It was a Kandinsky that first raised Oliver Class’s suspicion. The documentation concerning the origins of 30 Russian avant-garde paintings looked good, but when the Swiss art expert went on to evaluate the collection at the request of a prospective client seeking to insure the works for 28 million Swiss francs ($30 million), he became uneasy.
The collection was kept in a toll-free storage hold in Zurich and, like the Kandinsky, the works were incredibly detailed as if copied millimeter by millimeter rather than showing the ingenious grand stroke of a master painter. “They looked like they had been drawn by the same hand,” recalls Class.
Class immediately thought of
Wolfgang Beltracchi, the notorious German forger who specialized in paintings from the first half of the 20th century by masters like Fernand Léger, Max Pechstein and Max Ernst.
As a child, Beltracchi learned his craft by assisting his father, a restorer, when the older man struggled with details. Beltracchi’s work was so good that the self-proclaimed “world’s only expert on Max Ernst,” the German Walter Spies, was fooled by the talented forger as were many collectors, dealers and museum curators.
The noose around Beltracchi’s neck, however, soon tightened. In 1995, the auction house Lempertz in Cologne, Germany, learned that a painting by Hans Purrmann offered for sale by the forger’s accomplices was identified as a fake by the administrators of the artist’s archive.
Nonetheless, the same auctioneers sold a forged Heinrich Campendonk,
Rotes Bild mit Pferden (1914), in 2006 from the same source for over $2 million. Somewhat belatedly, the buyer demanded proof of provenance from Lempertz. It was only after the documents failed to arrive that the painting was tested and titanium white was found, a pigment not available at the purported date of origin.
Beltracchi was finally arrested in 2010 and admitted to forging works of more than 50 unspecified, but renowned, artists. Only 14 works were subject to the court case. Unfortunately, Beltracchi, who is now serving a six-year sentence, refused an interview for this article, so Class may never know if the dubious Swiss collection (which he refused to insure) came from the flamboyant forger’s atelier.
Worldwide, hundreds of billions of dollars are spent annually in an art market that is again running hot. The auction house Christie’s alone sold artworks for $3.5 billion in the first six months of 2012, an increase of 11% over the same period in 2011. According to company records, private sales increased by a stunning 53%. Buyers came from 124 countries, and 19% were new clients.
The most important segment for the auction house was post-war and contemporary art, which grew by 31% to $921.8 million in sales. Impressionist and modern art followed with sales of $676.7 million, a 4% increase over the first six months of 2011.
Certainly, sellers of contraband, forgers and money launderers exist, but they are far from the only investment risk that collectors face in the market. While expensive masterpieces like the record-breaking Rothko boost sales results, prices for lesser works and traditional antique objects have been languishing for years.
Corinna Thierolf, chief curator at the
Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich, says buyers should choose a market niche wisely and build a network of experts among artists, dealers and museum curators. “Sometimes you see collections in which millions [of euros] are wasted on second- and third- quality art,” she comments.
Thierolf urges collectors and investors to train their eye by visiting galleries, ateliers, academies and museums. Even browsing online catalogs of auction houses can help build a sound collection centering on one artist, one era or a focus which is entirely new and different.
“The documented provenance of the artwork should always be conclusive,” Thierolf advises, even though, she adds, “in some cases, there is no 100% guarantee.”
THE ART OF KNOWING ART
An art insurer – such as Allianz, AXA or smaller specialists like Markel Museums in the United States – can lend a hand or an eye and offer sound advice to collectors. Together with the owner, the expert establishes a value for each work of art. The ensuing document serves as the basis for damage claims, establishes a sales price and may be used as security against bank loans. As market prices can increase, the exercise must be repeated from time to time.
Art historians such as Class, who works for Allianz Suisse, can also point out problems that demand restoration and help find the right artisan for the job. Storing artwork demands thought, too. Drawings on paper and photographs, for instance, are especially sensitive to light and keep their original color better in the drawer than on the wall.
Experts can also assist with advice on alarm systems or even the selection of the all- important frames that Heinz Berggruen, an avid collector and dealer, once said sometimes took him years to source.
Too good to be true
In his memoir Hauptweg und Nebenwege (1996), the late dealer and avid collector Heinz Berggruen, part of whose major collection can be viewed in museums worldwide, advises buyers to beware if the seller claims any of the following:
The piece has been owned by the same family for generations.
Forty years ago, when the artwork was acquired, the artist was unknown and nobody would have dreamt of forging his paintings.
Prominent experts have certified the work as genuine (promptly forgetting to mention that the certificates may also be forged).
The painting was part of a famous collection. (Even if true, famous collectors may also occasionally have fallen for a copy.)
FROM BAZOOKAS TO MATISSE
With an insurance premium secured, overflowing bathtubs, Christmas trees on fire, masked men with big bags or party guests bumping into a 3,000-year-old Chinese terra-cotta horse no longer need lead to heart attacks.
Fortunately, such incidences are rare. Private collections are mainly well-guarded secrets. Hidden away in parks and on hillsides, there are museums no one has ever heard of housing spectacular paintings, says Class.Such buyers only make headlines when they open their collections to the public, such as the Miami-based Rubell family did. Their collection now forms the basis of a world- renowned museum.
This is how it should be. “Artworks of significance demand public exposure,” says Thierolf. After all, art is about communication. But that is also where the headache for the insurer starts. Public exhibitions, museums, auction houses and galleries are vulnerable to damage by humans in more than one respect, as shown in the 2012 heist of seven masterpieces (valued at more than $100 million) from an exhibition in Rotterdam. The paintings have been entered into the Art Loss Register, an international database of stolen artworks, which alerts important institutions as well as the FBI and Scotland Yard.
One such investigation, reminiscent of the American heist film
The Thomas Crowne Affair, led Class to Magdeburg, Germany, after a Renoir, a Matisse and other paintings were stolen from the auction house Koller in Zurich in the early 1990s.
The Magdeburg police had been baffled when, after listening in to conversations by arms-smugglers from Poland, the gang suddenly switched topics from bazookas to Matisse. Class, who arrived in the town after a tip from a private detective, solved the riddle. An undercover policeman pretended to be a willing buyer, arrests were made, and Class went home with the Matisse.
Yet, the private detective was not finished there. He told Class that the Renoir and the other missing works were in Serbia in the circle of then President Slobodan Milošević.
A story appeared in the Swiss newspaper
Blick and was picked up by media around the world, including in Serbia. The stunt did the trick: the paintings were returned voluntarily, but the case disproved the belief that renowned stolen masterpieces cannot ever be sold.