The art market is a place where fish eyes are mixed with pearls. For thousands of years. The paintings of the Old Masters were forged by the Chinese emperors. The emperors were deceived by courtiers who replaced original works from imperial palaces with forgeries. The rise of the rich and the development of the mass market have always led to a flood of forgeries. Ancient Chinese literature proves to be an invaluable source of knowledge on this subject.

“Between 713 and 742, Emperor Xuanzong purchased and collected paintings and books from all over the country, ordering his experts to put their signatures on the works and add colophons.”[1]

“All of Li Cheng’s alleged works are painted by an untrained hand and the signatures are forgeries. That is why I wish to announce ‘The Theory of the Absence of Li.”[2]

“Deng Fu lists no less than 400 workshops producing forgeries of Zhao Mengfu’s paintings.”[3]

“Sometime later, forgeries of his works were abundant. When he made a small painting on silk in the morning, by noon there was already a copy of it, and in less than ten days one would come across these reproductions everywhere.”[4]

“As soon as Wen finished an inch-sized painting, it was copied in thousands and hundreds of ways. Paintings were kept in homes or sold on the market, originals and forgeries mixed together. For a time, the people who fed on the work of the brush made a profit from it, often profiting from this activity. But the wise eye can always see the difference between authentic images and forgeries, which to them appear as fish eyes and pearls.”[5]

Our purpose, however, is not to describe the way that old Chinese complained about human perversity and greed for profit. Instead, we want to take a look at the fish eyes of today’s art market. And since the work of a forger, as connoisseurs of the subject agree, always bears the trace of the aesthetic tastes of their epoch, which deceives and attracts contemporaries, we will look at such deeds of the masters of delusion – forgers and swindlers, which bear the clear stamp of our times. Why should it be visible only to posterity, like van Meegeren’s vermeers, which today reek of faint Art Deco for miles around? What are our present-day ways of forgery? How are they different from the ancient ones? What does our stamp look like?

The global art market of the 21st century is an unprecedented phenomenon. The presentation of a model forgery must therefore be preceded by a general characterisation of that market. Without knowledge of its elementary mechanisms, we would just end up surprised and awed again and again.

***

The global art market is a conglomerate of 300 specialist markets, employing around six million people. All of those markets are part of art industry. The contemporary art market and the Old Masters market, which are of exclusive interest to us here, are governed by different rules. The global market for contemporary art is a speculative market that large corporations entered a quarter century ago, pumping streams of money into it. The financialization of this market, together with the tools of modern marketing that the Sackler family used in the 1940s and 1950s in the American pharmaceutical sector, produced results that had been unheard of before. The largest galleries began to turn into corporations whose sole purpose was to manage the capital (dead money) flowing into the market from everywhere.

Disparities have arisen between the stable Old Masters market, hitherto a mainstay of the overall market value, and the contemporary art market of the Anglo-Saxon countries and China, where prices have become detached from value. Today, the value of a work depends mainly on the origin of the investment capital.

Skeptics proclaim that it works a bit like a black box: put a hundred million in, and the outcome is pink panties with black dots. Several years ago, the most expensive painting by a contemporary Chinese painter was auctioned in the Far East for over thirty million American dollars. After the auction, the painting disappeared from the hotel. Upon investigation, police found it in a dumpster – the cleaners thought it was trash and threw it away right after the auction. Moralists have a need for such exemplars, but this story is a real event.

At the same time, a Russian magnate residing in the Principality of Monaco sued his art dealer for the return of one billion Euros, the amount by which the dealer was alleged to have overstated the price for paintings by old masters. The Ryboloviev v. Bouvier case, which cost the job of one of the Principality’s ministers, is a trifle in view of the amount of money pumped into the contemporary art market. A month ago, the South Korean government intervened over the late Samsung CEO’s art collection. The heirs were unable to pay the tax on its value, which amounted to twenty-some billion dollars. The amount involved primarily works by American post-war classics, which have been relentlessly gaining in value. The Korean government did not want them exported and sold abroad. They are still a showcase for the country.

