Tag Archives: Art

Experts Testify in “Bizarre” Art Authentication Trial

Experts Testify in “Bizarre” Art Authentication Trial

Expert witnesses played a key role in an art authentication trial that one art world publication branded as ridiculous and bizarre. The controversy involved a desert landscape that was allegedly painted by Peter Doig. The artist, known for his figurative paintings and his “revolutionary” approach to landscapes, denied that he painted the desert landscape.

Robert Fletcher’s Claim

Robert Fletcher was working as a corrections officer at Thunder Bay Correctional Centre in Ontario during the mid-1970s. He claims that he watched Doig paint the landscape and purchased it from Doig for $100 in 1975, while Doig was serving a sentence for possession of LSD.

The Scottish-born artist lived in Toronto during his teen years, when he worked as a laborer for a gas and oil drilling company. He moved to London in 1979 to attend art school. Doig has been living in Trinidad since 2002.

Doig admits that he occasionally used LSD in his youth but he denies having been imprisoned in Thunder Bay. He also denies painting the desert landscape. Doig’s art dealer contends that Doig did not start painting on canvas until 1979.

Doig’s defense team argued that the disputed landscape was painted by Peter E. Doige, now deceased, an amateur painter who (according to his half-sister) served time in Thunder Bay. That claim is given credence by the fact that the painting is signed “Pete Doige.” Why Doig would add an “e” at the end of his name, and why he would deny painting the landscape if he actually did so, are questions for which Fletcher had no satisfactory answer.

Fletcher’s Lawsuit

The painting is worth millions of dollars if it was painted by Doig rather than Doige. Since the painting’s value depends on its authenticity, Fletcher sued Doig for interfering with its sale by disclaiming creation of the painting. He also asked for a judicial declaration that the painting is authentic.

Fletcher was joined in the suit by Chicago art dealer Peter Bartlow, who is trying to sell the painting on Fletcher’s behalf. He says that Doig “wrecked their plans” to sell the painting for millions of dollars.

Bartlow called Doig a “sociopath” and said that Doig “can’t draw.” That may seem like an odd statement from someone who is trying to sell a painting for millions of dollars that he attributes to Doig, but Bartlow insists that Doig traces his works from projections. Doig denies that allegation.

Expert Testimony

Bartlow testified as an expert in art authentication. He had a financial interest in the outcome of the trial — he will earn a 25{d61575bddc780c1d4ab39ab904bf25755f3b8d1434703a303cf443ba00f43fa4} commission if he sells the painting — but the court decided before the trial that Bartlow was qualified to testify as an authentication expert. The judge noted that all experts get paid and that Bartlow’s potential commission went to his credibility, not to the admissibility of his testimony.

Bartlow testified that he identified “small elements in the disputed painting that can be found in Doig’s verified work, such as the line of a skier’s right arm in a 1994 oil on canvas, Chopper,” which Bartlow claims is “nearly identical to the ridge of a rock formation in the disputed painting.” During cross-examination, Doig’s attorney ridiculed “the Bartlow method” of authentication.

Art historian Richard Schiff, testifying as an expert for the defense, characterized Bartlow’s methods as “entirely unreliable” and suggested (quite sensibly) that expert witnesses should not have a financial stake in verdicts when they testify. After examining other paintings by Doige, Schiff expressed the “firm opinion” that Doige, not Doig, painted the desert landscape, based on the “uniformity of the surface, consistent planar recession, and consistent illumination.”

Art historian Victor Wiener appraised the disputed painting. He testified that it is worth $50,000 to $100,000 if it was painted by Doige and $6 million to $8 million if it was painted by Doig.

The Verdict

The case was heard by a federal judge sitting without a jury. Judge Gary Feinerman decided that Doig “absolutely did not paint the disputed work.” The judge’s remarks seem to suggest that he found Doig’s testimony to be credible and concluded that all of the evidence made an overwhelming case that Doig did not paint the landscape.

Fletcher said he accepted the verdict and still had “personal affection for the painting no matter who made it.” The painting’s notoriety as a result of the trial almost certainly assures that Fletcher will make a tidy profit if he sells it, although he won’t reap the millions for which he and Bartlow had hoped.

Art Experts Gather for Fraud Trial in Manhattan

Art Experts Gather for Fraud Trial in Manhattan

Art experts from around the world are gathering in a federal courtroom in Manhattan to testify in a case alleging that a prominent New York gallery fraudulently sold forged art. The lawsuit involves a painting of black and red rectangles, attributed to Mark Rothko, that was actually painted by a Chinese immigrant in Queens. The gallery, Knoedler & Company, sold the painting in 2004 to Domenico and Eleanore De Sole for $8.3 million. The gallery closed its doors after it was flooded with lawsuits and is now in the hands of a holding company.

