CRIME

Crimes and connoisseurs

Paul Berton October 22 1984
CRIME

Crimes and connoisseurs

Paul Berton October 22 1984

Crimes and connoisseurs

CRIME

The Italian art community was rocked to its foundations last month when amateur forgers admitted that they had created three sculptures which prominent experts had attributed to the early 20th-century artist Amedeo Modigliani. Then, on Sept. 6, a magistrate in La Bisbal, a town near Salvador Dali’s home, began an investigation into a fire at the Spanish painter’s 12th-century castle in Gerona province amid renewed rumors that aides of the ailing 80-year-old surrealist have manipulated him into forging and selling lithographs over his signature. For the art-buying public the two incidents underline a problem which experts have faced for centuries: fakes abound in a world in which sales are lucrative and reputations volatile. For police, they are graphic examples of a growing problem that so far they have been unable to control. Said Sgt. John Lyons, an RCMP officer with Interpol’s Ottawa office: “In terms of dollar value art fraud is larger than theft. But there still is no

Paul Berton

specialized police effort to deal with it.” The Modigliani incident was more than just a crime. It also demonstrated the inability of even the most prestigious experts to detect crude fraud, the latest one involving the recurring legend that the young avant-garde artist threw several sculptures into the canal of his native Leghorn (Livorno) in 1909. A local museum curator persuaded authorities to dredge the canal this summer. Over a period of a month the dredgers brought up three oval-shaped heads sculpted in Modigliani’s distinctive style. Many of Italy’s top critics and art historians agreed that the heads were crude but were authentic pieces which would prove useful in understanding the artist’s later development.

Less than a month later, four university students who are not artists confessed that they had created one of the heads with an electric drill, a chisel and a screwdriver. But many experts did not want to believe them. Even after the students re-created their fakes on national television, renowned art historian Giulo Carlo Argan claimed that “for illiterates, writing even a bad poem is impossible.” Still, all but the staunchest believers lost faith three days later when Angelo Froglia, an anarchist dockworker and former drug addict with a prison record, backed his claim that he had created the other two heads with a videotape of the act as proof. He called it a “political gesture.”

In Spain the possible existence of thousands of Dali fakes has long troubled experts, but the public outcry that followed revelation of the bizarre circumstances surrounding the fire at the artist’s castle—including the fact that Dali was suffering from malnutrition and that his aides took 43 hours to deliver him to the hospital—prompted Gerona’s chief prosecutor to order an inquiry into “the whole Dali affair.” That involves the bizarre circumstances surrounding the fire at the castle as well as the reports about swindles in his financial affairs and paintings.

The painter, whose arteriosclerosis and Parkinson’s disease prevent him from serious work, had been a recluse in the castle since the death in 1982 of his wife, Elena Deluvina Diakonoff, known as Gala. Dali’s health has been failing since 1975, but thousands of works bearing his unmistakable signature have been sold since then. Manuel Pujol Baladas, a 37-year-old Spanish artist living in Barcelona, last year admitted that he is solely responsible for many of them. He added that he had “collaborated” with the painter on other works at Gala’s urging. Said Pujol: “I do not know if Dali was aware of what I was doing.” But the most far-reaching aspect of the emerging scandal concerns the possible existence of thousands of blank

sheets of paper which investigators suspect the ailing artist signed at his wife’s request. In 1974 French customs officials discovered a truckload of the paper, intended to be made into phony Dali prints, at the Spanish border. Most experts agree that the confusion diminished the value of almost all Dali prints. They claim that many people who buy Dali reproductions are deceived by the signature into believing that they are purchasing a numbered print. And genuine prints are suspect because Dali’s publishers have often released different editions for different countries.

Some experts predict that the Spanish investigation will finally push down the high prices for Dali prints. Said Aaron Milrad, a Toronto lawyer who specializes in the arts: “I think a lot of his prints are going to lose their marketability, and their resale value will be affected.” Added Joan Kropf, curator of the Salvador Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Fla., which contains the largest collection of the artist’s work in North America: “There are a lot of questions about Dali graphics now, and buying them involves a great deal of risk.” Although Dali is by far the most prominent, he is not the only artist whose prints are suspect. Today, “the whole print market is a grey area,” according to Lyons. He said that some well-known artists have begun routinely to sign and number reproductions of their paintings, which then command higher prices. Although the practice is not fraudulent, many experts frown on it. Lyons also said that many unwitting buyers are duped by the practice. He warned: “I do not think most people realize that they are buying a signed poster. They think they are getting an investment, but they are not.”

The lack of any special controls regulating the sale of fine art makes it difficult to distinguish merely questionable practices from outright fraud. Declared Milrad: “There are no controls at all. If some of the practices in this business were followed by stockbrokers, they would be put in jail.” David Goodreau, a Carleton University art history professor who works closely with the RCMP, says that the insurance industry should take greater initiative by hiring expert appraisers to assess and record the authenticity of insured pieces. Said Goodreau: “If people knew right away that they had bought a fake, they could take recourse through the courts rather than finding out years later.”

One possible solution to the problem lies in legislation that would require dealers to provide detailed ownership histories for every piece of art they sold. New York state recently passed such a law, applicable to fine art prints, and dealers in New York City, the world’s largest art market, said that it should lead to better security for art collectors around the world. But Edith Yeomans, executive administrator of the Professional Art Dealers Association of Canada, said that no similar legislation is being planned in Canada. Said Yeomans: “There is a movement afoot, but I think it will be a few years before we have any legislation.” She added that many potential collectors may be driven out of the market if the incidence of fraud continues to increase.

Goodreau supported the call for legislation but added that fraud will continue to lure unwary collectors as long as the forgers’ rewards remain high. As an example, he cited Tom Keating, a famous British forger whose copies of 19thcentury artists, including J.M.W. Turner and John Constable, once hung in prestigious galleries. Keating died last February, and an estate sale last month produced surprisingly high prices for his remaining fakes. Said Goodreau: “The reason for the high prices has to be that the buyers hope to sell the works off as the genuine article some time in the future.”

Sari Gilbert

David Baird