This week saw the close of a highly publicized case involving a now defunct, well-known New York gallery and charges of fraud and racketeering in their sale of a forged Rothko. Sources like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and ARTnews documented the three-week trial in which Domenico and Eleanore De Sole, who bought the forged painting for $8.3 million, accused former Knoedler & Co. director Ann Freedman, a woman the couple “trusted,” of consciously selling counterfeit work. It also came to light that the gallery sold more than 30 other forgeries since 1994, making many question Freedman’s claims that she had no knowledge that the paintings were fakes.
Knoedler was, according to De Sole, “the best gallery in America.” Knowing this sterling reputation, De Sole, the chairman of top auction house Sotheby’s, felt he had no reason to question the work. However, closer looks into the provenance Freedman provided for the Rothko in question soiled her – and the gallery’s – reputation. On the list of experts that Knoedler claimed authenticated the work and could vouch for its authenticity were people who are not qualified or even attempt to authenticate artwork.
The case has many art world insiders reeling. The art market relies largely on sales by big-name artists like Rothko and Pollock. How, then, did so many forgeries painted by the same man in Queens and distributed by one now-disgraced dealer go undetected? Because many art deals, especially involving multi-million dollar acquisitions, are shrouded in secrecy. No one thought much, then, of the mysterious Mr. X, the anonymous collector that was purported to be the seller. Until recently, no one questioned whether or not he even existed because, as De Sole said, Knoedler is “the best” and would not handle inauthentic work.
The case has many people looking beneath the art world’s high-culture façade to the sketchier, more dishonest aspects of the acquisition process. We are led to believe that the Rothkos and Pollocks of the world are one-of-kind, irreplaceable works. If De Sole, a man who is constantly in the presence of masterpieces and high-dollar pieces, can fall victim to the forgery trap, there’s no telling to what extent other buyers have gullibly purchased counterfeit work. The case reminds buyers that there are significant risks involved in art buying and that due diligence is necessary in order to avoid a multi-million dollar mistake.