Britain's fine art of forgery Art: Some British dealers marvel at the ingenuity of a scheme to "authenticate" art forgeries by falsifying archives. But prestigious museums and Scotland Yard are not amused.

June 13, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

LONDON -- In Britain's clubby modern art world, the talk this week isn't about sales but about crime.

Scotland Yard is investigating a scheme in which art forgers allegedly tampered with archives at the Tate Gallery and other prestigious museums, allowing conspirators then to "authenticate" forged works that could command hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Among the items under suspicion are works attributed to three 20th-century artists: the Swiss-born sculptor and painter Alberto Giacometti, English painter Ben Nicholson and the American-born sculptor Jacob Epstein.

Several people have been detained for questioning and released, the Independent of London reported last week. A spokeswoman for Scotland Yard says its Arts and Antiques Focus Unit is engaged "in an ongoing investigation related to records at the Tate Gallery," but declines to make further comment. No names of suspects have been released, and no one has been charged.

Art dealers have marveled at the ingenuity of the scheme, which relies on the intrinsic importance of archives that document a work's history. A work's documentary history -- letters from an artist or dealer, photographs of the work, exhibition catalogs that prove the work has received significant attention in the past -- guarantees the work's provenance.

"The first thing a collector wants is to authenticate a work," said Victoria Miro, whose London gallery sells works by living artists. "And to have it authenticated at the Tate Gallery is a dream."

To have tampered with those archives, she said, would be "the most brilliant play."

"And it's also massively dangerous. It's quite sad that archives that are open were tampered with. The museums will have to be very, very careful."

The Independent said the investigation at the Tate was triggered after a London dealer paid $27,850 for a watercolor attributed to Nicholson. The dealer went to the Tate archives to check the work's history, apparently discovered irregularities in the documentation and concluded that the painting was a forgery.

The Tate houses the national collection of late 19th-century and 20th-century art.

The Financial Times reported yesterday that one of the leaders of the fraud was believed to have "open access" to the Tate's archive after donating $30,000 to the museum.

The newspaper reported that problems also were suspected at the Victoria and Albert Museum, as well as the British Council, the cultural arm of the British Foreign Office. Neither the institutions themselves nor their employees have been implicated, according to press reports.

The Financial Times said the archives of the British Council were misused in 1990 by an alleged forger who was accompanied by a "research assistant," and who were said to be researching works by Nicholson.

Quoting from an internal British Council memo, the newspaper VTC said the 1990 scam was revealed when an archivist discovered the researcher "inspecting files that she hadn't had permission to view."

Later, the archivist advised a prospective buyer against purchasing a Nicholson painting offered by the alleged forger. The buyer had been given a report falsely claiming that the painting had been exhibited in Japan in 1954 by the British Council.

Dealers say works by Nicholson, who died in 1981, and Giacometti, who died in 1966, have been forged in the past. Nicholson created severe, geometrical designs, leading to his pre-World War II "White Reliefs." His oil paintings have been auctioned for as much as $1.9 million, according to Art Sales Index.

'Quite enterprising'

"I'm no artist, and even I could have a shot at it [forging Nicholson]," says Norbert Lynton, author of a Nicholson biography. "Nicholson forgeries have been around for years."

Michael Harrison, director of Kettle's Yard museum in Cambridge, which has 40 Nicholson works in its collection, called the apparent scam "quite enterprising."

Giacometti experimented with cubism, primitivism and starkly rendered portraits before achieving fame by creating elongated, solitary figures cast in bronze.

"Giacometti works are rare and much sought-after," said New York art dealer Carroll Janis, whose family has sold Giacometti sculptures for decades. "When we started, you could buy one of the sculptures for $1,500. Now, they run from a few hundred thousand to a few million dollars."

American experts on art forgery and theft were surprised to hear of the scope and sophistication of the alleged fraud.

Sacred archives

"It's an old ruse to publish books to justify fakes," said Connie Lowenthal, executive director of the New York-based International Foundation for Art Research. But what alarms Lowenthal is that someone could actually slip material into an archive.

"In an archive, there ought to be a procedure where people leave briefcases and everything else at the door, and they are only allowed to bring in paper and a pencil," she said.

"The art world is so lax. There are such weak paper trails, such weak title," said Josh Kaufman, a Washington-based attorney who specializes in art fraud cases.

"If someone can say the work is in the archives at a place like the Tate, no one is going to check real hard."

Pub Date: 6/13/96

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