Thursday, May 05, 2005

Have You Seen This Léger?

I really want to adopt a moralistic POV on this issue, being in the business of selling art and all, but the truth of the matter is I'm as fascinated as the next person by the high-profile thefts of great works of art and totally enjoy the fictionalized accounts of a masterful cat burglar who foils the museum's high-tech security system. Let's face it, it seems so glamorous. I probably wouldn't feel the same way if someone had stolen anything from my collection, but as of this morning, each piece was safe where I had installed it (and by the way, the floor is pressure sensitive, the camera system close-looped, and the laser beams are randomized, so don't even THINK of trying to get through them).

Most of the time, though, art theft is much more mundane. Consider the theives in Oslo who stole one of Munch's "Scream" paintings recently:

Armed robbers have stolen the iconic Edvard Munch painting, The Scream, from the Munch Museum in Norway.

Two masked thieves pulled the work and another painting, Madonna, off the wall as stunned visitors watched on Sunday.

One robber threatened staff with a gun before the pair escaped in a waiting car, a museum officer told the BBC.

Not exactly the Thomas Crown Affair type flair.

But sometimes, reality imitates the movies. Have you seen this Léger?

Fernand Léger, La Boite à Chapeau Polychrome,
oil(?) on canvas, 29 x 36 inches

According to the FBI, it wasn't until it was formally reappraised last December that anyone knew a crime had been committed. Then it was discovered that someone had switched a forgery for the painting. Anyone with information on the whereabouts of the real one is encouraged to contact their local law enforcement agency. And the FBI lists other such cases on their website, as does Interpol.
One of the most interesting ongoing cases is that of New York dealer Ely Sakhai, who with his manager Houshi Sandjaby, forged and then sold as real an undisclosed number of minor works by major artists through Sakhai’s Manhattan gallery Exclusive Art Gallery, Ltd. How they were caught out is even more spectacular:

Vase de Fleurs (Lilas) is not one of Paul Gauguin’s greatest works. It’s a “middle market” painting, which means it changes hands usually for only a few hundred thousand dollars, and without much fanfare. But in May 2000, the painting proved it could still turn heads. When Christie’s and Sotheby’s released spring catalogues for their modern-art auctions, they were alarmed to discover that each was offering the painting—and each house thought it had the original.

One of the paintings, clearly, was a fake. So the auction houses flew both paintings to Sylvie Crussard, a Gauguin expert at the Wildenstein Institute in Paris. She put them side by side and in a few minutes saw that Christie’s version was, in the delicate argot of the trade, “not right.” (The auction house just barely managed to yank its catalogue back from the printers in time.) Still, it was the best Gauguin counterfeit she’d ever seen. “This was a unique case of resemblance. You never see two works which are that similar,” Crussard marvels.

Christie’s broke the news to the horrified owners at the Gallery Muse in Tokyo, who’d had no idea it was a forgery. The real painting went back to Sotheby’s, where its owner—New York dealer Ely Sakhai—successfully auctioned it off for $310,000. But when the FBI traced the history of the fake, they discovered something even more surprising: The original source was none other than Ely Sakhai, too.

According to The Art Newspaper their other fakes included copies of works by Marc Chagall, Pierre-August Renoir, Amedeo Modigliani, Paul Klee and others. If you got a work by one of these artists recently for a price that seemed too good to be true, you might want to check with the FBI’s Brooklyn-Queens office. Tel: 718 286 7100.


Anonymous crionna said...

When Christie’s and Sotheby’s released spring catalogues for their modern-art auctions, they were alarmed to discover that each was offering the painting—and each house thought it had the original.

I'm surprised they couldn't "fix" the problem "between themselves".

5/05/2005 04:30:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...


I actually got the class action suit notices for both houses when it all came crashing down...almost felt sorry for them.

5/05/2005 04:43:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

Really? So, was there a settlement?

5/05/2005 05:34:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

yup...rather handsome one, IMO.

5/05/2005 06:08:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

did it put anything new on your wall or was did it put something nice on the lawyers' wall while the defendants promised to send you a year's worth of catalogs for free?

5/05/2005 09:37:00 PM  
Blogger Edward_ said...

it was a nice check that went toward a new drawing. who needs free catalogs? They put it all online.

5/05/2005 11:01:00 PM  
Anonymous crionna said...

who needs free catalogs?

Exactly my point. Most of the class action suits I've seen adjudicated have ended up with fat checks for the lawyers and $2 off your next printer purchase or some such worthless benefit for those actually hurt by the action. Anyway, glad to hear you ended up with something nice.

5/06/2005 11:55:00 AM  

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