Why It’s So Hard to Spot a Fake Rothko, Even for His Son

Former gallery owner Ann Freedman is in court accused of selling fake Rothkos for millions of dollars—and using false citations to authenticate them.

02.05.16 5:08 AM ET

In an art market governed largely by pretense and money, does a masterpiece have any intrinsic value?

That question has emerged from a civil case brought by Sotheby’s chairman Domenico de Sole and his wife, Eleanore, against Ann Freedman, former president of the Knoedler Gallery, the oldest and most respected gallery in New York until it closed in 2011 amidst a massive forgery scandal.

Knoedler had sold some 40 paintings claimed to be by abstract expressionists like Jackson Pollock, Barnett Newman, and Mark Rothko, all of which turned out to be forgeries created in Queens by a female artist named Pei-Shen Qian and peddled to the gallery by Glafira Rosales, a Long Island art dealer. (Rosales has already pleaded guilty to the scam; Qian, who fled to China, and two other co-conspirators now in Spain, are awaiting extradition as part of a criminal investigation.)

The de Soles argue that Freedman knowingly sold them a fake Rothko, the black-and-red Untitled 1956, for $8.3 million in 2004, and are seeking $25 million in damages.

In the trial’s second week, the U.S. District Court in Manhattan heard damning, if convoluted, testimony from several art experts and Rothko’s son, Christopher.

All claim that Freedman didn’t have permission to use their names on a list of experts who had viewed the forged Rothko purchased by the de Soles. (The list was given to the de Soles as part of a letter of authentication.)

Christopher Rothko told the court that he “never” authenticates works by his father. “It’s an area that I think requires special expertise that I don’t think I have,” he said, “and it’s an area that could be involved with all sorts of questions that I frankly don’t want to deal with.”

Rothko’s son said he first met Freedman roughly a year and a half before a 2002 show at Knoedler, “Coming to Light,” which included works by his father.

He said he visited the gallery on multiple occasions after the show, including one time when Freedman told him she had access to previously undiscovered works that were attributed to the his father. He recalled going to see one of these works and being told by Freedman that it belonged to a very private Swiss collector.

She told him that “it was from the mid-1950s, and had been in storage almost since the time it was purchased and had not seen the light of day until now,” Rothko said, adding that he remarked that the work appeared to be in “very good condition” and that it was “beautiful.”

He thought these insights were “descriptive, but I didn’t particularly want to go further than that,” he told the court, because he “didn’t want to be sitting here today. I don’t get involved in questions of authenticity.”

When called into the gallery by Freedman to view another painting by his father from the same Swiss collector, Rothko said he remarked that it was in “pristine” condition, but that he said nothing regarding its authenticity.

These were two of eight fake Rothkos, including the one the de Soles purchased, that Knoedler acquired from Rosales.

Rothko testified that Freedman also showed him a Pollock from the same collection, and that he told her he’d “never seen a Pollock that small before.”

He said Freedman explained that the size was “consistent with this collector’s requirements of having smaller-scale works, which she had also said in reference to the two works by my father she showed me.”

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When cross-examined by Freedman’s attorney, Luke Nikas, Rothko testified that he has given numerous lectures about his father’s works; written articles and a book about them; organized exhibitions at museums and galleries.

When asked about authenticity, Rothko said he refers people to David Anfam, a British expert in abstract expressionism who authored the catalogue raisonné for Rothko’s works on canvas, published by Yale University Press.

Anfam, whose name was also on the list of experts Freedman gave to the de Soles, called the letter provided to potential buyers like the de Soles “outrageous,” adding, “You don’t put people’s names on lists of anything without asking their consent.”

Anfam also told the court that Knoedler’s sudden acquisition of undiscovered works by Rothko, none of which had been published in the catalogue raisonné, was suspect. “The idea of eight Rothkos going under the radar simply strains credibility,” he said.

While Freedman had sent him transparencies of the fake Rothko sold to the de Soles, Anfam said he’d “never seen the painting itself,” and that if Freedman had asked permission to use his name on the list of experts, doing so would“constitute a proxy authentication.”

Yet during cross-examination with Freedman’s attorneys, he admitted that he had seen other fake paintings sold by Knoedler and believed them to be authentic at the time.

In 2008, he displayed one of Rosales’s forged Barnett Newmans paintings in an exhibit he curated at the Haunch of Venison gallery in New York, knowing it came from the same mysterious collector as the Rothkos.

“This choice is not born of expediency,” Anflam wrote in a May 2008 email to art historian Jack Flam, referring to his decision to exhibit the Newman. “To my eye, this is a beautiful Newman in excellent condition… I am not aware of any reason to deem the canvas inauthentic.” (He later forwarded the email to Freedman.)

Testimonies heard this week from other art historians who worked with Knoedler, including Stephen Polcari and Jack Flam, have called into question the ability of experts to determine whether a work is genuine.

Knoedler Gallery paid Polcari $3,000 to write 10 research essays on the works acquired by the gallery from Rosales.

They were later given to the de Soles and other buyers as proof of the works’ authenticity, though the most compelling evidence he cited was the fact that they were on sale at the prestigious Knoedler Gallery.

As with many aspects of the case, this detail suggests that art’s value is determined solely by perception of where it came from and how much it’s worth.

Polcari testified that he was “strong on Rothko,” though admitted during cross-examination by the de Soles’ attorneys that he had previously said that all Rothkos look alike.

He conceded that yes, he was aware that all of the works he wrote about were fake, but that “they were very good works. They just happened to be done by other artists.”

The trial will continue through next week. Attorneys representing Ann Freedman told The Daily Beast that she was expected to testify either today, Friday, or on Monday.