Since the Japanese property market collapsed and stopped investing maniacally in French Impressionist paintings in the late 1980s, no sector of old European art has seen a similar boom. Impressionist paintings, once an object of worship for the masses, have been steadily losing value, and as a result, the Christies auction house has liquidated this once important and independent sector of the trade. Auctions of Old Masters’ mega-hits are governed by the contemporary art department, which catches the attention of investors and the voracious media, and also attracts celebrities. It is in that department that the avalanche of dead money rolls in, driving the prices of emerging American painters well above those of the classics of European painting. The Old Masters market defends itself by arranging, admittedly on rare occasions, ‘change of authorship’ – an academic scholar announces that a work by an unknown painter, valued at 1500 EUR at auction, is in his opinion a work by Caravaggio (Ansorena, Madrid 2021) worth over a hundred million. The government immediately interferes in business, blocking exports, convening a consortium of experts, whilst investors declare they do not care, as they are willing to buy it anyway. And so forth.

The market has never been more massive. Not only does this mean that forgeries are being mass-produced, but its image is also shaped the characteristics of global massification. In 2011, the US market was shaken by the collapse of the venerable Knoedler Gallery, operating in New York since 1846, one of the oldest retail companies in the United States. Its recent years have included multi-million dollar sales of nearly 40 fake Rothko, Motherwell and Pollock paintings made by Chinese artist Pei-Shen Qian in a Queens garage. A feature-length documentary has been made about the Knoedlers’ downfall, and a feature film is yet to be made, starring Meryl Streep as the gullible headmistress, Ann Freedman.

The year 2016 has been declared the ‘year of forgery’. Then the Giuliano Ruffini affair broke out, hailed as the ‘artistic crime of the century’. The French prosecutor’s office has opened an investigation into the fat forgery after receiving an anonymous tip. To the bitterness of the Prince of Liechtenstein – Europe’s greatest collector and benefactor of the Republic’s museums – French policemen confiscated a Pseudo-Cranach painting from his collection during an exhibition in Aix. More than a dozen more forgeries of old masters with a total value of about $225 million have come to light. The paintings were made with unprecedented technical and artistic proficiency – erudites and experts gave conflicting opinions, the Louvre and several other institutions were fooled. In the case of the pseudo-Halsa painting, Judge Knowles of the London High Court stated honestly that he “hopes that its artistic merits will not be ignored and that it can be enjoyed as it is, i.e. a beautiful painting.” It is suspected that the forgeries were painted by the skilled Italian painter Lino Frongia. Judging from the reproductions, David Contemplating the Head of Goliath by Pseudo-Gentileschi and St Jerome by Pseudo-Parmigiani are truly high-end (read: very photogenic) works. Frongia modestly declared that someone so adept at imitating the great masters in such different styles would have to be a genius. He thus entered the great tradition of the world’s best forgers, i.e. Italians such as the unforgettable Icilio Federico Joni and Umberto Giunti, citizens of Siena, who perfectly forged their talented compatriots that predated their times by five centuries.

2016 was also marked by the scandal of forgeries of works by Lee Ufan, a living classic of Korean modern art, which resulted in an intervention of the Korean state, and issuing special licensing laws for dealers to prevent similar scandals in the future. To the surprise of international opinion, Lee Ufan authorized the forgery. The tolerance of artists for forgers is a tradition of the Far East and is based on humanitarian motives. What is surprising, however, is the overreaction of the state which overlooked the elementary fact that the art market is the element of human desires. Its immanent qualities – the copibility of the subject commodity, the confidential nature of the operation, the free play of value – make it necessary in this particular form rather than another.

But the year 2017 possibly proved to be even more abundant in relevant events than its predecessor. An exhibition of Russian avant-garde at the Museum of Fine Arts in Ghent has been forged in its entirety – a letter of protest by recognized authorities on the matter was published by The Art Newspaper. The director of the museum declared that her task was to create an open museum and that she would make an attempt to rewrite the history of the Russian avant-garde. The director was fired, the Russian collectors that lent her their works were arrested and the exhibition closed. Indeed, the Ghent exhibition looked like a display of ethnographic artefacts – it even featured a sliver and a folk chest decorated in Malevich-style black squares and rainbow-coloured peasants on display. How could one not realise that? Does the ideology of equality make you so naive? Or perhaps the market and the laws of competitive struggle, to which public museums have adapted, dictate that we turn a blind eye?

