‘The Art of the Con:’ how scammers dupe art collectors and run off with millions
By Anthony M. Amore
264 pp. $26
Anthony M. Amore’s savvy and informative book conveys a number of cautions about buying art that seem exceedingly self-evident. Among them:
A genuine Jackson Pollock painting should cost a lot more than $60,000.
It’s highly unlikely that an artist would present his assistant with 22 works valued at $6.5 million as a gift.
Someone selling Dale Chihuly glass sculptures from the back of an old SUV probably didn’t acquire them legitimately.
The same goes for a gallery owner who explains the lack of documentation for art she’s offering at below-market value by saying it’s from the estate of a deceased collector whose heirs want to keep the sale private.
Amore, head of security at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, provides chastening examples of people ignoring each of these warning signs and others nearly as blatant. The sad fact, as he writes in his introduction, is that the art market’s con artists never have any trouble finding marks who “believe, against all indications to the contrary, that they have actually stumbled on the rare deal that is both too good and true.”
The list of those snowed by the inventive scammers Amore profiles includes several prominent gallery directors who couldn’t wait to get their hands on works brought to them under decidedly shady circumstances, as well as auction-house experts and art historians so thrilled by the prospect of being in on a rare find that they vouched for the authenticity of paintings subsequently shown to be fakes.
Illusion and wish-fulfillment play a powerful role in the art market. Time and again, we see buyers taken in by a romantic tale spun around a dubious piece. Working-class Italian American Joseph Coletti was indeed a protege of John Singer Sargent, but the collection of Sargent’s paintings offered to a would-be art dealer was entirely fraudulent — as was the artist’s relationship to the alleged grandson who offered them for sale. The David Herbert Collection, supposedly belonging to a wealthy, closeted, married man whose affair with a noted art dealer gave him the inside track to buy directly from abstract expressionist painters — always in cash, which conveniently justified the absence of a paper trail — was also just a compelling fantasy. Amore amply backs up his claim that “the art of the art scam is in the backstory, not in the picture itself.”
That also explains why it takes the duped so long to enlist the services of technical art researchers, whose scientific analyses frequently prove more accurate than the eyes of experts. Those analyses are generally unambiguous and sometimes devastating: The Knoedler Gallery in New York was already shaken by revelations that it had unwittingly sold phony art when it received the news that a work it had sold as a Jackson Pollock was made with paint not commercially available until 1970, 14 years after Pollock’s death. One day later, the 165-year-old gallery went out of business.
Amore’s heroes are scientific art authorities and law enforcement officials. Among the scientists are Nicholas Eastaugh, who outed a fake German expressionist in a case involving forgeries sold for $22 million; the lawmen include FBI agents David Wilson and Jason Richards, who nailed the purveyor of phony Sargents, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent Bonnie Goldblatt, a specialist in art-theft cases. Amore also praises such organizations as the International Foundation for Art Research, a nonprofit authentication service, and the Art Loss Register, a database of stolen works used to vet sales and auctions.
Valuable though their contributions are, it’s distracting when, every single time one of these experts is called in, the story stops dead while Amore details their backgrounds for several paragraphs. The author gets tangled up in his narrative threads while relating the complicated ins-and-outs of some dozen art frauds over the past three decades, often beginning a chapter with an anecdote whose relevance to the events that follow is tangential at best. Sometimes he plunges into frauds involving technical matters, probably confusing the reader, at least until she comes to Amore’s belated explanation. All this makes “The Art of the Con” a bumpier text than the best-selling “Stealing Rembrandts,” which Amore wrote with the seasoned journalist Tom Mashberg.
Nonetheless, there’s much fun to be had in following the reprehensible but undeniably juicy exploits of these rogues, one of whom passes off a Nazi grandfather as the compassionate customer of a beleaguered Jewish art dealer, another of whom persuades an unwitting trompe l’oeil artist to create an exact replica of a Picasso pastel, allegedly to assist a police investigation, then turns around and sells it for $2 million. The book would be even more fun if these crooks got jail time commensurate with their misdeeds; Amore reports but doesn’t comment on the fact that most of them received very lenient sentences, albeit coupled with requirements for financial restitution that they occasionally met before declaring bankruptcy. And although he’s commendably up to date in covering the burgeoning field of art fraud in Internet and cruise-ship auctions, here, too, he backs away from offering an opinion about what the facts suggest, other than the generic “one thing is for sure, fraud involving art is thriving.”
A stronger authorial voice and sharper editing would have improved “The Art of the Con,” but it is still a knowledgeable and enjoyable survey of art fraud in our time.