuthing the origins of someone’s inheritance of a possible Constable or Gainsborough became the most popular arts program in Britain.

Avrich talks to some of the people who were duped, including Dominico and Eleanore De Soles. They thought they were buying the rather striking painting at the top of this piece, supposedly by Mark  Rothko.  Even though Mr. De Soles was an auction house executive, he was fooled like almost everyone else who viewed it. When the con was revealed, suddenly the picture that had hung on the wall of their home was, in his word, “worthless.”

The problem of what to make of copies in an age of instant reproduction is actually not a new quandary.  Philosopher Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935), raises the question of what to make of convincing copies of the real thing. After making a pitch for cherishing “authenticity,” he reaches the mostly unsatisfying conclusion that an original as an “aura” that is missing in a copy.  But there is at least some logic here. In simpler terms, perhaps the De Soles and others were buying a vaunted reputation that comes with an established artist, something both less and more than the material object itself.

One indicator of this inverted state of affairs is the recent observation of writer and critic Fran Lebowitz, who has noted how strange it is that auctions of stunningly high-priced works follow a pattern where the painting is shown to a packed but silent room, followed by a burst of applause only when a final high bid is finally accepted. Similarly, for many news organizations the story of a famous painting is not about the art, but the astronomical price paid for it.

     The Alleged fake Renoir owned by Donald Trump

Donald Trump apparently owns an attractive but fake Renoir. It may be easier to sell a fake to someone who so eagerly trades in appearances. Even so, it probably still hangs on a wall in one of his homes. And it should. Ditto for the Chinese copy that the De Soles bought. Eight million dollars is a lot to pay for a fake. But it’s worth remembering that it is the same canvas they bought and loved years ago.