The answer to this question (“how could one not realise that”) was to some extent provided by the exhibition of the Łódź Art Museum collection in its commercial gallery, presenting constructivist works by Malevich, painted by a contemporary Bulgarian artist. The latter changed his name to Kazimir Malevich, so the paintings were accordingly signed “Kazimir Malevich”. No one was repressed for this, no one was fired from work or arrested – it was a simple folk game of contemporary art, which everyone in Poland laughs at. It might be a little less surprising in cultural centres such as the left-wing Kraków’s MOCAK and the right-wing Warsaw’s ZUJ, but is it not true that the Łódź Museum of Art, once a world-class and exclusive institution, long since turned into a museum of avant-garde ethnography?

With his pragmatic approach to the forgeries of the classics of American modernism, revealed a few years ago at an exhibition in Ottawa, the director of the local museum gained sympathy, declaring with pride that the scandal with the forgeries had won him viewers and he was very happy about it, as before the incident he could have only dreamt about such publicity. What we have here is the marketing value of scandal – a fundamental component of the economics of the present-day art industry. Big money is spent on certain things not because of artistic merit but because of their marketing value, owned or expected, as in football, film, pop music, along with their idol worship and brand fetishism. Similarly, the market publicity generated by the first gigantic sums spent on purchases of NFT art had no relation to their artistic value, but undoubtedly reached the ears of every moneymaker on the globe. This trend was mocked by the creator of the most expensive work sold, who stated publicly: “in my opinion, it's a bubble!” “It's a bubble!” – the Big Short financier, Michael Burry, recently warned. NFT traders use artists to pump up cryptocurrencies by selling worthless ‘magic beans.’ But who cares about that when Morlocks with bags full of money are emerging out of the underworld?

In 2017, Italian carabinieri shut down the Amadeo Modigliani exhibition at the Palazzo Ducale in Genoa. Twenty-one paintings, 1/3 of those exhibited, turned out to be fakes. One hundred thousand people have filed a class action lawsuit to recover money for tickets and travel. “When a painting is fake, it lacks soul – even a child could see that these are primitive fakes. Poor Modigliani...” – with such words the collector Carlo Pepi, who first reported the crime to the police, lamented to journalists. A thousand years ago, Chinese connoisseurs complained the same way – the soul is always mentioned in the attempts at fighting with forgers. It is the last resort of good-willed people.

Wolfgang Beltracchi, a German forger who specialized in fake paintings by Ernst, Campendonck, Leger and other modernists, had nothing to say about the soul. He easily fooled prominent auction houses and galleries, always providing the appropriate legend of the origin of the works and, if necessary, archival photographs arranged in his own studio; nota bene, as the rumour goes, our no less talented compatriots once provided similar photographs of Olga Boznańska’s works. The director of the Lempertz auction house in Munich, a grey-haired old man, confessed in front of the cameras, in a breaking voice, that such a case calls for an application of Sharia law. To the delight of the public, a documentary film made by the son of lawyer Beltrak has turned the brazen crook into a folk hero, a sort of Robin Hood who gives the rich a hard time. After being released from prison (it was light, and the sentence was shortened), the forger lives a prosperous life in Switzerland, where he has saved millions on his bank account and received an award for a regular TV show.

In the memorable year of 2017, when the Mexican Museum of San Francisco was about to be moved to its new headquarters downtown, its collection underwent an expert examination – it turned out that only 4% of the pre-Columbian artefacts could be authenticated. 87 out of 20,000, to be precise.

At the end of that fateful year, Salvator Mundi, a painting attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, the Italian humanist and pop-culture star, was sold at Christies New York facility for a record-breaking sum of nearly half a billion U.S. dollars, reportedly paid out of an account held by Abu Dhabi’s Department of Culture and Tourism. The whole case looked like the devil waved his tail – the detailed accounts of the events are publicly available, including cost estimates for insurance and freight. The case enriched our reflections by adding an important branch of contemporary tricksterism, namely creative conservation.

