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The wealthy have always found ways of investing their money to make more money or at least that’s the idea. One longtime and popular investment is that of fine art and ancient antiquities. However, the art industry finds itself in a troubling time as recent cases demonstrate how investors have fallen prey to art fraud.

The trafficking of art and antiquities is now one of the largest crimes in the world along with those of trafficking humans and narcotics.  In the past number of years European police estimated that nearly half of the art in international markets may be forgeries. As a result, the Metropolitan Police in London have an active art and antiquities unit to help detect fraudulent art other items from being auctioned to unsuspecting collectors.

Raids

In recent months raids by police and other government authorities have been executed at various well known institutions being accused of fraud. The Telegraph recently reported that the well known Versailles Palace was the location of two arrests of antiques dealers on suspicion of selling two fake Louis XV chairs. The two chairs out of a batch of four were deemed fakes and had been bought by Chateau at Versailles for £1.3million. If the authorities rule that these items are fake, the reputations of various curators and governments could be in tatters. An investigation was initiated after French respected antiques dealer Charles Hoorman, a specialist in 18th century chairs questioned the chairs authenticity. The report quoted Mr. Hoorman as saying: ‘Mr. Hooreman said he first started having doubts about their authenticity when he realised that too many were in circulation, given that another six were sold in Christie’s in New York in 2001. In all, 12 were built plus a slightly larger version for Louis XV himself, which has been lost.’

One of the biggest art fraud cases reported was at one of the oldest and highly respected, the Knoedler Gallery in New York. The gallery closed down in 2011 after it was discovered that for almost 15 years the gallery had sold forgeries to wealthy art collectors making millions of dollars. Forty paintings supposedly by 20th century artists were determined to be fakes. Art historian Jack Flam discovered the $80 million scam and alerted the authorities. The forgeries were painted by Pei-Shen Qian in his Queens, New York garage who was later indicted after fleeing to China. In a CBS 60 Minutes interview Forensic Analyst said one of the forgeries was of a Jackson Pollock painting-with a misspelled signature leaving the ‘c’ out of the last name.

Greg Clarick also interviewed, said another problem with the forgeries was: ‘They had no history. They had no documents.’  He followed by saying: ’Not only that, there were no bills of sale, no insurance records, no shipping documents, and no museum exhibitions for any of the paintings.’ There have been 10 civil lawsuits filed against the Kneeler Gallery and its President Ann Freedman with six settled out of court.

Another raid was reported in March regarding South Asian antiquities at the Nancy Wiener Gallery in Manhattan. Three items valued at $1 million were seized in a raid by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. The raid occurred during the annual celebration of Asia Week New York which is a popular time for collectors. The New York Times reported the items reported seized were a bronze Buddha valued at $850,000 a red sandstone relief of a couple from India’s second century Kushan period valued at $100,000 and an eighth century Hindu carving of the dieties Shiva and Parvati valued between $25,000 and $35,000.

The New York Times reported: ‘… last year, Ms. Wiener was involved in a dispute with the National Gallery of Australia over a rare Kushan Buddha that the museum purchased from her gallery for $1.08 million. The museum returned the statue to India after it said it determined that documents claiming it was legally exported from India were fraudulent and that the item had been looted. Ms. Wiener ended up refunding the purchase price.’

The F.B.I.

A published Federal Bureau of Investigation report shows that it has recovered at least 2,650 missing pieces of art or historical artifacts, many of which were stolen, since 2004, The cases were managed by the agency’s Art Crime Team, a specialized unit of agents formed and trained to combat a rising number of art fraud and theft cases. The value of the artifacts has been put at $150 million.

The following are just sample of what has been recovered and returned the rightful owners:

  • Recovery of more than 100 pre-Columbian artifacts that had been looted from archaeological sites in Panama and brought into the U.S. by an amateur archaeologist.
  • Recovery of Francisco de Goya’s 1778 painting Children With a Cart. The painting was stolen while being transported from the Toledo Museum of Art in Ohio to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York City.
  • Three paintings by the German painter Heinrich Buerkel (1802-1869), stolen at the conclusion of World War II and consigned for sale at an auction house near Philadelphia in 2005.
  • Rembrandt’s Self Portrait (1630) in a sting operation in Copenhagen with assistance of agencies from Denmark and Sweden.
  • Also recovered; 100 paintings stolen from a Florida family’s art collection in a fine art storage facility. This collection included works by Picasso, Rothko, Matisse and others that were recovered from Chicago, New York and Tokyo.

Detection

To confront the forgery problem new techniques have been developed to detect the forgery and prosecute those selling them.

For many years ultraviolet light and x-radiography but newer technology including x-ray fluorescence infrared spectroscopy that can detect details at the molecular level for pigmentation analysis.

One technology concept has been the development by i2M Standards of synthetic DNA labels to be added to artwork to prove its authenticity. The technology would be similar to a fingerprint or serial number unique to the artwork. The DNA labels would contain the DNA sequences that would be attached to back of the artwork. The DNA sequence is then stored solely by i2M and the labels will not be visible on the artwork. Even if someone attempts to forge a work of art this technology would quickly help in fraud detection.

Trafficking in looted antiquities and forged art is certainly going to grow as the financial opportunity seems to be always present. To compound the problem has been the theft of artifacts and statuary from many museums and sites in Iraq and Syria only bringing more pressure on law enforcement agencies to keep control of this underground enterprise.

By Kevin Murphy: www.kevinmurphy.london

Read our interview with Annelien Bruins, the internationally acclaimed art advisor who has been featured in Forbes, the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.

Image credit: Laurent Baillet

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