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‘Art Of The Con’ Paints Revealing Picture Of Scammed Collectors

By Carolina A. Miranda, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World by Anthony M. Amore; Palgrave Macmillan (272 pages, $26)
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Late last month, an art dealer named David Carter pled guilty to seven counts of fraud in a British court for passing off cheap bric-a-brac paintings he found on the Internet as originals by Alfred Wallis, an early 20th century painter known for producing marine scenes that toyed with perspective and depth. This comes just weeks after a pair of German men were accused of trying to ply a fake Alberto Giacometti sculpture to an undercover detective. The plot — it’s a thick one — involved one of the men’s 92-year-old ex-mother-in-law and an infamous Dutch forger who once kept an entire warehouse full of knock-off Giacometti bronzes.

Dip into the news on any given month and chances are you will find similar stories about art world ignominy, from the British copyist churning out oils attributed to Winston Churchill to the Manhattan dealer pushing looted Indian artifacts. There is something irresistible about that point where art and crime intersect: the money, the egos, the jet-set country club types — not to mention all the talk about provenance and brush strokes and craquelure (those cracks that form in the varnish of painting as it ages).

Anthony M. Amore would know a thing or two about the world of art swindles. For the last decade, he has served as head of security at Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, which was famously robbed in 1990 of several Rembrandts and a Vermeer. Three years ago he published, with investigative journalist Tom Mashberg, the book “Stealing Rembrandts: The Untold Story of Notorious Art Heists,” which explored the colorful history of thefts of works by the 17th century Dutch master, an activity that has involved machine guns and speed boats.

Now Amore is back with a new book that explores similar territory. The Art of the Con: The Most Notorious Fakes, Frauds, and Forgeries in the Art World looks at some of the most high-profile cases of art skulduggery from the last couple of decades. Each chapter tells the story of a single case, such as that of convicted German art counterfeiter Wolfgang Beltracchi, whose faked canvases based on the works of surrealist Max Ernst and modernist Heinrich Campendonk were so well executed that they successfully fooled even the artists’ families (as well as actor Steve Martin, who unwittingly purchased a bogus Campendonk).

Likewise, there’s the tale of West Hollywood gallerist Tatiana Khan, who claimed to be dealing works from the collection of the late real estate mogul Malcolm Forbes and who, at age 70, was busted by the FBI in a wild web of lies after selling a fake Picasso for $2 million. By the time the authorities caught up with her, she was in ill health, living in a jumbled house stuffed full of sculptures and antiques — like some sort of frayed “Miss Havisham character,” writes Amore. (She ultimately pled guilty and was sentenced to five years probation.)

In this manner, Art of the Con takes the reader through a whole spectrum of cases, from the high to the low. There is the esteemed New York art dealer who ended up in jail after deceiving a star-spangled array of high-profile clients. And there’s the case of the couple from La Canada Flintridge who produced unauthorized ink jet prints of lesser-known artists’ works for a fraud operation that extended into the world of cruise ship auctions. (Surreal and enlightening.)

While Amore recounts each of the cases efficiently from beginning to end, what’s missing is more psychology. Early on in the book, he notes that a good art con isn’t just about creating a good fake, it’s about inventing a probable narrative to go with it: “The art of art scams is in the backstory,” he writes, “not in the picture itself.”

And while he diligently conveys some of these backstories (down to the vintage family photos faked by one forger), he overlooks some big-picture questions: What makes something art? Why is art such an entrancing symbol of power? What kind of person flips a $17-million painting by Jackson Pollock as an investment? And why are so many people so willing to ignore the warning signs of a sham deal?

Art of the Con is methodically researched and reported but does little to illuminate the process of seduction that takes place when it comes to acquiring art. Buyers can do their due diligence: They can check the provenance, they can analyze the market, they can consult with the pedigreed experts. But there comes a point in many deals where acquisition is guided entirely by intangibles such as status and beauty and a desire to possess — not to mention a healthy dose of greed. Ultimately, it is in this messy gray area that a more compelling story could have been mined and told.

(c)2015 Los Angeles Times. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Endorse This: The Opening Bid Is $100 Million

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Who says the economy is slow? The posh patrons of Christie’s auction house in New York had no trouble at all spending money on Monday, when they set a new all-time record for the price of a single painting. The winning bid for Pablo Picasso’s “The Women of Algiers (Version O)” was a whopping $160 million, plus commissions that brought the total price to just shy of $180 million!

Click above to watch the squirm-inducing video — because at the very least, seeing these fine folks bid higher and higher will make you feel better about your own impulse buys. Then share this video!

Video via Christie’s.