Salvator Mundi is not, however, the funniest example of the feckless practices of today’s conservators, which, by the way, are not different from those of their Renaissance counterparts (well, except perhaps for the obligatory, and pious, ‘scientification’). In my opinion, the first prize in the competition for the swindle of the century should go to the conservators of the Gemäldegalerie in Dresden. On August 24th this year, they showed the world what they did to Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window – a wonderful painting by Vermeer van Delft. The pen trembles, and the mind wants to forget the description of the DISGUSTING CUPID that has been painted (‘revealed’) in place of the wall which used to vibrate with its light effects... This is undoubtedly a forgery in the spirit of our times.

Last month, a Manhattan merchant, Mr Merhdad Sadigha was arrested. He ran a veritable factory of ancient artefacts from the Middle East, thousands of which were discovered in the back room of his gallery. He would cast them from moulds, like for dough, sand them, paint and artificially age them. He offered 11 copies of the same ancient statue on his website and fooled several museums. Mr Sandigh was industrious and went all the way. After all, the market of today is outright crazy, as prices range from a few to tens of thousands of dollars. He was caught in the act of provocation by federal agents, but denied all allegations.

Modigliani is said to have been forged in Hungary, and the Russian avant-garde – in Israel. German police have arrested art dealer Itzhak Zarug, believed to be the mastermind of the operation. 1,800 suspect paintings were seized, but examining each one individually was beyond the physical capacity of the justice system. Only two and a half were proven to be forgeries, and after serving less than three years, the middleman was released, and contentedly announced to the world that the rest of his goods were beyond suspicion.

American classics are forged in the US. Apart from paintings by Indiana and De Kooning, with which he supplied serious public institutions, the arrested Eric Spoutz also forged bills of sale, lists of dealers, and correspondence with previous owners... Basically, all documents are regularly counterfeited on the market, be it exhibition stickers, stamps, and signatures are a piece of cake. Last year, the FBI arrested an artist who forged American Surrealists and sports memorabilia, including baseball bats, in a barn in Michigan. Judging from the reproductions, his painting was very good. “They were very beautiful – fake or not” – the director of the Hirschl & Adler gallery, which was also defrauded, confessed with regret to Detroit News reporters. – “Whoever did this is a talented artist. This is every dealer’s nightmare.”

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We do not hear much about fakes in Poland. One can get an impression that this is an exotic, foreign subject. Nobody makes fake Boznańska, Malczewski, Stanisławski, Witkacy, Makowski, Rychter-Janowska, Strzeminńki and Kobro, Winiarski, Nowosielski, Dróżdż, etc. Polish artists do not commit self-plagiarism, backdate their works, or sign other people’s work. The market players have no idea what ‘industry collusion’ even means. The art dealers surrender forgeries to the police and never, ever let them go into circulation. The courts avoid forgery cases at all costs – if the forger does not let off steam, it is always word against word, one expert will say yes, the other no, and what to do with it? Dariusz Wilk, PhD in criminology and author of a valuable study “Fałszerstwa dzieł sztuki. Aspekty prawne i kryminalistyczne” (Forgeries of Artworks. Legal and Forensic Aspects) (2015), noted that between 2006 and 2013 only 30 court cases related with the circulation of forgeries in the art market were handled in our country. How does this compare to America and its procedural abundance? It is like comparing a space station to an allotment garden. Our police have more important things to do than chase forgeries. There is a small group of motivated lawyers, criminologists, journalists, art historians-conservatives who meet at secret conventions, publishing the occasional session and conference minutes, mostly to support their own academic careers, but also as a part of their noble hobby. But hardly anyone reads those reports, so these people are more like a cult!

