“We should all realize that we can only talk about the bad forgeries, the ones that have been detected; the good ones are still hanging on the walls.”
- Theodore Rousseau.
Source: Saiko. (2017). Vase de fleurs (Lilas) by Paul Gauguin [Photograph]. Wikimedia Commons. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Paul_Gauguin_vaso_di_fiori,_1896.jpg
The art world revolves around the concept of authenticity to a large extent. In art transactions, fakes, forgeries and misattributions are perceived as a major risk for buyers; a fake artwork or one whose authenticity is difficult or impossible to establish with a high degree of certainty will lose its commercial value and could represent a total loss for its buyer. Determining authenticity is a complex task. Usually, when doubt arises, three areas should be explored to give an overall picture of authenticity. First of all, someone should consider the experts' opinions, including artists' foundations, authentication boards, and the catalogues raisonnés. Also, the provenance documents should be examined while an art historical research is in progress. The final step is the scientific tests of the artwork. Nowadays, with the technology development, scientific tests would be a reliable source for the verification of the authentication of artworks while saving time. The best practice is to gather information from all these three areas and not just rely on one source alone. In practice, it is a process of asking the right questions, obtaining and verifying information and, applying common sense. However, what happens when not even an experienced eye can tell the difference between an original and a fake work? How someone can deceive the whole art world for years?
Source: (2018). Art Forgery: Why Do We Care So Much for Originals? [Photograph]. Art Acacia Level. https://inna-13021.medium.com/art-forgery-why-do-we-care-so-much-for-originals-7ec4d88fd241
Back in May 2000, Christie’s and Sotheby’s launched their spring catalogues for their auctions when they discovered that they were offering the same painting: Vase de fleurs (Lilas) by Paul Gauguin. As it was expected, both auction houses thought that they had the original painting, so they began the proceedings to prove the authentication of the work they owned. The auction houses flew both paintings to Sylvie Crussard, a Gauguin expert at the Wildenstein Institution in Paris. She put them side by side and in a few minutes saw that the Christie's version “was not right.” However, the peculiar part is that, as Crussard said, “This was a unique case of resemblance. You never see two works that are that similar." Christie’s version was the best Gauguin counterfeit she had ever seen. Vase de fleurs is a middle-market painting which means it changes hands usually for only a few hundred thousand dollars. It may seem like an extraordinary amount of money but for the art market, it is considered a middle price. So, the whole auction process usually takes place without much fanfare. A reality that makes the painting the perfect "victim" for a forger. Christie's broke the news to the owners of their version at the gallery Muse in Tokyo. The owners, totally in shock, claimed that they had no idea it was a forgery. On the other hand, Sotheby’s version was successfully auctioned for $310,000. The owner of the painting was a New York dealer named Ely Sakhai. The most interesting part of that forgery case came up some years later when the FBI's six-year investigation showed surprisingly that the original source of the fake work was none other than Ely Sakhai himself.
The story of Ely Sakhai goes back to his childhood when he emigrated from Iran to New York and started working with his brother at an antique shop, where they realized that if they made good fakes, people would pay a big amount of money in order to get one. The more real they looked the more money they could get. In this way, he created a small fortune and decided to follow a more risky plan. So, he started to buy original middle-market paintings, from artists like Monet, Gauguin and Chagall. He basically chose paintings that were not that well known and hired someone in order to make copies of them. Sakhai often sold the copies in Asia with either their original certificates of authenticity or with copies of the original ones and waited a couple of years to sell the original paintings in the Western market. This activity continued from 1985 until 2003. In our case, following his motive, he sold the fake copy to a Tokyo collector and after some years he put the original painting up for auction. It was a risky attempt to double his profits, with the existence of twin paintings. It was totally a coincidence that the Tokyo owner decided to resell his copy at the same time. But if this didn’t happen, the forgery might never have been detected.
Today, there is still something mysterious about that case, simply because we still don’t know who is the person who created the fakes. We have some clues in order to create his profile, but we should still face the elements carefully. It is believed that the forger is unlikely to have been American; American art schools now rarely teach traditional oil techniques. In contrast, they suggest China as a more likely place, because there were plenty of laborers with people using that specific technique. Our third and last clue comes from Sylvie Crussard who claimed that the painter must have been young. She doesn’t feel like an old person could have painted something like that. We still don’t know; all we can do is just speculate. It was a tough case for the FBI who had to cooperate with police from several countries, and also the need to translate in many cases. So, naturally that fact might have impeded the process. The success of his plan lies in the fact that Sakhai chooses to avoid the New York market, and that’s not a random move. First of all, he wants to avoid the local heat, but most importantly, he prefers a market which doesn’t have easy access to experts who can spot a fake. So, they give big attention to the certificates of authenticity. A forger who can transfer a real certificate to a counterfeit, like Sakhai, has a lot of chances not to be spotted. And even more, if we are talking for middle-market paintings. In 2005, Sakhai pleaded guilty and was fined $12.5 million to collectors who bought from him 11 fake artworks. Also, he was sentenced to 41 months in prison.
Adam, G. (2004, March 31). New York art dealer Ely Sakhai accused of forgery scam as he sells masterpieces twice. The Art Newspaper. https://www.theartnewspaper.com/archive/new-york-art-dealer-accused-of-forgery-scam
Art & Beyond. (2020, July 3). Art and Authenticity. https://artandbeyond.gallery/blog/29-art-authenticity/
Subramanian, S. (2018, June 15). How to spot a perfect Fake: the world’s top art forgery detective. The Guardian.
Thomas, K. (2005, July 19). Update: Gallerist goes to prison on Art forgery charges. ARTnews.
Thompson, C. (2004, May 20). How to make a fake. New York
United States v. Sakhai, No.04-cr-583, (D.N.Y. 2005, July 6)