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Artists Demand NY Police Return Snowden Bust

New York (AFP) — Three artists on Tuesday demanded that New York police return a bust of fugitive U.S. whistleblower Edward Snowden to public display or threatened legal action.

Civil rights lawyer Ronald Kuby said the artists would remain anonymous because they feared arrest and prosecution after authorities removed the sculpture from a Brooklyn park last week.

“We hope New York City will release the statue so it may continue to spark healthy conversations about issues central to our freedoms,” the artists said in a written statement.

They erected the 100-pound bust at an American Revolution war memorial in Fort Greene park shortly before dawn on April 6, but within hours it was confiscated by police.

At a news conference on the spot where the bust was impounded, Kuby described the sculpture as a “valuable and well-crafted piece of art” that took six months to create.

“It is somewhat ironic that as Edward Snowden is in exile in Russia his statue is being held hostage in the basement of a police precinct in New York City,” Kuby said.

“Whatever the right of the parks department to remove an unauthorized sculpture, that does not translate into the right of the police to indefinitely detain a work of art,” he added.

A Manhattan gallery wants to put it on display next month as part of an exhibition on surveillance and privacy, Kuby said, threatening to prepare litigation if police do not respond.

A New York police spokeswoman told AFP that the statue was erected without permission and is being stored as evidence.

“All property that is confiscated for investigatory purposes may be returned to the rightful owner after the investigation is completed,” said deputy chief Kim Royster in an email.

Geoffrey Croft from the NYC Park Advocates watchdog called for the statue to be exhibited in a public park as part of program that has put hundreds of works of art temporarily on display.

“Art and the freedom to express ourselves are the cornerstones of our society and they must be protected,” Croft told reporters.

In a letter to police commissioner Bill Bratton demanding the statue’s return, Kuby said the artists had displayed the bust on a war memorial to draw a link between martyrs for freedom in the American Revolution and those who suffer for freedom today.

Snowden, 31, a former contractor at the U.S. National Security Agency, has lived in exile in Russia since 2013 after revealing mass spying programs by the United States and its allies.

The U.S. administration has branded him a hacker and a traitor who endangered lives by revealing the extent of the NSA spying program

Photo: AFP/Jewel Samad

Once Stored Under A Couch, A Long-Lost Masterpiece By Mexico’s Cabrera Has Resurfaced

By Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

LOS ANGELES — Lots of people have a stray fuzz ball or two kicking around under the sofa, or perhaps a missing sock to match the lonely one at the bottom of the laundry hamper.

Christina Jones Janssen had something more valuable under the couch in her San Francisco Bay Area home — a lost and extremely rare masterpiece of Eighteenth Century painting, neatly rolled up and remarkably well-preserved.

She suspected it might be important, and her sleuthing led to what art experts are calling one of most important discoveries of Mexican Colonial art in recent memory.

The picture is a long-lost work by Miguel Cabrera (circa 1715-1768), the greatest painter of his era in Mexico City, then capital of the Viceroyalty of New Spain. His prolific workshop produced religious and secular art for the Catholic Church and the social elite.

Over the course of nearly 250 years, the painting traveled more than 12,000 miles, including a trip back and forth across the Atlantic. Its whereabouts have long been unknown.

Now the picture has arrived at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, which scored an impressive coup in acquiring the missing masterpiece. Its rediscovery is a major art historical event.

The painting is the sixth in a distinctive set of 16 casta paintings — a controversial but fascinating genre invented in Mexico. In a system devised by white elites, castas explore the Enlightenment Age theme of miscegenation, or interracial marriage, among Indians, Spaniards, and Africans. About 100 sets are known, although most have been broken up.

Cabrera painted only one set, widely considered the genre’s finest.

The painting shows a prosperous Spanish father and doting Moorish North African (or Morisca) mother dandling their cheerful albino baby. The figures are life-size. It’s the third and largest casta in LACMA’s collection that represents this ethnic combination.

Eight paintings from the full set of 16 are in Madrid’s Museo de America, the finest collection of Spanish Colonial and pre-Conquest art in Europe. Five are in a private collection in Monterrey, Mexico, and one is in the Multi-Cultural Music and Art Foundation of Northridge, California.

Until now, the set’s two remaining pictures have been missing (one of the series is still lost). LACMA purchased the newly found masterpiece for an undisclosed sum, with funds provided by trustee Kelvin Davis and as a partial gift from Janssen, its owner.

Janssen said she finally began to research the painting’s provenance after retiring as a corporate attorney with Chevron last year.

“My dad always told me it was old and probably from Spain,” Janssen told the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday. “He thought it had some mates there. He wanted me to look into it some day.”

She had no idea just how important the legacy would turn out to be. Her research led her to Magali Carrera, an art historian at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, who identified the painter.