I am joking (a bit), but it is a fact that the number of Polish publications on forgery and related fraud is very modest, albeit varied – in recent years, in addition to the above-mentioned legal monograph, the following have been published: Ronald D. Spencer’s excellent anthology “The Expert versus the Object: Judging Fakes and False Attributions in the Visual Arts” (Centre for the Preservation of Historical Monuments, present National Institute for Museums and Public Collections (NIMOZ), 2009), Marcin Jacoby’s source historical study “Powtórzenie i falsyfikat w malarstwie chińskim” (Repetition and Forgery in Chinese Painting) (Confucius Institute, 2009), “Zabawy z prawem autorskim” (Playing with Copyright) by Prof. Ryszard Markiewicz (Wolters Kluwer, 2015), “Anatomia fałszerstwa” (Anatomy of Falsification) – a treatise on forgery published by the undersigned (Zderzak Gallery, 2016), and “Utracone arcydzieło. Losy obrazu »Targ na jarzyny» Józefa Pankiewicza” (Lost Masterpiece. The fate of the painting ‘Targ na jarzyny’ by Józef Pankiewicz), a detective scientific work by art historian Prof. Michał Haacke (UAM, 2020). One of the reasons for this absenteeism and stagnation is the lack of connections between museum professionals and the art market due to ICOM’s restrictions. Museum experts have been placed off the market, which made... all hell break lose! These are ideal conditions for criminal activity. In light of the above, Poland should be forgers’ paradise.

The Polish art market is an endemic internal market with a specific structure. It is characterized by a progressive accumulation of capital for a quarter of a century, a rapidly growing turnover and a large excess of demand over supply of domestic classics. Contemporary Poles are sentimental nationalists – they want to collect only their fellow countrymen’s works, which is completely different from the Poles of centuries ago, who massively collected works by foreigners. It is, in a way, obscene... maybe some state decree could change that mentality? The situation of scarcity is compounded by the narrow temporal scope of the production of ‘good enough’ Polish painting schools of the 19th and 20th centuries. There is a complete lack of works from earlier periods on the market – be it medieval, renaissance or baroque. And on top of that, nothing can be exported abroad!

All this makes the Polish art market a market without masterpieces. Plunder, which next to trade is a natural source of obtaining luxury goods, has not contributed to our art market for centuries, or it has but only to a negligible extent (e.g. the altar painting stolen in 1945 from a church in Wielim, DESA Unicum, 2020). Meanwhile, for Western countries, plunder has been a valuable complement to domestic production and legitimate imports for centuries. We did not invade Italy, France or Egypt, so we do not have our equivalent of Denon or the Louvre.

An album of Jadwiga Maziarska, published four years ago by an amateur from Kraków, a former senator of Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) party, has shocked a small circle of connoisseurs of the work of this avant-garde artist, also a friend to Tadeusz Kantor. That is, the circle comprising the living witnesses who visited her studio in the final period of her life. It has been noted that many of the images in the album are primitive forgeries. It soon came to light that they were produced for many years after the artist’s death by a Kraków-based restorer who lived on Paulińska Street. He delivered them to galleries and antiquarians as ‘bargains’, lightly restored by himself after allegedly acquiring the entire collection at a bailiff’s auction. He bragged about his business and his earnings at the kindergarten to which he walked his child. According to the testimony of the municipality’s clerk in charge of emptying the artist’s apartment (Maziarska left no family behind), there were no paintings at all.

The National Institute for Museums and Public Collections and the police were informed about the crime/criminal and a conference was convened at the premises of the Association of Art Historians. The matter went away, as usual. The forger’s works have filled private collections and will circulate on the market for many years, perhaps centuries, to come. Maziarska’s oeuvre was undervalued, with all her works in the hands of a small group of collectors and in state museums. There were very few of them in circulation. Thus, the forger could sell his ‘Maziarska-like’ products as bargains at low prices – they found their way into the hands of less sophisticated collectors, convinced that they were making a great deal.

The ambitious art of Maziarska, who for decades was considered a secondary artist, or at least one hiding in the shadow of the stars of the Kraków Group, was poorly developed. Had a catalogue raisonné been made, the forger would not have been able to damage the image of her work, and to destroy the work of honest dealers. Unfortunately, Poland suffers a shortage of thorough studies that would fill the gaps in the image of the artists’ work. The first catalogue raisonné of a living Polish painter, i.e., the catalogue of the 1977–2004 pictures by Jarosław Modzelewski, published fifteen years ago by the Zderzak Gallery, has successfully protected the artist’s oeuvre against swindlers, contributing to growing market confidence and steady increase in value. However, these are costly and labour-intensive projects. In the West, publishers of competing catalogues raisoneé of deceased masters wage contest over attribution, which entails someone’s loss or financial gain, and often ends in litigation.

