There is a spectacular contradiction at the heart of counterfeit art. Counterfeits, which claim to be paintings by timeless artists, hang in museums around the world; there are more of them than we know, all hidden from view. When a counterfeit case is discovered, it tends to be greeted with moral outrage. Imitating and profiting from the work of a famous artist is considered a sordid scam, as well as a major crime (which, of course, it is). Yet counterfeiting art is not correct on the feast for the eyes of duplicity and profit. As Orson Welles surprised him in his meditation ‘F for False’ (1973), there is a fantasy behind it all: what if you had the audacity and the talent to produce a fake work of art so authentic that no one alive could say that was wrong? There is a daring in there, a sort of grand illusion. On one level, the art lover may be outraged, but on another level, he may want to applaud.
This is the level at which “Made You Look: A True Story of Fake Art” draws on. It’s a documentary, directed by Barry Avrich, that is nothing short of the most successful counterfeit scam ever to be made in the high-end art world. In 1995, the Knoedler Gallery, New York’s oldest art gallery (it had been in existence for 165 years, before the Civil War and all the museums in the city), purchased an unknown canvas by Mark Rothko. It was sold to Ann Freedman, the director of the gallery, for $ 750,000 (a clearance price). The person who brought it to her was Glafir Rosales, a Long Island woman who didn’t have much pedigree in the art but claimed to represent a wealthy anonymous collector, and the story she told about him seemed just enough. plausible.
What seemed really plausible, however, was the painting itself. It was a vintage Rothko, with two fuzzy rectangles (one black, one red) on a muted yellow background, and it was a dazzling piece. Freedman passed out because of it. Yet the painting did not have much “provenance” (the written record of its history and ownership), and Freedman was not going to believe its authenticity. She showed it to a range of experts, including David Anfam, who at the time was the Rothko’s renowned scholar guru. He called him handsome, and said he was a real Rothko. The painting sold for $ 5.5 million at auction.
Shortly after this, Glafir Rosales brought to the Knoedler Gallery a Jackson Pollock – a 1949 drip painting of red, black, and white with touches of yellow, called “Untitled.” I’m not an art scholar, but I’ve seen my share of Jackson Pollock fakes, which have a way of never totally looking like the real thing; they lack that inner spark of kinetic energy. But the work that was brought to Ann Freedman had the Pollock effervescence. We can see it, and it’s magnificent. And once again, she did not hesitate to have it authenticated by a multitude of experts, who all gave her their approval.
These paintings were fakes, as were over 60 other Abstract Expressionist canvases that Glafir Rosales brought to Ann Freedman over the next 10 years. The result, once the paintings were sold to collectors, galleries and museums, was the costliest art scandal in history, with $ 80 million worth of counterfeit works sold. “Made You Look” is a lively and fascinating documentary about the world of art, stranger than fiction, and what drives it are two essential mysteries: who could have created fake paintings that looked like this astonishing? And even then, how could all the experts have been fooled?
Freedman, who was ultimately kicked out of the disgraced Knoedler Gallery (that was shortly before the gallery closed in 2011), is the central character of “Made You Look”, and she is likable and unpretentious. , with a sparkling and unofficial manner. and a mop of gray curls. At first, Mr. H. Miller of the New York Times said, “Either she was complicit in it or she was one of the dumbest people to ever work in an art gallery. Which seems to be more or less the attitude of almost all of the witnesses speaking to the film.
I’m not sure I agree with them. In a way, Ann Freedman has become the art world’s myopia girl of fall. She was certainly responsible for purchasing the paintings, so in a way it’s fair to blame her for what happened. Still, the woman we see has a cool head and seems honest enough to say how fooled she has been; Was she supposed to have sharper eyes than those of the world’s most revered art experts? Yes, she blurted out the relative paucity of paperwork in paintings – that and the fact that these previously unknown works, by Rothko and Pollock and Motherwell and Warhol and Franz Kline and Lee Krasner and Clyfford Still, had suddenly appeared. The fact that these are “fresh” works is what made them such tempting potential bargains. You could tell Freedman’s eyes were darkened with greed.
Yet “Made You Look” tells another story just below the surface. The paintings in question did not just fool Freedman; they fooled everyone in art. And so, besides being a scandal, the Knoedler Gallery’s counterfeits added to a deep embarrassment. Avrich interviews some of the people who were duped, like Dominico and Eleanore De Soles, collectors who ended up suing Freedman and the gallery. The resulting trial was a test for the experts who had authenticated the paintings. They had to speak up and try to get rid of the fact that they had been duped.
In a devious way, “Made You Look” shows you that to be fascinated by a fake painting is to exist in an innocent state of senseless grace. It’s just your eyes. Many people interviewed in the film keep saying about Freedman, She should have known better. She should have done more research. In a sense, you can’t chat with them. Yet what appeals to Freedman isn’t just profit, it’s the incandescent thrill of discovering new works, of bringing them to life.
The big mystery, of course, is this: Who could have created fake paintings so impeccable and in so many different styles that they fooled the world? The answer is: Pei-Shen Qian, a Chinese national who was a math teacher living in a modest house in Queens. He had been an accomplished painter in China (where the art of imitation is not seen as a scandal but as a specialty of the fine arts), and after arriving in New York he attended Art Students League, where he was a classmate of Ai Weiwei. But his career as a painter never took off in the United States, and he made his Rothkos and Pollocks imitations primarily for fun. (It was Glafir Rosales and his con artist boyfriend, José Carlos Bergantiños Díaz, who bonded to make money with them.) That such a naive operator could produce fakes of such inspiration, putting the world out art on his knees, maybe a scandal, but it was also a kind of magic trick: the proof that a crook can have an element of disturbing strangeness.