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Knoedler Curdler: Lessons to be Gleaned from the Authenticity Allegations

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Patricia Cohen

I was more than a little surprised by Patricia Cohen‘s NY Times scoop in Thursday’s paper (online Wednesday) about the precipitous, unceremonious shuttering of the venerable Knoedler & Co. gallery, New York, which terminated its 165-year run with this terse notice.

On Saturday, we learned how Cohen most likely got her scoop: She was working on a lengthy, far more astonishing report about an investigation by the FBI and the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York into “whether a parade of paintings and drawings, sold for years by some of New York’s most elite art dealers as the work of Modernist masters like Robert Motherwell and Jackson Pollock, actually consists of expert forgeries.” Most of the pictures at issue, according to Cohen’s article, “came to market though a little-known art dealer from Long Island, Glafira Rosales.”

“The Knoedler gallery,” Cohen wrote, “has not been implicated in the investigation. But on Friday a London collector, Pierre Lagrange, who bought one of the works, “Untitled 1950″ by Pollock, for $17 million in 2007, sued the gallery and Ms. [Ann] Freedman [Knoedler’s former president], contending that it is a forgery. His forensic analysis found that two paints in the work had not been invented until after Pollock’s death, the suit said.”

Cohen had previously written about a monetary settlement to an Irish gallery, Killala Fine Art, which had bought another of the suspect paintings from Julian Weissman, a dealer who had previously worked for Knoedler. Killala sued to get back what it had spent for a purported Robert Motherwell that the Dedalus Foundation now deems to be a forgery. Established by Motherwell in 1981, that foundation owns the copyright on his works and is the sponsor of a forthcoming Motherwell catalogue raisonné.

What are the object lessons to be learned from this cautionary, still unfolding tale of art transactions gone bad? First and foremost, it’s a warning to dealers that they must insist on receiving verifiable, convincing information about provenance for works that otherwise lack clear, detailed documentation (i.e., a credible history of exhibitions and/or publications).

Collectors can’t always get complete provenance information, because sellers sometimes insist on anonymity. But a dealer, who must stand behind what he sells to collectors and other non-merchants, should require proof from those who sell or consign to the gallery that a work said to be by a particular artist really is by that artist. Under New York State’s Arts & Cultural Affairs Law, an art merchant’s statement to non-merchants (i.e., collectors) about authorship “creates an express warranty” of authorship.

If the seller or consignor claims to have a cache of previously unrecorded works that has mysteriously surfaced (as appears to have been the case with the Rosales trove), the dealer should, at the very least, seek the opinions of other top experts (which Knoedler apparently did with the Motherwells) and, if relevant, obtain results from scientific testing (as Lagrange said he had done before filing his lawsuit against Knoedler).

In his Saturday report on Lagrange’s lawsuit, Philip Boroff of Bloomberg got this comment on the suit from Kathleen Blomquist, a Knoedler spokeswoman: “The allegations of misrepresentation are completely baseless.” Blomquist also “said the gallery is still reviewing the complaint, and it isn’t related to the closing [of Knoedler],” Boroff reported.

Nevertheless, the closing was so unexpected and sudden that two days later, the NY Times carried an ad that had been placed by Knoedler (as part of the full-page spread devoted to members of the Art Dealers Association of America), promoting its Charles Simonds exhibition “thru [sic] January 14. Catalogue with essay by Arthur C. Danto.”

The full text of the settlement agreement regarding the purported Motherwell bought by Killala Fine Art is here. I’ll update this post with a link to the complaint filed by Lagrange, once it appears on the U.S. District Court’s website.

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