“I didn’t even know what a casta was,” Janssen said. “But my father always said it belonged in a museum.”

A museum in Los Angeles, itself once part of New Spain, was a logical choice, given her family history. Her great-great-grandfather, mining tycoon John P. Jones, co-founded the city of Santa Monica.

Ilona Katzew, LACMA curator of Latin American art and a leading casta scholar, called it “easily the most important Mexican Colonial painting to come to market in years.”

Interest in Spanish Colonial art has risen sharply in recent decades. A work of this caliber would be expected to bring at least one million dollars at auction, Katzew said.

Cabrera’s inventive castas are hanging scrolls, a format common to Asian art but virtually unknown in Europe and the Americas until the Manila Galleon trade, an annual shipment to Acapulco from the Spanish colony in the Philippines. Goods came from Japan, India, and especially China.

LACMA’s canvas is the set’s only one to retain its original painted wooden molding across the top and scroll bar at the bottom. The surviving equipment made the painting easy to roll, facilitating travel and safe storage.

Museum conservator Joseph Fronek said that storage probably helped preserve the chromatic brilliance of otherwise fugitive colors, such as the Spaniard’s red velvet sleeve, painted in layered glazes. The overall condition is very good, with only minor paint losses in mostly secondary areas.

The painting’s surprise reappearance follows a circuitous route through the last 100 years, recounted by Janssen. “From Spaniard and Morisca, Albino” (1763) came to the U.S. in the early 1920s, bought by David Gray, son of Ford Motor Co.’s founding president.

In 1919, Gray and his three siblings inherited $26 million — more than $350 million in today’s inflation-adjusted currency — from the settlement of their father’s original Ford investment. Gray promptly moved from snowy Detroit to balmy Montecito on the outskirts of Santa Barbara.

There, the taste for building Spanish Revival mansions was in full swing. Gray traveled to Spain to buy furnishings for the sprawling house, which he named Graholm, including the easily transportable Cabrera scroll.

Prior to his death in 1928, Gray gave the painting to his neighbor, real estate executive (and fellow former Detroiter) James R.H. Wagner.

The scroll passed down through Wagner’s family to Janssen, his great-granddaughter. Before landing at her home in the East Bay, it stopped for a few decades to adorn the living room of the Vallejo-Castenada Adobe — a historic house near the family ranch in Sonoma, dating to 1842. Don Juan Castenada was a Mexican army captain.

The painting’s Spaniard is likewise a soldier. His distinctive leather tunic identifies him as a member of Los Dragones de Cuera, a select military troop posted in northern New Spain.

He is depicted as a chain-smoker. A cigarette burns between his lips, another is tucked behind his ear and a pack lies open on the table next to his gun and dagger. The weapons are elaborately decorated with silver.

Mexico’s tobacco industry was booming, as were the often brutal silver mines. Both provided huge revenues to the Spanish crown. The patron for Cabrera’s set is unknown, but castas were sometimes made for Old World export to demonstrate colonial New World prosperity.

The Moorish woman is also dressed in specific finery that underscores her hybrid family. The exquisite floral-patterned dress is Asian, the prominently displayed lace on her sleeve European, and the striped shawl around her shoulders a Mexican rebozo. The clothing reiterates Cabrera’s painting — an Asian scroll painted in a European style by a Mexican artist.

Cabrera was born in Oaxaca around 1715 and soon orphaned. His premier status among indigenous viceregal artists is undisputed, but little is known about him before he emerged in the 1750s as a force in Mexico City. His own ethnic identity, once thought to be mestizo (Spanish and Indian), is a mystery.

As Cabrera became successful in racially obsessed New Spain, however, he identified as Spanish — the top of the casta hierarchy. He enrolled two daughters in an elite convent school that would only admit children of European ancestry.

Anxiety over his own identity perhaps generated his sympathetic portrayal of diverse ethnic types. LACMA’s tender composition is even based on a traditionally Christian Holy Family motif.

Interest in castas’ fictitious racial typing has blossomed in recent years. The paintings were long dismissed as ethnographic oddities, sometimes marred by frankly racist depictions.

Ironically, a unique genre invented to separate classes through racial hierarchy had an unexpected effect, helping to cement an idea of a Mexican identity different from Spain’s. Castas chronicled the diversity of la raza. Fifty years after Cabrera’s death, Mexicans launched their War of Independence.

Other works from Cabrera’s casta set have been shown in three prior LACMA exhibitions. The rediscovered painting, LACMA’s second by the artist, goes on view April 26 as one of 50 new acquisitions celebrating the museum’s 50th anniversary.

With one casta from the set still missing, you might want to check under your sofa.

Photo: Barbara Davidson via Los Angeles Times/TNS