The De Soles are seeking $25 million in damages. A key issue in the trial is whether the gallery or its director, Ann Freedman, were aware that the Rothko was a fake when Knoedler sold it to the De Soles.

Allegations of Fraud

Over the course of 15 years, Knoedler sold about 30 forged paintings that were attributed to abstract artists, including Pollock, de Kooning, and Rothko. Collectors paid about $63 million for the combined works. The forgeries were supplied to Knoedler by Glafira Rosales, a Long Island art dealer who claimed she acquired them from art collections in Zurich and Mexico City.

Rosales was convicted of several fraud charges in 2013. The forger, who fled to China, told an interviewer that he was not paid significant sums for the works and did not know that they were being resold as originals.

During the first week of trial, Domenico De Soles testified that he based his decision to purchase the Rothko on the gallery’s reputation for honesty and made no significant effort of his own to authenticate the painting. He said he also received a letter from Freedman stating that the Rothko had been viewed by eleven individuals “with special expertise on the work of Mark Rothko,” including art historian Irving Sandler and Rothko’s son. The De Soles took the letter as verification of the painting’s authenticity, while Freedman’s lawyer made the point that the letter said “viewed” rather than “authenticated.” The jury might think that Freedman’s lawyer is splitting hairs if it regards the letter as implying that none of the art experts who viewed the painting had doubts about its origin.

The De Soles allege that Freedman and the Knoedler gallery knew the painting was forged, or deliberately disregarded evidence that the painting was not authentic. According to the De Soles, Freedman should have realized the Rothko was a forgery when she was able to purchase an $8.3 million painting from Rosales for $950,000.

Freedman argues that she purchased art from Rosales for her own collection, including a $280,000 Pollock, without realizing that she was buying forgeries. The De Soles’ lawyer contends that Freedman purchased the forged works for herself as a promotional device and to bolster her credibility with customers.

The lawsuit will hinge on proof that Freedman knew, or at least suspected, that the Rothko was a fake. If she concealed such knowledge or suspicions from the De Soles, the jury would have a basis for concluding that she acted fraudulently.

Expert Testimony

Among the experts called in the first week of trial, Dana Cranmer, the former conservator for the Rothko Foundation, testified that he was unaware that Freedman used his name in the letter that was sent to the De Soles. He was uncertain whether he ever saw the painting that was sold to the De Soles, although he recalled looking at a Rothko in Freedman’s office for five or ten seconds. He testified that he did not authenticate it because “that’s not what conservators do.” His expertise is in preserving paintings rather than authenticating them.

Rothko’s son also testified that he did not know Freedman included his name in her letter. He denied that he has ever authenticated any of his father’s paintings. Another person named in the letter, Rothko expert David Anfam, said he had only seen transparencies of the painting, not the original. He also denied authenticating the painting. Anfam admitted, however, that he placed another Rothko forgery in an exhibition, believing it to be authentic.

Other experts who are likely to contribute important testimony during the course of the trial include art appraisers and forensic accountants. James Martin, a paint analysis expert who initially determined that the Rothko and other paintings that Rosales sold to Knoedler were fakes, is expected to explain how the forgeries could have been detected.

Freedman initially maintained that Martin’s scientific analysis was faulty but dropped that assertion after the forger was identified. Freedman now bases her defense on the claim that she relied on experts who authenticated the forged Rothko before she purchased it. The testimony of those experts will be central to her claim that she was duped.

Robert Wittman, founder of the FBI Art Crime Team before beginning a career in private art security, is also expected to testify as an expert on Freedman’s behalf. The extent to which he will be allowed to express opinions about the relative responsibilities of the De Soles and Freedman to research the painting’s origin remains a point of contention.

Shining a Light

Expert testimony serves to educate the jury, but broader audiences are often interested in what experts have to say. According to artnet News, the “parade of experts and insiders expected to take the stand in the coming weeks” will likely “shine a light into the often murky and secretive practices surrounding high-stakes art sales.”

In addition to opening a window to the art world, the trial may answer questions about the ability of art experts to authenticate paintings. If, as Freedman claims, experts told her that the Rothko was real, art buyers need to be concerned that customary art authentication procedures may be inadequate to protect their investments.