The recent high profile case of the NYC Gallery, Knoedler & Company, charged with selling fake art, focused attention on why anyone would care. Fake art can look as good or in some cases better than the real thing. If the viewer doesnâ€™t know, why should she care?
Buying a fake can be jolting to the psyche. This is why:
The recent high profile case of the NYC Gallery, Knoedler & Company, charged with selling fake art, focused attention on why anyone would care. Fake art can look as good or in some cases better than the real thing. If the viewer doesn’t know, why should she care?
The Wine Experiment
The reason, it seems, is essentialism, meaning we respond to beliefs about objects as well as the object itself. For example, if subjects are placed in a Functional Magnetic Imaging Scanner (FMRI) and brain function is monitored when they are sipping wine, their response depends on the story they are told. For those that think the wine is expensive, the front of their brain (orbitofrontal cortex) lights up. It is an area that is widely thought to encode for experienced pleasantness during experiential tasks. The other groups, who think they are drinking cheap wine, do not have the same response — whether they are drinking the same wine or not. The point here is that what the subjects are told and therefore what they believe influences their brain response.
Along these same lines, there is a neurological disorder known as Capra’s Delusion where the afflicted person feels loved ones are imposters rather than who they really are. Therefore, the brain-impaired individual does not respond to those close to them in a warm or fuzzy way as they did before they developed the malady. The feelings toward their mates or children and others they held dear is altered due to their damaged brain wiring. In a nutshell, innate conceptions influence what we think.
A Shoe Story
We are also swayed by what we see as the value of various consumer products. Relatively insignificant objects can become valuable. One example is the shoe that was thrown at George Bush in a press conference, for which a Saudi multi-millionaire offered 10 million dollars. It was not the shoe that was so treasured. It was the story connected with the shoe.
To a person of more modest means, there is memorabilia of another kind, a family portrait, a wedding ring, a childhood confirmation gift, etc. It is not the object that is important. It is the memories and thereby the stories related to it.
Responding to Art
We respond to art in the same way. It is not just the object. It is what we associate with the object and how we believe it came into being.
The DeSoles Case
Let’s go back to the high profile art fraud case mentioned at the beginning of this article. The De Soles couple purchased what they believed to be a Mark Rothko painting from Ann Freedman at the Knoedler & Company Gallery NYC in 2004. They did not realize until years later that their purchase was not what they thought. When they found out that it was a fake, they were angry, even livid. The De Soles had been taken; they were deceived and they knew it.
The couple was not going to take this laying down. They had the time and the money to sue. And, that is exactly what they did in 2009. They named the gallery, its earlier President from whom they purchased the painting and the holding company for the gallery as liable for $25 million in damages. The De Soles didn’t need the money; what they wanted was some respect. They had been wronged.
What came to light as a result is pure intrigue. Between 1994 and 2008, a Glafira Rosales from Long Island, New York sold Freedman paintings said to be by Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock, Rothko and others, but actually were of recent origin and painted by Pei-Shen Qian, a Chinese émigré living in Queens, New York. Rosales was allegedly aided in this deception by her boyfriend, Jose Carlos Bergantinos Diaz and his brother, Jesus.
Since then, the painter, Pei-Shen Qian, has fled to China and states he didn’t know the paintings were sold as authentic. The Diaz brothers shuffled off to Spain, and this left only Rosales who confessed the paintings were fakes in 2013 and Freedman who says, she didn’t know she was selling fakes. The holding company of her gallery (8-31 Holdings owned by Armand Hammer’s grandson, Michael), however, was on the hook and settled the case in February 2016.
The Olmstead Case
To emphasize how important a paintings origin is and that it is what we think it is can be demonstrated in another response to art buyers of Marla Olmstead’s creations. When she was four, her paintings sold like hot cakes for tens of thousands of dollars. She was on a roll. Her father, hoping no doubt to increase sales even more, allowed CBS News to install cameras in the family’s home and document Marla’s painting process. When a child psychologist examined the footage; however, the verdict was that Marla’s father contributed importantly to the paintings. Then, they were no longer by a child prodigy but a joint project between father and child. With the change in the story, Marla’s paintings were no longer selling like hot cakes — more like cold pancakes. Her paintings hadn’t changed but the story did.
The Knoedler & Company Gallery versus the De Soles litigation and Maria Olmstead cases demonstrate several important concepts beyond why we like authentic.
The art market is not transparent, but by some estimates over one half of what is sold it not what it is purported to be.
When a fake is discovered and the cost is significant enough to take the seller of the counterfeit piece to trial, the outcome may be frustrating for the victim. In the case of Knoedler, the person implicated, Ann Freedman, will likely never see a day of incarnation.