In order to put a fake painting on the market, it must be authorized and legalized. Such efforts leave a clear trace by which one can recognize the intentions of the participating actors. One of the longest-running attempts to legalize works that have raised great doubts about their authorship is the battle over the so-called ‘Boys from Zachęta’, which continues to this day. These are two large works in records attributed to Andrzej Wróblewski, first shown in a group exhibition in Zachęta in 2015. Their market début received a great deal of publicity – the Polityka weekly, through the article by Piotr Starzyński, was ecstatic about the great discovery. The undersigned was denied a detailed examination of these works and access to conservation documentation in what appeared to be typical ‘industry collusion’. The ‘Boys from Zachęta’ case has a number of interesting sociological, if not political, aspects related to the appropriation of the artworks by Wróblewski by the Polish left. The ridiculousness of their efforts can be exemplified by a habitual depreciation of an authority of the artist’s mother, Prof. Krystyna Wróblewska, who has been stigmatized as a Catholic and a tyrant.

After five years, a renewed attempt was made to legalize the ‘Boys’. This time it took place outside the country (which, by the way, is a frequent strategy utilised by Polish businessmen) with the help of another public institution – the Adam Mickiewicz Institute. The chairman of the Andrzej Wróblewski Foundation, who organized the exhibition at the Ljubljana Museum, displayed in one of the rooms an authentic painting, his private property, surrounded by as many as three large ‘Boys’ on paper that looked like works of someone else’s hand. The promotional scenario was employed repeatedly – a journalist of the Polish portal Onet, Katarzyna Janowska, expressed her delight with the discovery of a new ‘Boy’, which was attributed a title derived from that of an authentic painting. This time, too, the provenance of the questionable works was not disclosed, which is a requirement when marketing unknown works by great masters (cf. the ICOM code). The Foundation is preparing a catalogue raisoneé of Wróblewski's artworks. I wonder if it will include ‘Boys from Zachęta’, who were said quite aptly, though perhaps not very subtly, to look like monkeys after a facelift.

Let me sump up these, often unpleasant, caustic, and unnerving, remarks, with an uplifting gossip. Marcin Maciejowski cooperated with the Przekrój magazine for many years, even in the times of Piotr Najsztub as its editor-in-chief, and left on its pages many of his drawings and paintings, which were valuable in the market, although perhaps, as the old Italians used to say, ‘painted with less love"’ After a dozen or so years, a certain employee of Przekrój took the box with the drawings and successively, and with great profit for themselves, sold them on Allegro (Polish online auction site). Emboldened by this success, and raised in a family who ignored the spirit of respect for other people’s property, they eventually began to forge the master’s drawings and put them up for sale. And this was too much even for such a calm and tolerant man as painter Marcin Maciejowski. Apparently, the case ended up in court.

***

We live in violent and troubled times. And there seems to be no harbinger of change. Never have so many fools made so much money in such a short time, and some of them were literally kids back then. There is an awful lot of money in the market, which itself is rather cheap and unsettled, and investing in space travel seems to be the only way out. Many strange things, I sometimes dread to think what kind, are labelled as art nowadays. Systems sociologist Luhmann believed that this was the result of the autonomisation of the sphere of art, which reproduces itself and communicates with other closed systems of functional society only through money and legislation. It is indeed and interesting theory. Be that as it may, forgery is a mirror of its time, so why not take a look at it?


[1] Zhang Yanyuan (approx. 813–879) “Zapiski o sławnych malarzach” (Notes on Famous Painters) [in:] Marcin Jacoby “Powtórzenie i falsyfikat w malarstwie chińskim” (Repetition and Forgery in Chinese Painting), Warsaw 2009, p. 190.

[2] Mi Fu (1051–1107) “Historia malarstwa” (The History of Painting) [in:] Jacoby, p. 192.

[3] Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322), [in:] Jacoby, p. 198, note 46.

[4] Shen Zhou (1427–1509), [in:] Jacoby, p. 203.

[5] Wen Zhengming (1470–1559) [in:] Jacoby, p. 202.