How Sotheby’s Got Hoodwinked: The Art World’s $20m Forgery Scandal

Sotheby’s has been forced to admit that it is at the center of a multimillion-dollar forgery scandal, involving what could be tens of millions of dollars-worth of bogus Old Master paintings.

This very arty week, which saw the opening day of the Frieze art fair in London, was hardly the ideal week for what could be the biggest forgery story since the World War II-era Vermeer scandal to break.

But, just as Regent’s Park was a-swirl with hundreds of galleries, thousands of artists, and tens of thousands of amateur and professional buyers, Sotheby’s, one of the two grand old firms of the global art world, and a key presence at Frieze, was forced into a humiliating admission that it is at the center of a multimillion-pound forgery scandal, involving what could be tens of millions of dollars worth of bogus Old Master paintings.

Specifically, a painting authenticated by Sotheby’s as the work of Dutch artist Frans Hals—and sold on that basis for almost $10 million—has now been “reassessed” by the auction house and declared a fake.

Sotheby’s released a statement saying that a new “technical analysis” had revealed that the work was a “forgery.” The sale was annulled and the client—believed to be an American collector based in Seattle—was reimbursed, Sotheby’s said.

In other words, the gallery was comprehensively hoodwinked. Even worse, however, is that now the authenticity of up to $200 million-worth of other Old Masters which allegedly appeared across European galleries from the same source—a little known French collector—is under question.

The analysis was carried out in the wake of a controversial police swoop in March this year, when a supposed 1531 work, Venus With A Veil, owned by the Prince of Liechtenstein, was seized by French police from a public gallery.

French law allows for the seizure of works that are suspected forgeries for investigation without a court judgment, but the prince, one of the most powerful collectors in the world, was understandably furious at the public way the picture was grabbed.

The results of the analysis have not been made public. However, it is widely believed in the art world that the picture has been found to be inauthentic.

The Venus picture was at one stage owned by the same “collector” as the Hals, a 72-year-old Frenchman named Giulano Ruffini.

According to The Art Newspaper, Ruffini also at one time owned several other paintings said to be under investigation, including a painting of St. Jerome said to be by the circle of Parmigianino which sold for $842,500 at Sotheby’s, New York in 2012.

Ruffini told the website that he was the former owner of another painting—David Contemplating the Head of Goliath, painted on lapis lazuli, and reportedly bought by a British collector as a work by Orazio Gentileschi—which has also been drawn into the scandal.

The Art Newspaper says that Ruffini claims that most of the pieces are alleged to have derived from the collection of a French civil engineer. When the engineer died in 1971, his daughter inherited the collection and subsequently gifted and sold several of the paintings to Ruffini, with whom, he says, she had an eight-year affair.

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Ruffini denies having presented the works for sale as genuine Old Masters. “I am a collector, not an expert,” he has said.

Mark Weiss, a London dealer who is integral to the story, having bought two of the paintings from Ruffini (including the recently declared fake Hals) told the Financial Times that he was “yet to be convinced” that the Hals was not genuine and declined to comment further.

It is believed Sotheby’s is now going after him to reimburse them for the money they lost on the forged Hals.

The use of the word “forgery” in the Sotheby’s statement is deeply significant.

In the art world, there is a difference between fakes and forgeries. Fakes are works by other artists that are passed off as works by more important artists.

Fakes can also be copies of a work done at the same time or in the same era as the original, which are very hard to identify, as the canvas, paint, and even the technique are all of the correct period.

In centuries past, it was absolutely normal for an owner of a fine painting to have a competent artist come and make one or more copies, which they would hang at a different house, if they had several houses, or give to a relative or a friend. If they sold a valuable picture, they would always have a copy made.

For this reason in particular, Old Masters—the term is usually used to refer to the most prominent European (especially Dutch) painters of the 13th to 17th centuries—have always been something of an easy target for forgers.

Works of art are authenticated by eye—that is to say an expert judge (or panel of judges) looks at the piece, and simply declares if it corresponds to the style of the claimed artist.

Date-testing of materials is dismissed as irrelevant by these experts who argue the work may have been restored—and forgers are now clever about using recycled, date-appropriate materials.

Forgeries, on the other hand, are what most of us are thinking of when we imagine art crime—bogus works made by accomplished modern-day artists deliberately to resemble the real thing.

The revelation that Sotheby’s has been the victim of a sophisticated forgery comes at an inconvenient moment for the firm.

Although rather few visitors to Frieze would be specifically interested in Old Masters, Sotheby’s uses the Frieze fairs to counteract the idea that it is a fuddy-duddy old fashioned auction house, and push its contemporary offering with several specially curated sales.

Friday’s “Evening Auction,” for example, was due to be led by a selection of works by contemporary masters such as David Hockney and Gerhard Richter.

No dealers or gallerists contacted by The Daily Beast would comment on the record about the Sotheby’s scandal, most pleading that they were too busy with a deluge of Frieze-related work.

“I only know what I read in the papers,” said one gallerist who deals with Old Masters.

“It certainly sounds as if these guys now have done an excellent job,” said another art world figure. “But remember, fakes have been around forever. Michelangelo’s first commission was to create an imitation Roman statue for a Cardinal.”

Yan Walther, Global Manager of SGS Art Services, which operates a forensic testing service in Geneva, London, and New York, told The Daily Beast: “Every year sees a new forgery or faking scandal, and every year it’s always dismissed as a one-off. Without forensic analysis being carried out systematically for high-value artworks, these scandals are inevitable.”

Walther, who said such analysis usually costs less than $10,000, professed to be “amazed” that works worth millions of dollars are still not subject to rigorous testing before sale by auction houses.

“In an era of high-technology, these scandals shouldn’t happen. Rigorous testing and verification costs less than the carriage, the insurance or certainly the commission on a sale/purchase. Buying a high-value painting without technical analysis is like buying a car without opening the hood.”

Amidst the controversy, there is one institution that is likely feeling a deep sense of relief; the Louvre tried to buy the portrait attributed to Hals at an earlier stage in its march to infamy, even launching a fundraising campaign, but the institution missed out when it failed to make the €5 million price tag.

Now that’s money well not spent.